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How to Choose a Donor Database for Your Non-Profit

Petra Eimiller
23 Jun, 2022

Non-profit donor databases are a common cause of vexation, but they’re very necessary, because non-profits today can’t afford to keep important data in files or even spreadsheets.

Many organizations are certain that a new software system would ease stress and streamline operations. The issue is that picking a new product requires time, precise thought, and, of course, a significant financial investment. The right non-profit donor database is a good investment; you just need to know how to search for one. Here are some recommended steps for you to follow.

Choose a team with the right stakeholders

It’s preferable that not just one person take on the responsibility of choosing a new non-profit donor database. Form a team that includes the individuals responsible for fundraising and technology, as well as a member of the executive team who is authorized to make official decisions and can consider the needs of the different employees who will utilize the new software.

Consider adding to the committee a member of your support team if they use the current system. They are often the ones dealing with work-arounds. As with any committee, it’s important to appoint a chair who keeps the group on budget, on task, and on schedule.

Determine needs and requirements for the new non-profit donor database

A crucial step in finding a new non-profit donor database is researching and understanding your organization’s fundraising processes and prioritizing what features are indispensable and which ones would be convenient to have in a donor database. There are trade-offs to every system, and you’ll be disappointed if you hold out for one that checks every box on your wish list.

As part of this process, take a close look at what you’re currently using and compare it to your list of needs. Does the system have what you need? Then perhaps staff is not using it correctly. Disorganized data could be cluttering it up, or important updates haven’t been installed, or there is functionality you weren’t aware of.

If, after close examination, you determine that a new database is indeed required, look at your current system to determine what works…what you like about it. It’s likely that there are features you’re happy with along with those that are falling short. Sometimes, looking at your current system will also help inform you about what NOT to do when you select a new database.

Make a short list of vendors and interview them

There are many options when it comes to non-profit donor databases. Use reputable third-party resources, like Philanthropy News Digest, to reduce the choices down to three to five offerings to investigate thoroughly. You can also start your search by reading websites, watching videos, attending or watching webinars and researching customer ratings.

While your organization’s budget will certainly influence your selection process, understand that you get what you pay for. Don’t cheap out on the product nor on things like support. If you can’t budget for ongoing support, that system is too expensive for you.

Schedule representatives from the three to five vendors to meet with your team. Let them know beforehand about your organization, your processes and the required integrations. They should use this information to present you with a demo that is not “generic”–one that will prove that that database can meet your needs. If you let the vendor guide the discussion, you’ll get an emphasis on where their strengths lie, rather than what you need.

A very critical component of buying a new database is data migration. Migration is the foundation on which you are building the success of your new system. If you under-invest in it, you’re asking for it to fail. It is strongly recommended that the vendor (or whoever you choose to implement the system) has expertise in data migration.  Some tips:

  • Look for a partner with experience with and knowledge of both the new database and the old database.
  • Get a clear understanding of what services they include as this can vary widely.
  • Be specific about your customization requirements. Understand how the data will be backed up in the new system and not lost in the event that the vendor stops operating or the cloud server goes down.
  • Make sure part of the plan is cleaning up your data before migrating it. There is no reason to take on the cost and time to migrate bad data!

Consider cloud-based non-profit donor databases

Newer donor databases are typically cloud-based, which has many benefits:

  • Both the software and your data are stored remotely on servers that are controlled by either the vendor or a third party instead of  local servers in your office. The idea is that the vendor is providing you with an online solution that is turnkey.
  • With a cloud-based database, you no longer have to run your own servers to manage data or install software updates, and cloud-based systems have lower up-front costs.
  • A cloud-based system will very likely have stronger security than your local server or that you could afford

Train your staff!

A great new database is only great if  the people who use it each day understand how it works. Unfortunately, training is often an afterthought. To get the most value–as quickly as possible–from your database, build in ample time to train staff. You don’t want to have spent all this money and time building a new system and then have inconsistencies with how data is entered, or worse have staff not using it because they don’t know how. An employee receiving extra training on the system so he or she can act as in-office support for the organization is also recommended. This will also help eliminate additional consultant fees.


The journey to finding the right donor database can be complex and challenging, but it's an investment that can pay off in the long run. As you embark on this mission, remember the importance of assembling a diverse team, understanding your organization's unique needs, and carefully evaluating potential vendors. Data migration, customization, and considering cloud-based solutions are vital aspects of this process. Lastly, don't underestimate the significance of thorough staff training to ensure the new database becomes a valuable asset rather than an overlooked tool. With dedication and careful planning, your non-profit can find the perfect donor database to enhance its operations and achieve its philanthropic goals.

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In this 5-part series, HSO’s non-profit experts demonstrate key functionality in Fundraising & Engagement, a relationship management platform powered by Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales and part of the Microsoft Cloud for Nonprofit. See how it can help your non-profit modernize constituent engagement so you can increase mission impact.

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