A vital decision one must make when choosing a database is whether you are a do-it-yourselfer with the time to devote to such a project, or if you need something that will, comparatively speaking, work right out of the box.
The open-source content relationship managers (CRM’s) on the market are terrific. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, the most powerful program in the world will be useless. Too often people underestimate the brilliance and experience that go into a “turn-key” (ready to go) product.
A well-designed database will know all (or most) of the questions to ask and how to relate the answers to one another. It will know the basic reports you need and it will present these reports in ways that make it easy to interact with constituents. It will already have built in capacities you didn’t know you needed until they are made available to you. In short, a well designed product that is custom tailored to this industry (nonprofits) will be a great fit. Like an “off-the-rack” suit, it won’t be perfect, but with a few alterations, it will do the job and serve you well.
Many of the generic CRMs out there are a bit more like a bolt of cloth and a sewing machine. You can get a perfect fit IF you know how to sew and IF you have the time.
Here are just a few of the important questions to assess the fit:
Do I have the IT support AND the software talent on staff to handle a project of this caliber? If you have to farm out every change in the code, that could be expensive and frustrating.
Do I not only understand today’s needs but tomorrow’s as well? Can I anticipate what this software must do now and in the future? If not, there are plenty of products out there that have already been-there-done-that. And if you don’t have that vision today, whatever you build may not be adaptable to tomorrow’s needs.
Do I know where I’m headed with numbers of constituents’ records? Some products are priced per record. Others are priced based on outright ownership and support. Both have advantages. Remember that “first one’s free” is a tactic used to market many products.
Do I know who needs access, and will that access only be in-house, or does this tool need to be available to people elsewhere (e.g. out of town board members)?
Can I communicate to code-writers in a way that adequately communicates my goals, and do the code writers at my disposal understand me?
Can I live with how this product integrates with our other software—as in QuickBooks, etc?
Can I “walk away” with my data intact and usable, or will it be embedded in proprietary code that I’ll need a safecracker to extract?
In the end, most entry level databases will cost about the same whether you buy off-the-rack or tailor-made, because your time and the time of your staff and the inevitable consultants is worth money. As many have said, “free” is not really free. The choice is yours. Build your database from a box of parts or buy one, have it customized a bit, and “drive” it off the lot.