Installment #1 of the Nine Database Best Practices.

Carl Paulsen, WaterGrass


Databases provide us with the tools to make our jobs with nonprofits easier.  Or at least that’s what they SHOULD do.  The trouble is, a database is like any other tool; it works best when in the hands of a skilled craftsman.  In the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they are doing it can make a mess.

There are a lot of things to learn in order to become a database craftsman, or what we like to call a database maven.  Nothing will replace strong support services for learning how to use a database, and that’s probably the single most important benefit of the WaterGrass database - our unlimited support model.  But there are some basic principles that can help keep you out of trouble and on the way to success.  We at WaterGrass have put together a list of 9 best practices we encourage all our clients to follow.

Let’s start with the human element.

Your first step on the way to database bliss is to assess and recognize the database culture in your organization.  What do we mean by “database culture?”  For example,

  • Do staff love the database or run in fear every time your director asks for a report?  
  • Do you have rules for how to enter data into your database?  Are they followed?
  • Do data get entered regularly or whenever staff happen to have the time? 
  • Who is responsible for making sure the data is accurate?  Everyone?  No one?
  • When a new program begins, do the staff incorporate it into the database, or do they just open a new spreadsheet?

We see groups go through a transition that we like to group into 5 levels of database sophistication.  These range from the reluctant staff with no expertise to those groups that know how to fully embrace databases and put them to use to grow their organization.

Data Culture Spectrum

Where do you think your organization lies?  Is yours an organization with one lone advocate who understands the importance of databases or are you an organization where a number of people use the database, but only some use it well?  Even if your Executive Director would like everyone to use the database regularly, will your program staffers comply?  Or will they continue to run their projects from spreadsheets?

If you can move your organization along this spectrum, your database WILL make your lives easier.  But you first have to understand where your organization lies and then make a commitment to improve.

Discuss your database culture with your colleagues.  This exercise will help you avoid choosing overly ambitious projects which lead to frustration, and to identify next steps which build success. (In the corporate world, more than half of new database initiatives fail - usually because they didn’t fit the corporation.  In the nonprofit world, we have fewer resources and less ability to enforce new rules, so it’s even more important to choose wisely.)

Consider where you stand in your database journey and think about where you’d like to be and how to get there.  Think about it like a long-term campaign.  Who are your allies?  Do you need a database advocate?  Have one but need broader adoption among staff?  What would help that transition along?  Perhaps you need some regular meetings to ensure you stay on track, and to celebrate your meaningful progress.  Perhaps you want to design reports that would demonstrate the value of the database to the larger staff?  Or do you need a web based donation and signup systems or dashboards showing fundraising or volunteer progress.

Then consider which of the following practices in our upcoming blogs that you can actually implement.  You don’t have to adopt them all immediately (though you should strive for that over time).  For now, pick one practice that: 

  • suits your organization;
  • will generate benefits quickly;
  • and is within your capacity.

Implement it fully.  Hold off on others until it becomes second nature.  As you make progress on this one practice, be sure to talk about it in your organization.  Show your progress and how it has helped with your job.  This one step will help you move along the spectrum.

But make no mistake, evaluating your database culture is one of the 9 best database practices!


Carl Paulsen is the training and support director for the WaterGrass database, a client-relationship management system (CRMS) built for growing conservation nonprofits.  The former Director of the New Hampshire Rivers Council, he has helped dozens of organizations move up the database spectrum to improve their database practices, raise more money and involve more volunteers.