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What Joining the Peace Corps and Buying a Donor Database Have In Common

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Despite an enjoyable tenure at Bloomerang, my wife and I will soon be joining the Peace Corps and leaving for Ukraine for a 27-month posting. When you are about to embark on such a life-changing experience, I did what most people would do: look for advice.

And let me tell you, there is a lot out there.

I had to find a way to relate all of that advice to my personal experience. Helping nonprofit organizations explore their database options has dominated my life recently, and I couldn’t help but compare the advice I was getting about the Peace Corps to the advice I give organizations who are looking to purchase a database (an equally momentous life decision).

As it turns out, there are a lot of similarities between choosing a database and joining the Peace Corps:

1. It’s going to involve some risk, but you are going to do some great in the end.

Without a doubt, there is some risk involved in purchasing a database. You will have to change some of your procedures, get trained, convert your data, make some adjustment to your website, and more.

However, like the Peace Corps, you want to find a company that is going to help mitigate as many risks as possible. Look for a company that has very customized data conversions and who will treat your data like gold.

Make sure you never have to worry about the cost of training current and future employees on your database by choosing a database that has free training.

Select a company that uses nonprofit experts and predominantly highers people with nonprofit experience so they can help you think through changes in procedures.

And it goes without saying, that it is a must to find a database that integrates perfectly with your website.

These can be scary, but the dividends can take the form of higher donor retention, more dollars raised, and more people engaged with your mission. I think it’s worth a little risk.

2. If you want to enact change, change yourself and how you do things.

Whether it is in the Peace Corps or raising money at a nonprofit, you cannot contribute toward growth unless you are growing yourself. If you are looking for a database, it means there is room for improvement at your organization. Drop your ego and lose your preconceived notions. As you explore database options, be open to making internal changes to accommodate your database so it can do what it is supposed to do: help you retain more donors and raise more money.

3. Every Peace Corps experience is different.

This was one of the first things I learned as I was getting ready to depart for Ukraine. Every experience is unique, and you have to be prepared to be flexible.

The same goes for databases.

Every organization is unique, and you need to be prepared to ensure you have flexibility in your database. In two years, your organization and what you need out of a database will change. Choose a database that will not box you in, but will instead grow with you.

4. Two years is both a long time, and a short time.

Serving in the Peace Corps is a serious commitment that will last 27 months, perhaps longer. 2+ years is a long time, and I have to be prepared to make some serious changes. However, I’ve learned that if my time in Ukraine goes well, it will be over before I know it and I won’t want to leave. This is quite a commitment and it was critical for me to do my best to make sure that this was going to be a good fit for me.

So what did I do? I read about other people’s experiences. I talked to people I know who had served in the Peace Corps and even someone who served in Ukraine (another Bloomerang employee). I found Ukrainians in my community to talk to and even took a trip to Ukrainian Village in Chicago.

Just as I make an effort to reach out to people to make sure I was making the right choice. You should do the same when you are making a decision about a database. It is at least a two-year commitment (maybe more depending on the database). Rely on people with experience using different databases to guide your decision. A good place to go is G2 Crowd, a software review platform. You can check out their rankings of different nonprofit database here: Winter 2017 Fundraising Software Grid.

5. Just like the Peace Corps, your database should provide you with the tools you need. The rest is up to you.

There is no way that I am jumping into anything unprepared and lacking the tools and resources I need to be successful. Before I start my job with the Peace Corps, I will be training for three months in Ukraine learning the language (flashcards!), learning about the culture, and learning how to do my job. These are the tools and resources I need to be successful.

Just as the Peace Corps wants to set me up for success, you should look for a donor CRM software that seeks to do the same. Look for a database that is grounded in the fundamentals and will prepare to from the start to be successful. I have said this already, but I am going to say it again because it is so important: free training is critical to your and future employees’ long-term success. Don’t be held hostage by training costs!

6. Spend some time thinking about how you are going to deal with a new culture.

One thing is for certain: just as I have had to spend some preparing myself for a new culture, you will need to prepare yourself to adopt a new fundraising culture when you buy a new database.

Your procedures will change. How you communicate with your donors will change. The type of information you can access will change.

Change is inevitable and is a good thing. You must think long and hard about what change you want to see. A good place to start is to look for a solution that will help you to follow best practices like growing donor retention and understanding exactly how engaged your donors are with your organization.

7. Be brave and get on the plane.

I have made a commitment to the Peace Corps. I will not doubt myself or my decision when it comes time to get on the plane.

The same goes for you. Don’t hesitate when it comes time to pull the trigger on your database decision.

Yes, a new database can be expensive. Yes, it is quite a commitment. But you already made a commitment to make a change when you started exploring your options. Your new database is going to help you raise more money, retain more donor, engage more people with your mission, and make your life a whole lot easier.

Don’t let your decision drag out. Every day you wait can mean missing a major gift, retaining fewer donors, wasting more money and time on your current system.

8. Use this experience to learn about yourself. This is the most important lesson. Try to remember it.

In your case, use the experience of searching for a database to learn about yourself and your organization. Figure out your strengths. Learn your weaknesses. Determine what you want to improve upon and determine what you want to abandon. This is a time to be introspective and find the perfect match for your needs. Whether this is your first time or you have bought a database before, take a little time to figure out what you need out of a database to be successful.

If you are one of the nonprofit organizations I worked with during my time at Bloomerang, I just want to say thanks for making my experience here so enjoyable! I wish you and Bloomerang nothing but the best in the future!

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