Most nonprofit and grassroots fundraising groups have limited resources and must get the most out of older technology for both communication purposes and data entry and storage. Because your members will likely have varying degrees of computer expertise, you will need to rely on a software system that meets all of their skill levels while also serving your organizational needs. Ask the person who is best versed in computers to select and manage your software. However, she must keep in mind that buying the latest software with advanced capabilities might not work for people using home PCs that may be two or three years old. Practical considerations and the learning curve of the people involved need to be taken into account before buying state-of-the-art equipment that no one can use.
Networked or Not?
Data storage and retrieval is a vital function of your software. Many small nonprofits have a few key people who handle areas such as membership and contributions. Access to these areas should always be limited to a small number of people, no matter how large your nonprofit grows. You can have separate databases that are maintained individually or a shared database with a system that can be accessed by several people. Ideally, a shared database allows various individuals to make changes so everyone can see them and others do not have to make the same changes to their individual databases. This can save time and allow everyone access to the same updated information. Not having duplicate information means you won't have to wonder which database has the correct phone number for a particular person.
Unfortunately, this does not always work. “The system is down” is one of the most common phrases heard today. A problem with the software or hardware means no one has access to the information — everyone is affected by it. In addition, just as one person can add data everyone else can read, one person can also make a mistake everyone else must contend with. In short, unless everyone involved is computer savvy, shared or joined systems are not recommended for most fundraising groups. If you do use a shared system, you'll need to use password identification. Otherwise, too many people (including unauthorized people) can gain access to your database and use it for personal reasons.
Even if shared or joined software does not seem necessary for your group at the moment, it is worthwhile to consider the purchase of a program that offers these features so you have room to grow and change as your organization expands or members become more proficient on the computer.
Determining Your Software Needs
Your database is your lifeline. Because the success of every nonprofit group is dependent on the involvement of various people, it is beneficial to have the storage and retrieval of all key data readily accessible. You will want to store and access information about the following people:
Organizations similar to yours
Government or neighborhood leaders
It is imperative that your data storage software be easy to use and have the capacity to retrieve information from various data fields. When shopping for such software, you will also need to make sure the software you choose is compatible with your computer system and supports data from other popular programs, such as Microsoft Excel and Lotus. The more people working on the fundraiser, the more likely you will need to input information from a variety of programs.
Buy software that comes with an online tutorial or a clear set of instructions on how it is used, as well as technical support provided with a tollfree number. Gather opinions on which programs will work best for your needs. When shopping for software, ask if updates are free of charge or if there is a fee. This way, you can budget as necessary.
You may be using more than one computer program to handle both data and financial information. While both should be accessible by only a few key individuals, the financial software should be especially limited in usage. Password protection is vital regarding your financial information.
Keep your software needs in mind. Nonprofits may require software for:
Data entry and storage
Budgeting, bookkeeping, accounting, and maintaining financial information
Assembling newsletters and publicity materials
The first two areas are common for organizations of any size; the others will depend on the size and purposes of your organization. Also, always keep in mind the “garbage in, garbage out” mantra, which serves as a reminder that the computer is only as good as the people who input, understand, and know how to utilize the data.
Creating the Database
Information on shopping for fundraising software can be found at NPO-NET (
When setting up a database, think about how the information will be accessed and used. Always consider how data will need to be retrieved. Think about what information is most beneficial to the needs of your group. Review with others and get a consensus on what to include. Build on the categories as new ideas are suggested and your organization expands to new areas of interest.
Update your database often. Members will change, new board members will emerge, and committees will be formed and dispersed. Such information must be updated monthly or bimonthly. Also, frequently backup all data onto disks, flash drives, or hard copies so you are not at the mercy of a computer program that could become corrupt.
One of the most significant aspects of software is the ability to update information. You need a system that makes updating information a simple task and allows you to add categories as the information becomes available. Ideally, you want to add new information within a few days of receiving it. For example, if you had a sign-in sheet at your general meeting and five new members listed their names and addresses, you'll want to add the information to your database before the sheet is lost or misplaced.
Another reason for keeping your tracking and updating procedures simple is that, at some point, the task will be passed on to someone else, who may be less computer proficient than yourself. You don't want to discourage and scare away volunteers by making a job too complicated or intimidating.
Institute a system so you get updated information from members and others in a timely manner. The same holds true for your lists of media contacts and local politicians, whose information should be routinely checked and updated. Because it is unlikely the newspaper will contact you when it's been bought out, it is up to you to touch base every few months in order to keep track of what is going on.