A well-planned information system is a key part of a well-run organisation. Staff, volunteers and trustees are able to produce relevant information to support their day-to-day work, quickly gather contact details when needed and generate reports for funders and other partners about the quality and value of what it is being delivered.
Some databases will be purpose-built, with easy-to-use forms, a variety of reports for funders, management or trustees, and training for staff and volunteers to help them get the most from the system.
Others will have been built by an enthusiastic volunteer, with no guidance from senior staff in the organisation. Little thought went into how the information would be managed or maintained, it doesn't capture all the relevant information and little is done with the information it does hold.
Some organisations still have little in the way of computerised systems. For many organisations this means that contact details are kept on papers and evaluation forms from clients end up stored in a filing cabinet. The administrator may have a quarterly session to manually count up key statistics and transfer them to the funders’ monitoring form, which is then photocopied for the next trustees’ report.
Don’t expect databases to solve every problem. Whatever system is being used, a database can be either a key asset or a millstone: it can either make everyone’s work easier or become a constant thorn in their side. Perhaps this is because the way a database works will usually reflect how an organisation is run, how clearly it is focused on key goals, how well the work of different parts of the whole fits together, and the quality of the organisation’s administrative processes.
Weaknesses in the way you do things are unlikely to be solved by having a database – in fact they may well exaggerate them.
First things first
Each VCO often has a unique mix of data that needs to be gathered, managed and reported, generally driven by the needs of multiple funders or specific to its area of work. This creates complex requirements and can lead to confusion among both users and suppliers of database systems.
A step by step approach often works best, so try to focus on what is achievable and required right now, rather than chasing everything that appears to be possible or that you think ought to be included.
Build it or buy it?
There are three main choices facing someone who wants a database:
- Buy a database off-the-shelf
There are as many as 100 off-the-shelf products aimed specifically at VCOs and most should be flexible enough to match most of your requirements. Tweaking an existing product, rather than funding the whole development process, could save a lot of time and money.
Ask in your networks to see who is using which system. Talk to the people who sell the systems, and review demo versions. Consider the total cost of ownership, such as running costs and training, as well as the initial purchase price. Being familiar with what’s available already is a good place to start to, even if you then decide you need your own solution.
- Have one built for you
If existing products don’t meet your needs, you could pay a database consultant or programmer to build a system that does. A good database consultant will review your requirements and design, build, test and deliver your new database. They will work with staff and volunteers to identify needs, design screens, test the system with a range of users and provide training and ongoing support. They may also offer regular reviews to adapt your system as your needs change.
A bespoke solution may be a good way of meeting very specific requirements, and building something that can continue to grow with your organisation. However, developing a database isusually a major undertaking and you need to make sure you have the money and other resources to support it.
- Build one yourself
Most people with a version of Microsoft Office on a Windows computer could open their copy of Access and use the wizards to set up a new database.
Once under way they could learn more from a guide in the ‘for Dummies’ series, or get help from a friendly expert. If they’re well versed in the work of the organisation they can anticipate reporting needs and think about the needs of the people entering data and keeping it up to date. It may be a very simple tool for a specific purpose, or grow to be an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ management information system.
Although this may be considered the cheapest option, it may lead to endless rounds of building and re-building, diverting time from more valuable work and relying too heavily on enthusiasm instead of appropriate knowledge or experience.
Check what's on the shelf
Before taking on a major database development project in-house, make sure you fully review existing products to see if there is anything that could meet your needs.
All databases will have limitations, whether off-the-shelf products or built from scratch – getting a database specially built for you doesn’t necessarily mean you will get exactly what you need, because you may not have the funds, time or expertise for this. Be realistic about your expectations and evaluate all the options before deciding before deciding which course to take.
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