The Challenges of Moving From a Custom Built Database

Along with Eric Leland of Leland Design and Matthew Scholtz, an independent consultant who is also on staff at ONE/Northwest, Laura participated in a discussion of the current database options sponsored by the Fund for the City of New York. We created a transcript of the conversation, and the participants were kind enough to let us publish some excerpts – this is the first of four excerpts.

Fund for the City of New York: It sounds like there’s a number of organizations that are still using homegrown Access or Filemaker Pro databases, or a tool like eBase, and are kind of unhappy with them, but don't seem to want to migrate to something new. What do you think are the biggest hurdles to organizations? What keeps them from moving to a tool that will work better for them?

Eric: I get a lot of clients that are in these systems, and they usually start out with a preference to stay in the system them have. In many cases, they've become accustomed to them, and they feel they’re good enough to get out the information that they need when they need it. They're able to pull a report with the exact information they want, or a query with the right fields, and view that really easily. If they need to be able to change a field on a form, or create a new form, they can call their trusty consultant and get that added, and the cost at any given moment doesn’t seem too incredibly high.

There's flexibility with an Access or Filemaker Pro system that’s appealing, and when they read about other systems, and it seems like there’s a lot you can’t change, it feels like there’s a lock on what they’ll be able to do. They feel like they’d be losing control of their data.

I think another factor is plain old user interface differences. Often these custom databases are very specifically designed to the culture and desires of one particular client. There’s not always an entirely rational business process behind the way it works. However, it's worked well for that organization and they've become very accustomed to it. When they move to a new system which has been designed for a larger community, they need to unlearn and relearn a lot of rules about how databases work. This can make it more difficult for folks to learn a new system, and to understand whether it's good for them, or why it would be good for them.

Matthew: I agree with everything Eric just said. I'm often asked to advise clients on whether or not they should move to another system and, if so, which one, and for a lot of the reasons Eric just said and others, I sometimes end up recommending that they stay where they are. Because it's not just perceived risk. There is a lot of expense and relearning effort. Those are all real costs, and if you're not going to end up with something that's significantly better than what you have now, sometimes it's not yet worth it.

Fund for the City of New York: But it also seems like a lot of clients are in positions where the clock is ticking on the system that they're using. They’re going to have to move sometime, though it might not be today, it might not be next year... How do you deal with that?

Eric: I'm often doing essentially a triage for non-profits. I say, let's take the time to look at your options. If you need a significant change to your existing database it's going to cost a lot regardless. But there’s also going to be time and effort involved in moving off the system to something new. So I'm often coming in just to help them make that decision. It involves looking at not just their database, but also at their network and their staffing and support structures too, and giving them a quick reality check on what's involved.

The decision they make depends a lot on where the barriers lie for a particular organization. Some organizations feel that they don’t have much money, but have a lot of human power, and they feel okay with putting more effort into the human side of things to move to a new system and migrate the data. Whereas somebody else might have a lot of money and feel comfortable hiring a consultant to move over to Salesforce.

Resource Roundup 11/26

Here's the highlights from the last week or so of resources tagged with "Idealware" on If you see a good article or resource that would help nonprofits choose software, tag it! A Place for Donors (Frogloop)
A nice, data-based look at what's happening with nonprofits and fundraising on MySpace

Social Networks, Walled Gardens, and Decision Trees (Small Dots)
This post lays out some of the thought process around deciding to invest in social networking tools

Ways for Associations to Utilize Wikis (ASAE Acryonym)
10 things (in two parts) for which nonprofits might find wikis useful

The Cuneiform Code: Knowledge Management (Gavin's Digital Diner)
A (two part) overview of Knowledge Mgt principles, and a case study of how one organization has implemented them using MS Sharepoint

Using New Media in Virtual Meeting Spaces (NTEN)
A short but intriguing case study about the Center for Economic Progress' use of online collaboration tools to help with a distributed steering committee meetings

Happy Birthday to Us!

This past Friday was Idealware’s 2nd birthday - the anniversary of both our incorporation and the release of our Online Donation report. How time flies, huh? This year has been a big year for us, with a bunch of exciting milestones… (roll that montage music)...
  • We published 23 different articles about nonprofit software
  • 93 different people have contributed their expertise to Idealware resources
  • More than 250 people have registered for one of our seminars
  • Almost 4500 people have signed up to hear about new articles and events
  • Our website traffic has grown to about 1000 visits a day
  • We received our 501(c)3 status
  • We’re hard at work planning our very first live event – Managing Nonprofit Technology Projects - in partnership with Aspiration
  • We’re working on our first large commission, a report on grants management systems for foundations
  • I’ve gone from working about one-third time with Idealware in November of last year, to now working for Idealware full time
  • We received our first grant - more on that soon.
  • Our annual income has grown from about $12,000 in 2006 to a projected $65,000 in 2007.
I can’t tell you how exciting it is to feel Idealware growing into a viable and sustainable organization. I continue to be humbled by how many of you are willing to contribute – whether financially, through your time, or via your expertise – to help provide great content to allow nonprofits to choose software effectively. And as great as this year has been, I really think that next year will be an even better one for us, as our momentum continues.

It’s fitting that our anniversary is so close to Thanksgiving, as there’s so many people to be thankful for. Thanks so much to our fabulous board and advisors, our core content contributors, and the dozens of dozens of other people that have provided their expertise. Thanks to the partner organizations that have nurtured us and helped me personally – Aspiration, TechSoup, NTEN, and more. Thanks to our donors, our subscribers, and our readers. I’m privileged to get to work with you every day.

Resource Roundup 11/16

Here's the highlights from the last week or so of resources tagged with "Idealware" on Thanks for the tagging, David Noble, David Zeidman, and Craig Weinrich! Keep it coming! If you see a good article or resource that would help nonprofits choose software, tag it with "Idealware"

Web CMS Requirements Survey Results (UC Davis)Publish Post
The results of an informal survey of universities on what CMSs they're using, including license, implementation, and staff costs

Selecting a Learning Management System (Mission to Learn)
A few tips and a presentation on how to select a learning management system

RE-Decoded - Using Blackbaud's Raiser's Edge API for integrating applications
A blog dedicated to Raiser's Edge integration topics

Wiki Tips: Joining an Existing Wiki (Software Dave)
Using a wiki is different than other media. This article provides some suggestions for making the transition.

RSS in Plain English (CommonCraft)
A gentle introduction to how to use RSS - a powerful and straightforward way to follow news and information.

The twitter post: txt for conferencing and consultation (Tim's Blog)
Case study and a number of interesting ideas about using twitter for conferences and youth organizing

Philanthropy on Facebook (
Case study of an organization using Facebook to raise awareness of breast cancer

Top Five Ways to Raise Money for an Independent Project (Social Actions)
Summary of online tools that you can use to do distributed fundraising campaigns for projects that aren't nonprofits

Ask Idealware: Integrating with Raiser's Edge

Michael asks: We're in the midst of pricing out a fairly complex integrated system which is likely to include Raiser's Edge. We'd like to be able to integrate Raiser's Edge with a legal case management system, to be able
to easily pull together mailing lists from both systems. I've heard that it's difficult and expensive to integrate Raiser's Edge, but our developer thinks that the database doesn't look too bad. Are we missing something? Are there fees or complications that we're not considering?

Steve Birnbaum of Jacobson Consulting Applications, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients select, use, and integrate software including Raiser's Edge, says:
In general, successful integrations balance business needs against complexity. It is important to minimize dual entry and to provide complete and accurate information in all systems, but the more data points you integrate, the more complicated and expensive the project. Also, consider your capability to support the integration over the long-term. Software changes on either side, so programming never ends. If you don't have the technical expertise in-house, make sure that your integration provider offers a service contract that guarantees functionality after system upgrades. This is a marriage, not a fling.

Technically, there are some specific issues when dealing with The Raiser's Edge® (RE). You can develop a methodology based on standard RE imports, which are part of the front-end of the application. This approach lacks elegance, but it works and it is covered under Blackbaud technical support. Legally developing a fully-automated integration requires the purchase of the Blackbaud API. Writing directly to the back-end of the software without the API may violate the terms of your service agreement. If you do pay the $15,000 for the API, make sure that a good intellectual property attorney reviews the API contract (all software contracts actually), as it seems to indicate that Blackbaud retains ownership of all intellectual property created using the toolset.

I would recommend using extreme caution when working with developers unfamiliar with the technology and company; we have seen many organizations get burned this way. Good luck.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at Have a great option to suggest for this question? Hate our responses? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

The Dilemma of Database Budgeting

Along with Eric Leland of Leland Design and Matthew Scholtz, an independent consultant who is also on staff at ONE/Northwest, Laura participated in a discussion of the current database options convened by the Fund for the City of New York. We created a transcript of the conversation, and the participants were kind enough to let us publish some excerpts – this is the first of four excerpts.

Fund for the City of New York: How often does a nonprofit simply pick the product or platform that is best for them, forgetting completely about finances? Or do you think that finances do make a difference for some groups?

Matthew: I think finances make a huge difference for every group. I have never worked with one where it wasn't a big, big, big factor.

Eric: It's definitely a big factor. The range of costs can sometimes be fairly wide, but most of the time it’s actually fairly narrow. "I can afford from $2000 to $3000."

Matthew: Even when it seems to be a broader range, there’s often a specific perception. They may have a wider range, but if it's going to cost two times what they are thinking, then no way.

Eric: I'd say you’re looking at, a most, a 10 to 20 percent spread in the price they feel comfortable with. You know, "I can see being in this range." It's not necessarily always what they end up with, because of other factors, but it's a top level concern.

Matthew: I feel it's one of the most important services I offer my clients – helping them to understand the financial implications of the various choices they could make. It's really hard to understand that.

Fund for the City of New York: Do you feel that a lot of groups shoot themselves in the foot by defining an arbitrary price range – though obviously it doesn’t feel arbitrary for them - for a database system before they really define what their needs are and what the market price for an appropriate platform would be?

Laura: I think that there are certainly many organizations who are under-investing - who ought to be taking their constituent database more seriously and spending more money on it. I don't know whether that's a reality that we can change. I don’t know if we can do much more than just very slowly and incrementally try to educate people about what they would get for their money.

I think right now it's hard to know. It’s hard to understand what the implications are of spending a particular amount of money. If you’re getting a free database, well, what could be wrong with free? It’s also hard to understand the implications of moving from the realm of three thousand dollar databases to the realm of fifteen thousand dollar ones. Why would I voluntarily choose to spend twelve thousand dollars?

And of course, in the real world, there are organizational priorities other than databases. In an ideal world, you would plan exactly what is needed and then define a budget for your entire organization all at once based on exactly the best allocation of funds. But no one is ever really doing that. So in reality people budget based on their perceptions of what they should pay for a database.

Eric: I would underscore that last phrase, because most of my clients actually don't budget at all. Sometimes they have a number in mind, but most of them haven't thought of a formal or even an informal technology budget. So when I give them actual costs, they might seem high or low but not based on any kind of logic.

I do run into some clients that do indeed shoot themselves in the foot. Early on, when I was much more involved with eBase and free databases were a shining star in the non-profit world, it was a bigger problem than I think it is now. But it’s still a problem - when folks see something is free they immediately think that there’s no point in paying for something, because all databases are the same and there’s a free one available.

Matthew: I would agree with all that. I think the people who are really shooting themselves in the foot probably aren't talking to us at all - we try hard to stop organizations from making bad decisions, but I get lots of clients who shot themselves in the foot five years ago and are now trying to correct the problem. For instance, they got a volunteer to build something in Access four years ago, and now it's a complete mess. A lot of people are still working on correcting those things.

Managing Nonprofit Technology Projects: January 10-11th, New York City

I'm really excited to announce Idealware's very first live event. In partnership with Aspiration, we're sponsoring an informal conference on Managing Nonprofit Technology Projects, scheduled for January in New York City. We're doing some final nailing down of the date, but we're tentatively planning on January 10th- 11th (and will finalize the date next week).

We're going to do a formal announcement and outreach early next week, but I wanted to post it here first to see if any of you had concerns or suggestions about the event or the announcement. Anything we should be taking into account before we publicize this in a bigger way?

Here's the details:

Managing Nonprofit Technology Projects will examine the tools and best practices that will help nonprofits deliver successful technology solutions - whether websites, packaged software implementations, or custom applications.

Interactive sessions and demos will allow a diverse group of participants to compare processes, tools, successes, and lessons learned. We will discuss areas such as team collaboration, project planning, software selection, migration, and project rollout, and map out the software tools – from project management packages to collaborative communication to issue tracking and more – that support successful technology projects.

Aspiration’s skill in facilitating practitioner knowledge combined with Idealware’s experience in providing mental frameworks and research based information will ensure an informal, collaborative, and information-rich event.

What’s On the Agenda?
The agenda will be designed specifically to ensure participants interact with and learn from each other, while also providing a solid grounding in essential topics. Some of the sessions will include:
  • Anatomy of a Well-Managed Technology Project: Drawing from case studies good, bad and ugly, this session will focus on key aspects of successful project management.
  • What Should a Web Site Cost? Using anecdotal data and participant input, we will explore costing for different types of web sites, from simple “brochure-ware” sites to custom, database-backed applications and points in between.
  • Using Wikis for Effective Collaboration: This session will map out best practices and techniques for successfully utilizing wiki technology for project collaboration. Also discussed will be when not to use wikis, and when more structured information sharing tools are advisable.
  • Managing Consultants and Dealing with Vendors: This peer sharing workshop will invite participants to compare their processes and tactics for managing critical project relationships that fall outside of organizational boundaries.
  • Software Share: Basecamp, MS Project, DreamTeam and more: Nonprofit practitioners will provide a variety of 10-15 minute software demos to allow participants to see the packages in real-life situations and compare the strengths and weaknesses.
See the full description of the event for more sessions.

Who Should Come?
This event will focus on growing the community of nonprofit technology project managers by providing support to those currently practicing as project managers, recruiting and offering support to those new to (or bewildered by) this craft, and creating a space for the "accidental project managers" to share their stories, discover their allies, and grow into more "intentional" project managers. A significant part of the event will be built around mentoring relationships; experienced individuals with knowledge and stories to share will collaborate with participants who want to learn more.

How Do I Get Involved?
Interested in hearing more? View the full description of the event online

We are in the process of setting up the registration process, as well as email mailing list for key registration information and for helping to shape the agenda. At the moment, if you have questions or are eager to be involved, drop us a line at

Risk Management in Securing Your Data

There's been security breaches at both Convio and Salesforce of late, and it's got me thinking.

Regardless of these recent issues, I'm convinced that using outsourced vendors is a big improvement in infrastructure and security for most nonprofits over storing their data in-house. Many have very few security or backup procedures in place, and it's as likely or more likely that their data will be hacked or lost or corrupted if they store it in-house. But no method of storing your data is risk free. What's important is clearly thinking about what risks exist, and balancing those risks against other factors - like price, staff convenience, and such.

I'm not alone in thinking about this stuff - I had a great email conversation about this with Douglas Back, the Systems Manager from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Douglas said:
"Security is all about minimizing risk - the only way to eliminate risk is to not do anything at all, and then we'd all be sitting around twiddling our thumbs. But one of the issues I see constantly is that security is put on the back burner in favor of convenience. To most people, security means inconvenience for the sake of inconvenience. Of course, the amount of risk is proportional to the size of the organization, both in terms of customer/constituents and staff. At some point, the costs of having a SecurID token-based VPN outweigh the benefits of the security it provides.

Security should be more of a consideration for anyone who uses a computer, especially workgroups that share information and resources. Non-IT people don't immediately see the benefits of having strong passwords, or limiting resource access. Those are two really small things that a small organization can do that can help secure their systems, and they're free! And there are more small things like that when combined can reduce the chances of a password-related security breach to near zero. But to someone who is looking to break into a system, they're going to seek out the weakest part and try to exploit it, be it poorly designed software, a weak password, or someone who falls for a phishing scheme. A gross oversimplification would be something like a golden triangle of security, stability, and functionality - somewhere in the middle is the right place to be. (Usability falls in there too, but who wants a golden square?)"
Like everything else, there's a tradeoff here. The key is to understand the risks, make sure you've done what you can easily do, and than weigh the tradeoffs that are left and make a decision you're comfortable with. And in fact, although it's hard to deal when it happens to you, the fact that an unlikely risk actually occurs doesn't mean that your risk mitigation strategy was bad. The fact that there's been a security breach at Convio and Salesforce doesn't suddenly change the tradeoffs between cost/ security/ functionality/ convenience for using an outsourced data vendor- unless you think they're part of a future pattern, and I don't personally see any reason to think that.

Upcoming Online Seminars

Just wanted to give you guys a heads up on the online seminars (webinars) we have coming up in November and December. Each of these is $40 per participant.

TOMORROW (THURS)! 10 Common Mistakes in Choosing a Donor Database
Thursday, November 8th, 1:00 - 2:30 EST
How do you choose a donor database that will support successful
fundraising? The software is only half the story. Fundraising
technology strategist Robert Weiner will walk through ten common
mistakes that can prevent you from selecting the right database
and managing it effectively.

Choosing a Low Cost Constituent Database
Thursday, November 15th, 1:00 -2:30 ES
There are a number of solid and affordable options to track your
volunteers, donors, partners, and other constituents. What should
a small organization look for? What tools are available? Database
expert Eric Leland will walk through everything you need to know
to pick the right database for your organization, and consider
the pros and cons of commonly used databases such as GiftWorks,
Metrix, eTapestry, Salesforce, DonorPerfect, and Democracy In

Choosing eNewsletter Software
Thursday, November 29th, 1:00 - 2:30 EST
Email newsletters are a great way to stay in touch with and grow your
audience, but it can be complex to send and track thousands of emails.
We'll walk through what you need to know in order to setup, send, and
track eNewsletters effectively, and talk about some of the reliable and
affordable tools most commonly used for mass emailing, such as EmailNow,
ConstantContact, NPOGroups, CampaignMonitor, Emma, Topica, and more.

NEW! Creating the Constiuent-Centric Nonprofit: Nonprofit CRM
Thursday, December 6th, 1:00 - 2:30 EST
If you're storing data about your constituents in many different places,
it's costing you in time, lost revenue and decreased impact. Paul Hagen,
who's helped organizations such as Goodwill, VolunteerMatch and Jewish
Teen Alliance develop their Constituent Relationship Management (CRM)
strategy, will talk through the practical steps, processes, and software
that can help you to get a better handle on managing and building your
relationship with each constituent.

Comparing Open Source CMSs: Joomla, Drupal, and Plone
Thursday, December 13th, 1:00 - 2:30 EST
Open source content management systems (CMS) are particularly attractive
to the nonprofit community because of their cost-efficiency, but what
do these systems actually do? And what are the differences between the
most common CMSs? We'll compare Joomla, Drupal, and Plone for typical
nonprofit needs, and then experts in each of the systems - Ryan Ozimek,
David Geilhufe, and Patrick Shaw - will demo the systems and answer your

January seminars are also posted.

And don't forget that recordings of past seminars are also available for sale on the website, for only $20 each.

New Article: Six Views of Project Management Software

When we took on an article about project management software, I didn’t realize it was going to be such a rabbit hole. Everyone I talked to seemed to have a different definition of what project management was, and what software was needed to support it.

But I’ve tried to wrangle all that disparate information into some sort of useful overview. You can see the result in our new article Six Views of Project Management Software. The article walks through a number of different things you might want to use software for in the project management realm, and a number of different software tools that can be useful.
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