Reach Canada (TM) Equality and Justice for People with Disabilities

A Personal Guide for Building a Reach-type Organization

The Importance of a Database

Not-for-profit organisations must track information about people including volunteers, clients, potential donors, current donors, event attendees, who support or who might support their programs and services. Managing this information is crucial. A database allows you to manage and use an incredible variety of information easily. Databases are easy to set-up, easy to manipulate and easy to use. A database allows you to maintain order in what could be a very chaotic environment.

Employees and volunteers of not-for-profit organisations have to manage existing resources very carefully. There may not be the resources to hire a full-time database manager or a short-term consultant. Initial data base structure can be very basic, easy to use and to maintain. Databases can be expanded and manipulated as your organisation grows and your resources increase. 

Annex 12 has a list of terms to familiarise your self with the jargon used in databases

Database Development and Maintenance

A "flat" database holds all of the information about a record. The name, address, phone number, meeting attendance, publications ordered, committee membership, and any other information you choose is kept in a single database.

A flat database is very easy to manage. All the information is stored in one source. You can see how many board members have e-mail addresses, or how many donors are also volunteers. You can create a variety of different ways to look at the data with input screens, reports, mailing lists and special queries.

The limits of a flat database is not in the number of records you can put in, but in how much information you can track per record. As your organisation grows, and more people need to track a great deal of different information about each record, you may want to change to using a relational or shared database. This allows one of your staff to track meeting attendance and program involvement in detail, while another may search detailed information about each record's donation history. But you do not need this when you are starting up. Go with a simple, reliable data base program.

Shopping for Database Software

When shopping for database software, make sure that it at least meets these basic criteria:

It's easy to use and easy to learn. It comes with a tutorial, overview or videotape and sample database structure, in addition to the printed support material.
It can work on the computers you have in-house.
It can import and export data to and from the most-used software packages for both PC and Macintosh computers. It can export data as d-base or text.
It allows the user to change, add or delete fields of information. Your organisation may have a particular information interest in a particular group, and no specialised software can anticipate every organisationís every need.
Users can generate mailing labels, letters, nametags and other customised reports

Specialised Data base Software

Once your organisation has out-grown the data base program you are currently using, you will need to consider the purchase of a more complex data management system. Before you invest in specialised database software consider the following:

Be certain that you really need it. Are there features on your current data base program that you have over-looked?
Make a list of the features and qualities needed.
Make sure you understand the basics before embarking on a purchase. The knowledge you have acquired on a flat database will be extremely valuable.
Request a demonstration of the software from the company that markets it. If a supplier is reluctant to provide in-house training, re-examine this purchase.
Talk with representatives of at least two organisations that use the software. Make sure you talk with the people who actually use the software. Ask them how easy it is to learn, what they use it for, and their experiences when calling the company's support line.

The idea of designing and using a database can be intimidating, but the reality is completely different. Databases make sense, they bring and maintain order, they force the user to think in a very logical and linear path, and they are flexible. A database is truly an invaluable tool for any organisation.

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