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Data Integration: The Next Technology Challenge for Nonprofits

by Marshall Mayer last modified Jan 04, 2012 12:05 AM
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The following article by Marshall Mayer, which first appeared on TechSoup in March 2002 as ebase 2.0 was being released, outlines the strategic framework for the next generation of community relationship management software for nonprofit organizations.



Most nonprofits, when the amount of time and money they spend is accounted for, dedicate most of their resources to relationship building, communicating with their constituencies to build communities of interest. Yet twenty years after the advent of the personal computer, and several years after the internet boom, most nonprofits have not introduced technology effectively to help them build a community of constituents.

A major result is that nonprofits are less effective at their number one job, building quality relationships. They cannot communicate with their supporters in ways that other organizations do. Nonprofit constituents, who are also customers and citizens, now expect interactive and personalized content to keep them engaged. Unless nonprofits adapt technology to meet their needs, they risk losing their voice as their constituents pay attention to more effective communications strategies in the never-ending and ever-escalating battle for human attention.

Having said that, the more technology is incorporated by a nonprofit organization, the less likely the organization is effective at developing quality relationships with its constituencies.

This may sound like an argument against technology, and certainly there are a number of nonprofits that firmly believe technology gets in the way of relationship building. Smaller organizations often do not need sophisticated technology, but will as they grow and their relationship building needs to scale accordingly. What is needed is an approach that puts technology in service of a nonprofit's mission, technology to create community.

Data Disintegration

Consider the technological capacity of a typical medium size nonprofit:

  • The nonprofit has a moderately powered computer for most of its staff. [1]
  • Their computers are connected to each other by a local area network (LAN), and the LAN is connected to a broadband (usually DSL) internet connection.
  • Staff have email accounts at their desktop, and access to websites with a browser.
  • The organization sends occasional bulk emailings to its supporters, using an email client such as Microsoft Outlook.
  • The organization has a contact database, but few records have an email address recorded.
  • The organization has a website, it has an impressive number of visitors (compared to who walks in the door or calls on the phone) and the organization collects web statistics.
  • The organization can accept contributions through links from website to a donation portal (such as, but it does not have the ability to directly capture contact information of its visitors (such as an email address) nor sign up visitors interested in participating in the nonprofit's programs.
  • The organization has a fundraising database, usually created by a consultant or by a volunteer associated with the organization. It records contacts and payments and produces mailing labels and letters.
  • The organization conducts various programs, and program staff have adequate access to technology. They create their own spreadsheets to track information on program delivery and store them on their own computers.

Notice that all of the technologies are related to communications—relationship building—and that they all fundamentally rely on a database to track information about interactions with constituents:

  • There is a database in the email client, the address book, one for each staff. It contains at least an email address, but may also contain a street address.
  • There is a database at the website, that tracks at least page views. There may be an additional database that records email addresses and interests of web visitors.
  • There is a database that tracks donations and each donor's contact information.
  • There are probably many databases that track program-related information.

Also notice that all of this data is stored in separate databases. These databases are unrelated, meaning that if the email address changes in one, it is not changed in any of the others, unless someone does it manually. Data entry is still the single biggest expense in any database, and often data is not manually entered more than once, if at all.

It also means that an organization cannot securely share information about a specific individual. Sometimes this reinforces internal requirements of the organization, such as when program staff cannot have access to major donor information. But most times this separation of data means lost opportunities: it's clear that donors are more likely to be activists on behalf of the organization than non-donors. The people represented in the database know this best: they receive mixed messages from the organization because the people sending the messages do not have a holistic view of who the person receiving it is, and their relationship to the whole organization.

Customer Relationship Management Software

Thus, as more technology is incorporated into the organization, the effect is data disintegration. Now that basic technology infrastructure needs are being addressed for many more organizations by market mechanisms, data disintegration may now be the single largest information technology problem in the nonprofit sector. Business recognized data disintegration as a problem long ago, and customer relationship management (CRM) software was created to integrate sales and marketing with customer service data within an organization. CRM, when implemented well, becomes the central nervous system of an effective organization. Solutions range from Goldmine for small businesses to very customized and complex Oracle databases for large corporations.

The nonprofit sector has access to a few applications that could be called CRM. There are about 25 companies that publish commercial quality fundraising software (our corollary to sales and marketing), but most of them are quite small and the software is expensive and limited to fundraising functions (no other programs—the customer service departments—can use the software). The largest company, by a factor of at least two, has about 13,000 customers and their software starts at several thousand dollars (and costs much more to approach true data integration). The players in this market have not change appreciably in the past five years.

Recently, there are a number of application service providers (ASPs), companies that host databases that nonprofits access over the internet with a browser, that have entered the CRM market. Most ASPs focus on one aspect of a nonprofit, whether it is donor/membership relations, volunteer management or engaging activists online. Nonprofits that use more than one ASP are faced with more data disintegration because there are no widely adopted standards for the exchange of data between ASPs (it is not in an ASPs interest for you to be able to share your data with other ASPs—you might switch providers!). For the integrated CRM functions that are necessary in a growing organization (and provided by only a handful of ASPs) the start up costs and monthly subscription fees are high and add up fast.

Both traditional software publishers and ASPs are targeting their products for the high end of the market. It's a rational business decision: that's where the money is. However, the vast majority of small- and mid-size nonprofits, who often are in the best position to do quality relationship building, integrating online and on land strategies, have not had access to tools that can help them. Our estimate is that at least 95% of all nonprofits are not using commercial quality software to manage relationship building with their constituencies. The initial high hurdle of software cost is the major reason nonprofits do not have access to database solutions that are so critical to achieving their mission.

ebase®: CRM for Nonprofits

TechRocks began to address this need for customer relation management software several years ago by creating ebase, community relationship management software for nonprofits [2]. For community groups that need a database to organize people and information, ebase is a set of tools and community of users that is powerful, affordable, and accessible.

ebase was first released four years ago, the result of an iterative development process with nonprofits that had been experiencing data disintegration to such a degree that they could not effectively organize their constituents or collaborate with each other on coordinated message campaigns [3]. Today, ebase 1.0 is in use by almost 4,000 nonprofits worldwide to track contacts, engage activists, raise money, recruit volunteers - build relationships with anyone that can help the nonprofit accomplish its mission.

The primary reason ebase is in use by so many organizations is that we provide open access to downloading the application from the internet. As a nonprofit, we raise funds from foundations to develop ebase, and freely share the resulting code for public benefit. Of course, no database implementation is without cost , a mistake that nonprofits often make when downloading freely shared software [4]. Any nonprofit interested in using ebase will need a good computer with a reliable backup system, help converting legacy data to ebase, and above all training and technical support for staff to use and administer their database. By regranting the code, we have saved every organization that uses ebase approximately $5,000 (the average cost of a comparable fundraising database).

We encourage groups to use these savings to get professional training and technical support to implement the database in their organization. There are several dozen independent consultants and trainers that have specialized in providing support services for ebase 1.0 to clients in their communities, and there are also several self-organized ebase user groups that have been established. TechRocks will foster the development of these resources through the ebase Community Support website. We will also roll out our own affordable support services throughout 2002: telephone support, onsite and online training, and moderated listservs.

But perhaps the single most important "feature" of ebase is that it is open. We provide anyone that downloads the application access to the programming that makes ebase tick, so that they can customize the application to fit the precise needs of their organization. All nonprofits are unique in some respect, and providing access to the ebase "source code" enables them to have their uniqueness expressed in the application they use everyday. If a nonprofit purchases or is granted FileMaker® Pro [5], they have access not only to the ebase code but to all the very same low-cost development tools that we used to create ebase. Most nonprofits that are currently using ebase have made some modification to ebase to make it work like their nonprofit does.

TechRocks has learned a tremendous amount about how nonprofits need to use databases over the past four years, and we have incorporated that learning in the design process of ebase 2.0, released in March 2002. For the nonprofit end user, we made major improvements to the application's ease-of use, security and internet features (ebase 1.0 was the first nonprofit application that could be used to send email directly from the database, in ebase 2.0 you can receive email right into ebase - for automated processing - as well as serve ebase data to and synchronize ebase data with a website). For the growing national community of ebase developers, trainers and consultants, we have completely re-architected ebase so that it is much easier to customize and support (not a single line of code from ebase 1.0 was used in ebase 2.0, though users of version 1.0 can migrate all of their data to ebase 2.0). And we continue to freely share the open ebase code for community improvement.

Example: Community Development of Grant-Seeking Functionality

To take one example of how making ebase open can benefit the entire community, consider how ebase can be used for grant seeking:

  1. First and foremost, TechRocks did not receive enough requests for this functionality in ebase 2.0, so it is not included in its core feature set. (ebase 2.0 is designed primarily, but not exclusively, to define relationships between an organization and its individual donors.) But as you will see, this is not a problem. There are a number of uses for ebase that we did not have demand to create, but that the data structure can nevertheless accommodate.

  2. ebase assumes not that you do specific things (like grant seeking) but that you have defined processes to do anything that can be expressed as item codes (short 4-5 word phrases such as "sent letter of inquiry"). Most organizations that create their own databases know what their idiosyncratic code system is: ebase provides a simple structure and tutorials that allows organizations to create item codes based on similar rules. Thus, groups create item codes in ebase that reflect the processes of grant seeking. These include the processes of prospecting, conducing research, contacting program officers, writing inquiries, developing proposals, lobbying, and reporting on grants received, each processing involving staff assignments and deadlines. Groups do not have to alter the ebase application in any way to record their item code structures. They only have to define and refine item codes, based on their successful use.

  3. Furthermore, since it is easy to share item codes once they are defined and used successfully, groups of ebase users that need to do similar things (such as grant seekers) can develop item codes based on best practices. These item codes, along with documentation, can be made available to other ebase users - in the core application if they are community defined best practices - so that future users of ebase receive value from all past users of ebase.

  4. Finally, additional functionality that cannot be accommodated by the ebase item code structure can be added to the application by simply creating an application that relates its data to the core application. In this way, for example, an index of document archives for inquiry letters and proposals can be created, html links that reference files stored external to ebase on an intranet. Again, modules that provide additional functionality and reflect best practices for ebase users can be included with all subsequent ebase downloads and supported as part of ebase.

By the time you read this, because an ebase community of interest is already being created, grant seeking item codes and perhaps even a grant seeking module will be available on the ebase Community Support website, again shared freely for continued community improvement. The community will have added needed functionality to its core application in just a few weeks. If there is sufficient interest, we'll set up specialized community support services to grant seekers using ebase. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. Imagine how you can connect to other ebase users eager to use the technology for greater effectiveness. Data and database development can become the currency of collaboration for the nonprofit sector.

The New Paradigm: Rapid and Community-Defined Innovation

This is a radically different approach to software publishing and support than traditional software companies follow, a paradigm that forces users to follow procedures defined by commercial software developers who are not nonprofit organizations. Over 100 nonprofits, consultants, trainers and developers contributed their time and talents to the development of ebase 2.0 in the past year, and almost 1,000 organizations participated in our public beta test process. Rapid and community defined innovation in ebase is made possible by its open architecture and community, an approach more suited to community collaboration as well as developing and maintaining the most effective tools for nonprofits.

Bob Schmitt, Director of ebase Development at TechRocks describes ebase this way: "ebase is not just software! Rather, it is first and foremost a community of users, developers, trainers and consultants that have created: a data structure that accommodates community standards, customs and best practices; a suite of software tools that reflect these standards and can evolve as the community does; and a support structure that supports each other and builds community. And it's great software that we use ourselves to build the ebase community!"

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the benefits of our approach is by letting one of our users, Laura Tam of the Northern Forest Center, get to the punch line of ebase:

    ebase creates community! We have already set up an exchange with another nonprofit here in Concord where one of their staff is helping us think about our organizational development opportunities with ebase, and I am helping them learn FileMaker and customize their ebase program. It is so Win - Win!

This quote inspires us every day.

About the Author

Marshall Mayer is the founder and CEO of TechRocks, a national nonprofit that helps social change organizations use technology for greater impact. Marshall has extensive experience in creating database technologies for community and internet organizing, and provides leadership to a national team of staff, database developers and social change nonprofits to create the next versions of ebase. Marshall also founded and directed Desktop Assistance, one of the first nonprofits in the country to provide mission-specific technology assistance to nonprofits. Marshall was a founding planning partner of the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology and currently serves as a board member of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network.


[1] Data are from assessments conducted September 2001 for The James Irvine Foundation representing nonprofits with an average budget size of $5,300,000. Organizations of this size are spending 1% of their budget on technology, the vast majority of it on hardware. Smaller organizations have even less technological capacity, though they are spending more as a percentage of their budget. If this technology capacity does not describe your organization, it may soon: the market is working well to provide basic infrastructure technology at commodity prices. [back to text]

[2] ebase is published and supported by TechRocks, a national nonprofit that helps social change organizations use technology for greater impact. TechRocks consultants specialize in helping nonprofits to integrate database, email and web strategies to increase organizational effectiveness. Organizations that work with TechRocks consultants are able to build quality relationships with their constituencies for sustainable social change. [back to text]

[3] The coordinated messaging was aimed at garnering public support for protection in roadless areas of national forests in the Northern Rockies. The effort was successful on this scale (and was one of the first "list enhancements"— see the Conservation Database Report, and eventually led to the Clinton Roadless Rule, one of the largest victories for the environmental movement in a generation. TechRocks role in this campaign, which involved many database and communications strategies that generated 700,000 public comments from "netizens" on the rule, is at Online Organizing Comes of Age. [back to text]

[4] To help you assess and plan for a database implementation, visit TechAtlas. [back to text]

[5] ebase 2.0 is developed with FileMaker Pro, a database development tool published by FileMaker, Inc. FileMaker is known primarily for its ease of use, allowing non-programmers to create their own database applications. ebase, as it is available for download, includes all the software that a single user of ebase needs. For ebase users that need to customize the core ebase code or serve ebase across a local area network or on the web, FileMaker, Inc. grants FileMaker Pro 5.5 for Mac OS and Windows to nonprofit organizations through a product philanthropic alliance with Gifts in Kind International. See [back to text]




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