Since most organizations don’t track just one type of constituent, the idea of a single database for all of them—donors, volunteers, clients, email subscribers, advocates and everyone else—is something of a holy grail. The ability to easily see how all your constituents interact with your organization, and with each other, makes for an attractive, ideal vision of what a database should be. These three case studies illustrate our article "Multiple Constituent Groups, One Database? How to Track Everyone Who’s Anyone to You." They were first published together in the December issue of the NTEN:Change journal.
Fight Colorectal Cancer
$1 Million budget
True to its name, the Alexandria, Virginia, based nonprofit supports patients and their families as they navigate dealing with colorectal cancer, and pushes for changes in policy that improve research. “We’re the squeaky wheels for colorectal cancer,” said Judi Sohn, VP of Operations, summing up the organization’s mission succinctly.
In terms of critical constituents, donors are extremely important to the organization. Sohn said staff wants to know as much as they can about them. But there are, in fact, two other major audiences they track in parallel.
“One is the patient community looking for resources,” she said. This includes people who have, or have had colon cancer, as well as those who have known people with it. The other is the healthcare providers that are the sources of information for them.
“There’s some overlap between them, but mostly they’re completely different groups in terms of what we’re tracking,” Sohn said. “For patients, it’s interactions, questions they’ve asked, their participation in webinars, communication history, healthcare history, and things like that.
“For providers, we’re trying to track their communications with us—how they are referring, how they’re participating in resources, things like that—and connecting with them on that level. We don’t have quite as much to track, because they’re the means to get to the patient, and that’s our core goal.”
To a lesser extent, the organization also tracks volunteers. “We don’t do straight volunteering so much, just a yearly event—a lobby day—and anyone who registers or interacts with us is in (the database),” she said. “There’s also information about advocacy action—but if someone goes to the website and wants to ask an advocacy question, it goes through a different process than if they ask a medical question.”
Because the information collected about providers was far less complex than that for patients, Fight Colorectal Cancer chose to maintain their collection of data about their different constituent groups in a single database, Sohn said. The organization uses Salesforce.
She cited the application’s ubiquity, as the enormous user community means an equally healthy support community. While the vendor targets corporate users more than nonprofits, it’s still well-suited for her organization’s needs. “It’s easy to work with,” she said, “and easy to find developers to work with it. It’s such a large universe.”
They’ve been using it since 2006 to track all constituent data, all financial data, case management, advocacy organization contacts, email lists and statistics, and more.
“We do webinars and move the information we got the webinar to Salesforce to track sign-ups and surveys and other information,” she said. “We do have information that may live in other places, but 99 percent of the time, it’s only there because that’s where it first went in. Then it goes into Salesforce, which is our database for nearly everything.”
There is a limitation to the single database, and Sohn said they use a separate e-commerce system for people who purchase (fundraising) bracelets or awareness materials. “We do track in Salesforce that someone purchased something, but the system we use has a not-very-robust Salesforce integration, so things like sales tax management and inventory is too weak and not worth the effort. As long as we are not duplicating any information, it’s not an issue.”
Sarah’s… An Oasis for Women
Less than $500,000 budget
In St. Paul, Minnesota, Sarah’s is a home for women in transition—sometimes referred to as a “supportive housing program” that provides housing, a community, safety and the basic necessities of life—as well as a referral and direct advocacy services—for the women who live there. Always at capacity, the nonprofit’s 29 residents come from such difficult life situations as domestic violence, war, torture, and displacement from their home countries.
Associate Director Hilary Otey said the organization works with a wide range of community partners to provide the services its residents need rather than providing them in house so that “when they move on, which is the goal, they’ll have those connections, support systems and empowerment.”
In all, staff tracks 23 different “person types,” Otey said, including the residents, volunteers, community organizations and partners, financial donors, and others. The nonprofit is affiliated with the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet, and there are other faith-based organizations with which it maintains relations—and therefore needs to also track.
“An important constituent—I’m not sure I’d call them ‘critical,’ because we have so many groups that are important—would be a donor,” she said. “About 80-90 percent of our revenue relies on donors, and the rest is earned income. We’re tracking their contact info, their gift dates, their participation in events.”
Until recently, staff tracked everything in Excel. Or at least, they tried to.
“That didn’t work well,” Otey said, being diplomatic. “There were no email addresses, really, no regular newsletters, no giving history. We had zero ability to really figure out who was giving and how to customize or specialize messages or asks or anything like that. No direct mail campaign or anything like that.”
About a year ago, Sarah’s underwent a leadership change, and both the executive director—which is more of a services-focused position—and the associate director positions changed hands. Both Otey and the new executive director have seen the value of technology in their careers, and made it a priority to bring Sarah’s more in line with current capabilities. They researched and evaluated options for a donor relationship management database and a separate system to manage the direct advocacy and referral services they provide.
“Because we had such varied needs and a strong desire for a high level of customization, as well as a goal to move everything to a web-based format, we decided to go with BlackBaud’s eTapestry and Community TechKnowledge’s Apricot,” Otey said. “We’re in the process of getting those up and running now, so we aren’t far enough along to determine the pros and cons.”
Staff uses eTapestry for donor relations and communication management—basically, tracking all contacts, relationships and gifts, and sending electronic newsletters. Apricot serves as a “resident management system” she said—basically, a case management database.
“It’s not completely set up yet,” Otey said. “The big benefit is that it’s totally customizable, but it takes so much staff time to create all the user-defined fields. With a handful of staff, it’s tough to get that up and running.”
The two systems aren’t integrated at all, and there’s no need for them to be.
“The only need I would see for that is, when a resident who is being tracked in Apricot moves out, then she would be put into the eTapestry,” she said. Former residents are still valuable to the organization in many ways, and receive emails and newsletters and sometimes act as volunteers or donors. However, with just 29 residents living at Sarah’s at any one time, it’s not difficult to enter the appropriate information manually.
“I’m sure our tracking will become more complex, and our reporting will become more sophisticated as I become more comfortable.”
About $25 million
200 staff in 10 offices
Peter Campbell, IT Director for the environmental law firm, Earthjustice, said his organization sees both clients and donors as key constituencies among many, including list subscribers, advocates, legal contacts, vendors, trustees and other groups. While he likes the idea of a single database that tracks so many different groups comfortably, Earthjustice currently uses separate systems.
“We use disjointed systems to track them,” he said. “On the fundraising and advocacy side, we use Blackbaud and Convio, but they’re not well-integrated. Blackbaud’s ECRM product doesn’t support the advocacy functions that we require. On the legal side, we use an archaic legal case-management system that was designed to support commercial litigation, not our less-structured mix of clients and cases. We end up tracking the contacts that aren’t in our donor/ECRM databases in Outlook Exchange.”
One of his previous employers, a Goodwill, used Salesforce as a single database for all constituents, but the company model there supported it. “At Goodwill, we tried to see people holistically, as a vendor could also be an employer; a customer could also be a donor (of goods or dollars),” he said. “At Earthjustice, there’s less natural crossover among our constituents, so the holistic view is desirable, but not as compelling.”
“Blackbaud CRM and Convio don’t integrate seamlessly” Campbell said. “Right now, we have to do a lot of manual synching. “We put the most effort into tracking donors, and I think that’s for a couple of reasons.
“One is that there are good systems for tracking donors, and it’s expected that an organization of our size, which depends on donations, will use them. Litigation is more of a document management challenge, so prioritizing CRM on the program side has been, historically, of lower importance” he said.
Campbell’s hopeful that Earthjustice will evolve in the area of data management.
“Our current strategic planning process is highlighting the need for more production of metrics and better data management,” he said. “There are cases to be made for CRM to play a larger role in our legal work, as, when you boil it down, all of our work is people-centric. But we have a lot of work to do before we tackle the dream of doing it all in one database.”
He said he feels his organization faces many of the same issues as other mid-sized nonprofits. “There are a lot of smaller organizations struggling more than us, because we have sufficient budget and staff to address the problem,” Campbell said. “We recognize that we have to be data centric, and we’re developing the plan to get there."