Non-profit Databases

Some months ago I created a four page introduction to databases, Database 101 which explains basic database terminology. I found this was useful as background for discussion. But I think it is perhaps even more useful to take a longer view and think about the number and role of databases within an organization.

Perhaps we should even dispense with the word “database”, and replace it with something a little less nerdy like “knowledge”. We could ask several questions:

  1. What are all the nuggets of information that we need on a daily basis to run the organization?
  2. Who needs to know these things internally? (managers, clerical staff, service providers, your clients)
  3. Who needs to know these things externally (funders, state and federal agencies, auditors, your accountant)
  4. How are we going to get this knowledge on an ongoing basis?
  5. How are we going to disseminate this knowledge?
  6. How are we going to deal with confidentiality and “need-to-know”?

Data systems are usually built with one of two aims, either to report statistics from existing data, or to give real-time assistance in the daily running of a business (management information). Although funders and regulators have a myriad of reporting requirements, these may not be useful or helpful in the day-to-day running of your agency. Management information is not the same as statistical reporting. And yet the data system is often driven by the regulators and funders to the detriment of management information.

Three kinds of data

There are at least three kinds of data which are useful in managing an organization:

Financial: Income and expense accounts, grant and fund accounting, payroll, and purchasing

Donor and Constituent Management: These systems track friends and contributors outside the organization. Of course donations eventually are fed back into the accounting system…somehow…automatically, one would hope.

Service: Information on your service delivery is vital to understand and track the evidence of your effectiveness as an agency. This area is the weakest in terms of available low-cost and open source systems, partly because of the diversity of agencies, practices, and clients. While you may choose from several offerings that cover both the financial and fundraising areas, a service database may be more difficult to locate.

Subsets of the above

Do you provide training? Then you will want to have a training database which covers courses or seminars and which allows you to track instructors and students.You may need a registration function which tracks payments, and can accept credit cards.
Do you sell merchandise? Perhaps you need a web storefront.
Do you provide health care or counseling? You’ll need a patient management and case management system.
Do you host events? You’ll need to register participants, set up workshops, create “packages” which include combinations of paid and free sessions, prints schedules and account for the VIP luncheons, the gala banquet, and everyone’s dietary restrictions and their hotel assignments.
Do you have equipment? You may need an inventory system which allows you to lend equipment to staff or clients.
Do you provide affordable housing? You may need to track housing projects, local grantors, real-estate and land transactions, easements abatements, and federal and funds which is being channeled through your organization to your grantors and builders.

Most of these ideas feed back into the service classification above, but all of them will have funds attached, and so they eventually feed into the financial system.

Since donor management and accounting systems are well represented by commercial offerings, we’ll take a look at a few service applications in the upcoming weeks.

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