Editor’s note: All this month we’re publishing tech tips for nonprofits. Keep a look out for a new tip each day and let us know what you think in the comments. -Dan 

There are three ways to integrate all your constituent-tracking applications so they can share data: manual import and export, integrated packages, and automated connectors. Which is best? It depends upon your organization’s budget, needs, and other factors.

Connecting the information from the various systems you use to communicate with and track your constituents can give your organization a more unified view. For instance, you might integrate an email blasting software package with your donor database. Linking these systems will allow you to email your donors, review the emails sent, and read the donor’s responses from within your donor database.

Linking up your constituent data provides some big advantages. For one, it allows you to get a complete view of your constituents. If the development director is keeping her own email list in Constant Contact, and the volunteer coordinator is keeping his volunteer list in an online volunteer management application, neither can take advantage of the potential opportunities in each other’s lists, and you can never get a overall picture of the ways each constituent is involved with your organization.

Integration is also critical in keeping your data clean, updated, and useful. If someone updates a phone number in one system, integration allows that new number to be updated in your other systems.

However, despite the many integrations available, many are not as fully developed as you might like, and you might be limited by the features available in your existing software packages.

Manual import and export—essentially, when a member of your staff downloads data from one system and imports it into another on a periodic basis—is the most basic method of integrating data. The time and effort required varies greatly depending on how many data sources you are trying to integrate and how much work is required to get the export file ready for import. This option has a number of advantages. It’s the lowest initial investment, allows the widest choice of software tools, lets you target software tools to your specific needs, and offers flexibility in changing software packages down the road. However, it also requires the greatest amount of ongoing staff time, opens the door to human error and data issues, and you won’t always have the latest data. It also calls for a careful integration plan and process.

More complex methods, such as using integrated packages or an automated connector that shares data without human intervention, can also be more reliable, and more expensive. Which option is the right choice for you? Again, it depends—there are valid reasons to go with any of the three of these. You’ll need to carefully evaluate your own needs and concerns.