Donor Database Essentials

There comes a time in every charity’s evolution when someone says “we need a donor database”. Maybe that’s driven by growing data chaos of having supporter data strewn across multiple systems; or by the need to comply with data protection regulations.

Until recently donor databases have been expensive and technically a little daunting. But recently the cloud computing revolution has made real charity CRM financially accessible and easy to use.

A proper donor database can give you some tangible strategic benefits. For example, by having the full picture of each supporter’s engagement with their organisation, a charity can provide better customer service and more focused communications with their supporters. And by automating the routine tasks like claiming Gift Aid and collecting regular gifts, a decent CRM will save you time and money.

Be vendor-savvy

You won’t be buying CRM systems very often, so it’s important to know how CRM vendors think so you can avoid being sold something inappropriate for your charity. As a vendor myself I can tell you their tricks!

First – don’t give them a list of features to which they can reply Yes or No, because the answers will be – you’ve guessed it – almost exclusively Yes, with a couple of No’s thrown in for authenticity. It’s much smarter to ask “Show me how you solution deals with….(whatever). This reveals how much configuration, smoke and mirrors are required to properly tick that box.

Also remember that if you line up 5 vendors who are prepared to give you in depth responses to your enquiry and lengthy on-site demos you’re going to pay more. Why? They can’t all win your business, so they have to cost every one they lose into the one in 5 they win. For that reason, don’t dismiss vendors whose sales process is to do online demos, offer free trials and don’t employ a salesforce.

Reduce your risk – minimise consultancy spend

A lot of systems can be made to do pretty much anything you want, but it can take a lot of expensive consultancy time to make that happen. You might not find that out until it’s too late. So don’t buy a solution that is consultancy-heavy. Much better to have a product that does 90% of what you need right from the word go, rather than one which does 10% and needs work to deliver the rest. Consultancy is the biggest single risk to any CRM project.

That’s why a specialised charity CRM can be a much safer choice than a commercial CRM plus a lot of consulting.

Do some research

Look at the resources such as The Charity CRM SurveyITforCharities and HMRC’s Gift Aid software suppliers listing.

Ask vendors to give you demos at short notice. If they require a long lead time before a demo it may be revealing that their software takes a lot of work to demo, let alone implement.

Be wary of “free”

Free software licenses are wonderful, but it can be like being given the keys to a jumbo jet – generous but you couldn’t afford to get if off the ground, let alone run it. Plus hidden costs like storage costs, and app costs.

So check out the transparency of the vendors. Are their prices on their website. Their T&Cs. Can you get a free trial? If so, can you use their support service? Ask to see a typical invoice for an organisation of your size.

Cloud or pseudo-cloud?

For organisations using true-cloud solutions like Donorfy, the benefits are huge – lower costs, easier to use, automated upgrades, integration to other products and services. These are cloud-only solutions – you couldn’t install them on a server in your office, why would you want to? So beware of vendors pitching their older, traditional database products as a cloud solution just because they could host it in a data centre for you. You will not get the full benefit of a true-cloud solution and you will still have all the disadvantages of a heavyweight on-premise solution – such as cost and obsolescence in the not too distant future. One way to find out what you’re being offered is to ask whether it could be hosted on-premise or in the cloud. If the answer is ‘both’ walk away!

Be a great customer

Give the vendor every chance of doing a fantastic job for you. Work together, don’t assume the role of master to their servant – they will quickly tire of serving you! Write a brief explaining your organisation, how you raise money, what systems you currently use, like or dislike, and why. Use a consultant if you must, but it’s your decision, no theirs.


Robin Fisk is the CEO at Donorfy – the smart, easy to use fundraising CRM in the cloud. Donorfy was recently ranked the top charity CRM product and the top charity CRM supplier. For a trial and more information about Donorfy go to