Publications & Products
Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 10.1


The Database

The database is an absolutely essential investment for any development office because it:

  • Is the source of information and historical record for prospects and donors, as well as for fundraising and other development activities,
  • Enables development offices to handle huge volumes of information efficiently,
  • Helps offices tailor their approaches to individuals,
  •  Assists with gift processing and stewardship,
  • Maintains focus and momentum in the fundraising cycle – identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship,
  • Supports event management,
  • Makes monitoring and reporting easier and
  • Assists annual fundraising planning.
If You Need to Buy a Database

Things to do before you make the purchase

Buying a database system is probably the biggest investment (after salaries) that an institution makes in development activities, so it is important to get it right. You need to have a good understanding of what you already have and what else you require, including:

  • Interface with other databases. Can any of the current databases that your institution runs be adapted to your purposes? Is this an opportunity to merge several databases into one integrated system? What technical specifications will your new database need to be able to interface with existing databases?
  • Input. What information do you need the database to hold and will this change overtime? Consider the number of individual records needed, whether fields follow set patterns or need to be free text, differences in addresses formats from country to country, the level of connectivity between records, etc.
  • Output. What information do you want to be able to retrieve from the database and in what formats? What kind of reports do you want? Do you want to be able to print mailing lists and generate briefings directly from the database?
  • Stakeholders. Talk to the potential users of the database and get a good idea of their needs. What the gift processor needs will be different from what the fundraiser needs. How will these stakeholders be accessing the database – from the office or different locations?
  • Populating the database. How will you import information and/or merge with existing databases? Will there be user-generated content (e.g., should alumni be able to update their own records)?
  • Your budget. Separate your budget so that it covers initial purchase, training, data import (often from numerous sources), ongoing support, software updates and any annual fee.
  • Supporting a database. What is your in-house capacity for technical support, data management and data entry? Will you have to hire external support? Is your current hardware/server capacity sufficient?
  • Planning for the future. Do you need a state-of-the-art database from the beginning or will a less complex version be sufficient for your needs at first and will it be able to evolve at the same pace as your activities evolve?

By thinking through your requirements and recording your answers to the above questions, you will end up developing a proposal-like document, which you can share with potential suppliers. Through this process, you are likely to also have identified a small group of people with the insight and technical expertise needed to help you make the right decision about your database (e.g., colleagues in IT support and Purchasing). Keep them engaged throughout the process.

A good exercise is to develop your ideal dummy record so you can build up a picture of the level of detail and functionality that would be ideal for your purposes. This will help you when you write the suppliers’ brief.

Do your research

Ask institutions similar to yours about their database solutions. Visit technical forums, fundraising forums and other online review sites for firsthand information about database software. Look at the top suppliers and compare and contrast the characteristics of their products and pricing structures.

Making the purchase

Once you have determined a short list of possible suppliers, talk with them. Share the proposal you have put together and get their responses. The more detailed you can be with the information that you provide and your anticipated needs, the easier the process.

Ask suppliers to be very clear about what they include with their product – software, installation, training, updates, helpline, transfer of existing data, data cleaning, etc. Be wary of hidden costs.

This dialogue with suppliers, combined with your own research and budget constraints, will enable you to choose the right database for your needs. It may be that you do not need a ‘top of the range’ model at first but that you can invest in a basic model that can be expanded in the future.

Maintaining the Database

Data housekeeping

Keeping your data clean and up-to-date is a never-ending task.

You may have a new database to populate with data from all a variety of sources (e.g., student records, alumni clubs, the vice-chancellor’s Christmas card list, etc.) or an old system that needs improvement.

You now need to take a systematic approach to standardising this data and making sure it is accurate (so you that do not waste money sending mail to addresses that are out of date, researching a prospect that may be deceased, etc.).

You can pay a third party or do it ‘in-house’. Do not underestimate the amount of work involved in ‘data entry’, however. This is a mundane but essential aspect to maintaining a successful database.

You need to devise a data management strategy, taking a long-term realistic view of what might be achievable with the resources you have available. Also, you might want to segment your database so you can prioritise work on areas that will be most useful to your overall development strategy (e.g., improve the data for alumni aged over 55 if you want to run a legacies campaign, or obtain accurate telephone numbers if you are planning a telephone campaign).

You only get out what you put in

Databases are only as good as the data they contain.

Everyone in the development team needs to understand how to input data and to develop the discipline of updating records every time they have contact with a prospect or donor. You also need to devise a process for getting data from others in the institution (e.g., through contact reports, integrating other systems) and from prospects/donors (e.g., capturing telephone numbers as more people are going mobile and numbers are not traceable).

Unless this is done, the personal records will be inaccurate and the institution will appear unprofessional and make mistakes in prospect management. Up-to-date records also help when there is staff transition.

The more detailed the information is that is entered, the more useful it will be. Generating guest lists will be easy, as you can ask the database to provide you with a relevant list (e.g., all alumni aged between 30 and 35 who live within an hour of London and are interested in classical music). Information like this can only be pulled together if it is entered in the first place and maintained throughout the year.

Action Items
  • Take your time to find the right database for your institution.
  • Plan for the significant time investment of cleaning your data and keeping it up-to-date.
  • Make sure everyone in the development department is trained and using the database regularly (even if you have a database manager) and that you are gathering information from others in the institution.

You Might Also Want to Read:

The cultivation process
Annual fund/giving campaigns
Development operations
Partnering with other advancement-related departments
Contact reports
Prospect management
What to measure and what to report

Clean Your Data!

University databases have a wealth of information and should be treated as one of your top resources. You should also check if there is a legal requirement in your country to clean data on a regular (annual or otherwise) basis.


CASE provides numerous resources on information systems management, including data management and solution-oriented articles such as "Office Space: Sweeping the Data Clouds Away" (if you are inheriting an ineffective system).

Salmon talks about data segmentation of donors at Leeds using campaign examples and databases.  
Salmon discusses propensity modelling.
Leisl Elder talks about the importance of bringing back information after a potential donor visit, and the best ways of doing so.