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3 Reasons Nonprofits Should Avoid In-House Databases

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In my past life, I sold pictorial directory programs to churches. One of my biggest points of concern over the past seven years was the proliferation of “in-house” directories – where a church member or staff person would photograph the members of the church and then compile a booklet to pass out to the congregation.

Very rarely did I see anything close to the quality that  my company could produce; in fact, very rarely did I see a completed directory at all. More on this later.

When I came to work for Bloomerang, I thought my “in-house” problem was a thing of the past. Who would WANT to tackle building a database from scratch, and then customize it to fit the needs of that particular development department?

Well, turns out more than I thought. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Just like with in-house directories, in-house databases have so many potential problems.

1. Staff at a nonprofit are already overburdened and underpaid.

Why add more stress to the IT Dept? Building a database, then customizing it to the needs of your specific organization is not an easy process – the average I hear is about a year, and that is a year lost building, maintaining and strengthening donor relationships. If Development isn’t consulted often, they will end up with a product they don’t want that doesn’t fit their needs. This will not help anyone.

2. It probably won’t save you money.

One major reason churches cited an in-house directory was money, and I hear the same things from nonprofits. But are we sure you will really save money? Surely your IT Department has other projects they could tackle. And no offense to the IT Dept, but they aren’t fundraisers, which means being able to track engagement effectively may not be important to them. And if they aren’t tracking engagement, what other donor retention tools were neglected? Raising your donor retention by just 10% can amount to substantial fundraising gains; do we want to think about what reducing donor retention by 10% (or more) would do?

3. Respect your development professional(s).  

They have a big job ahead of them, and they need the proper tools to get that job done. I have been in organizations where management and IT decided what CRM to use without much if any input from the field. In addition, the CRM necessitated changes in our sales process and relationship management that were unnecessary and ended up hurting our brand. I know better than to go to our Development team and tell them what kind of script they should use to run our reports (they’re all laughing right now, trust me); you need a database that was built by fundraisers for fundraisers.

So what happened with the in-house directories? 9 out of 10 of them fizzled out and died after a year or longer of painful arguing, fighting and fruitless work that could, and should, have been directed elsewhere.

Or, the project was completed, at a cost of thousands of dollars more than a professional alternative. Again, that money could and should have been spent elsewhere.

There were only a couple in all my years that were accomplished at a reasonable price, completed in a timely manner, and were useable. In other words, it CAN be done. But do you really want to waste a year (or longer!) of productive fundraising time that will be lost during the process to find out?

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  • James Goalder

    Thanks for the comment Marci! I suspect the idea comes from a good place, but it just never seems to work out the way everyone hopes it will.
  • Marci

    I will NOT work with an in-house database, period. I've been stuck with these monsters twice in my career and it NEVER works well. Seriously, if I was interviewing for a job and they told me the database was in house and they had no plans to change that (or wanted to), that organization is not a good fit for me.
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