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Who Should Be In Charge of Buying A New Donor Database?

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Who’s in charge, when it comes to choosing a new donor database, (or deciding whether you even need a new one)? Is it your development director, your CEO, your top financial officer, your Board of Directors?

There might be quite a few stakeholders in the process of buying fundraising software, and often multiple approvals that have to be gotten. But who’s actually “in charge” of this decision? Or more appropriately, what is your “process” for making it?

Before we answer those questions, we should ask ourselves another one — Why are we even doing this?

The answer to the latter question is (or should be): “To enable the funding of our organization’s mission.” In other words, whatever we do needs to be cost-justified and put us money ahead at the end of the day. If our main premise is anything but that, we’re likely to find the process, and the result, frustrating. If our main premise is simply to reduce expenses, or to combine two systems so we have just a convenient single login, or to suit the preference of any one person in the office, then it’s often the wrong reason.

Repeat: The purpose of a donor database is to enable the funding of the organization’s mission.

So who makes the decision on what donor database to buy (or if one should be bought at all)? Who even brought up the idea? And where should the process begin and end?

Hopefully, the process began with some introspection by whoever is in charge of asking for donations. We might ask ourselves: “Could we raise more money if we had a better database? Is our current setup somehow preventing us from realizing all our fundraising potential?” If we can’t answer an emphatic “yes” to this question, then we probably have more productive uses for our time than shopping for new software.

But if the answer is “yes,” who decides what to buy? Well, there are at least three levels of “approvals” that probably need to be gotten in order to do anything, and three different kinds of “decisions” that need to be made along the way. They include:

  • Budgetary: Do we have the money to invest, and will this investment improve our revenue performance? This approval is often made ultimately by the Board, either as an appropriation or otherwise provided for in the budget.
  • Strategic: Does any proposed solution complement our “modus operandi” and our revenue strategy? This is usually decided by the Chief Executive, who runs the general operation and decides what gets done and when.
  • Usability: Can we plug a proposed solution into everyday use in our fundraising operation? This is the domain of whoever is in charge of asking for the money. Sometimes this is the Chief Executive, but often is the Development Director or comparable position. This is the person who has the most direct, day to day reliance on the database to do his or her job.

If the these approval steps make sense, then the top stakeholders are likely:

  • The Development Director, who “owns” the database and is charged with making it work for the organization
  • The Chief Executive, who has to answer to the Board on all activities, and
  • The Board, who has the ultimate fiduciary responsibility and charge of the budget

But there are often other stakeholders as well — people in various roles whose jobs are impacted somehow by the donor database. These stakeholders often include:

  • The person who does most of the gift entry. Since this person spends a lot of time in the database, his/her routine is likely to change with advent of a new database. This person may be used to a certain data entry routine, and may or may not be happy about changing it.
  • The bookkeeper who is responsible for reconciling fundraising activities with the bigger accounting picture. This reconciliation process might involve a specific workflow pattern which could be upset by new fundraising software.
  • The top financial officer, who wants to minimize expenses
  • Any other staffer whose role has some overlap with fundraising, like the volunteer manager, client services manager, etc.

So when it comes to choosing a donor database, we could have a lot of cooks in the kitchen. More importantly, we often have a lot of people on the team who can say “no” to change, and very few who have the authority to say “yes.” Common objections to new solutions include:

  • It will change the way we do things in the office
  • The price tag is too high
  • It doesn’t have this one feature I’ve become very fond of
  • I like what we have and it works fine.

These influences often lead to one of two results — either a final “solution” that looks like it was cobbled together by Rube Goldberg in order to make everyone happy; or no solution at all — the devil we know.

So let’s go back to our original challenge: Could a new database increase the funding for our mission? And if it can, who is in the best position to decide what to do about it? Whose input should we get, and how much weight should we apply to the input of the various stakeholders? And how much, if at all, should we bend the mission of the organization to accommodate any particular stakeholder? I’ve seen many valiant attempts at fundraising improvement that were thwarted by someone who is not a core member of the fundraising team.

So when your organization goes to consider options for a new donor database, start with the most important question: Why are we doing this?

Then ask, who should be in charge of this? Who are our key stakeholders? And how might we have to change in order to embrace our fundraising future?

Who on your team was or is responsible for selecting fundraising software for your organization? Let me know in the comments below!

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