Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Nonprofits are organized around data. Whether for membership and volunteer management, communications, promotion, or revenue tracking, the information we collect comprises one of our most critical assets and is central to realizing our missions. Not all data is created equal, however. This is the explanation behind many organizations’ resistance to data collection and management, which is seen as an investment of time and resources that yields little or no return.
There is an important distinction between more data and better data. What is better data? Information that allows nonprofits to create actionable changes to their workflow and structure.
Of course, data is only as good as the database used to manage it. Think of your database as your “institutional memory.” Having an excellent memory enables you to measure progress, identify new objectives, and demonstrate results to prospective donors. Data that is difficult to retrieve, stored in multiple places, and very likely to contain errors is relatively meaningless. Accurate and accessible data, however, allows organizations to quantify the effectiveness of their initiatives and adjust their methodology accordingly. It also allows you to do more with less, something a majority of nonprofits are regularly challenged to do.
Too many of us rely on Excel and Access to keep track of our records. While useful for limited tasks, these tools create opportunities for duplicate or outdated information. Because nonprofits tend to keep multiple databases, manually updating each one, even the most meticulous among us can overlook details that don’t get transcribed accurately when trying to integrate separate databases. The consequence of this is appearing inept and costs an organization precious man-hours spent trying to locate and rectify errors.
As technology evolves, nonprofits would do well to evolve alongside it. There are dozens of database management tools that offer smarter platforms and smoother integration than stand-alone locally installed software. These platforms are both automated and centralized, offering solutions to the most common problems associated with outdated data management tools.
- Integrity - The most basic fundamental of database design is that redundancy is unacceptable. Centralized databases ensure that each member has one primary record and that this primary record is used to populate additional datasheets. When an entry must be updated (a new email address, for example), there is one place to look to make these changes.
- Reporting - With centralized information, developing reports that show the broad range of activities that your members are engaged in is simplified. When relying on multiple databases, however, records need to be matched and duplicate records are much more likely to throw off results analysis.
- Training - If all metrics (membership, meetings, donations, etc.) are tracked in the same database, users only need to learn one recordkeeping system.
Some organizations are hesitant to move to a more high-tech system. Up-front costs can be daunting, especially for smaller nonprofits operating on limited budgets (though there are plenty of low-cost options specifically designed to support organizations of this size). This is a legitimate concern, but the one-time expense of association management software (AMS) can create tremendous increases in a nonprofit’s efficiency, which in turn, frees up resources—monetary and otherwise—that can be strategically reinvested into the organization.
A quick inventory of most nonprofits’ essential functions reveals just how prominent technology is in our work:
- Membership, by way of online application and renewals. Volunteer management through document sharing, discussion groups, and event coordination.
- Meetings with online registration, virtual conferences, and both the recording and distribution of notes.
- Communications, including newsletters, web content, email, and social media. Advocacy using e-alerts and online petitions.
- Education through webinars, resource directories, and FAQs.
- Research that relies on electronic surveys and interactive database records.
Considering that each of these core activities involves, to some extent, data management and reporting, graduating to an efficient, centralized database promises to energize organizations’ productivity.
Today, cloud-based software seems to offer the best database solutions on the market. 40% of nonprofit organizations use cloud options to manage constituent databases. Compared to traditional installed software, the cloud offers remote access and portability that lets you access and update information from any place with an Internet connection. In addition, organizations save time and money on system maintenance because these responsibilities fall on the software provider. This reduces the need to invest in specialized IT services. Updates are automated, meaning that as technology advances, the functionality and interface of cloud-based database software follows suit. These transitions are seamless and do not compromise data integrity.
Nonprofits who want to learn more can explore a step-by-step guide to choosing membership management software that helps them identify their needs, compare their options, evaluate costs, and making a selection.
Victoria Michelson writes for Wild Apricot. She spends her weekends running races to support local nonprofit groups in Boise, ID.
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