3 Signs You Need to Integrate Your Databases


Just as spongy brakes, squealing steering and smelly exhaust tell you to tune up your car, systems have ways of telling you a problem exists. Most organizations have good, functional reasons for keeping separate databases (e.g., for donor, program, finance, ticketing, etc.), but a lack of integration will ultimately manifest itself in ways that harm your mission. Following are three key indicators your databases might be telling you to make the connection.

Donors Are Annoyed

Donors want to love you. But do they feel loved back when you send letters with misspelled names? Telephone when they prefer email? Send appeals to deceased spouses? These errors often creep up when you store donor information in more than one place. Effectively managing one list of names and addresses is hard enough. Multiple disconnected data sources inevitably result in angry, annoyed and inconvenienced donors. If your databases aren’t communicating, you risk mistreating donors, harming relationships and raising less money.

Opportunities Go Begging

In cultural organizations, marketing’s inability to tie visitation to membership expiration depresses renew rates. When preparing project reports for major donors about their restricted giving becomes a science project in the Finance system that takes weeks, relationships are hurt. Fragmented data prevents fundraisers from easily (or at all) identifying trends and patterns that drive strategy. Typically these patterns and trends emerge from quickly being able to answer the questions “what if . . . ?” and “how . . . ?”

  • How are direct mail donations affected when emails to donors bounce back?
  • How do major donors behave after their money is actually spent on a project?
  • What happens when we time solicitations across all of our channels?

If you want to build relationships and answer interesting questions, you must drill down into the data housed in multiple systems. When that picture is fragmented or getting the full picture takes undue effort, you miss opportunities and, again, harm relationships. The full picture is only possible when your systems are talking.

Staff Act Territorial

Finance staff does not trust Development’s data, and vice versa. Neither trusts the Volunteer office. Everyone has a shadow database. Nobody wins.

Different functional areas require systems specific to their needs. The problem is when these databases are maintained without centralized coordination. If data collection and entry isn’t consistent, data cleanliness isn’t universal, formats differ, and ID numbers don’t match, confidence in every system is eroded. Lack of quality data justifies data silos and the barriers around them popping up like tribbles. Integrating databases at a technical level is a project. Integrating and standardizing the practices of data management at an organizational level requires a mandate from senior leadership and commitment to a culture of communication, cooperation and collaboration among people, departments and, eventually, their systems.

Multiple systems for different functional areas is an inevitable fact of doing business. You can, however, make sure that the systems communicate. To get there, insist that your systems vendors make a firm commitment to openness, even when that capability might undermine their sale of an additional module. When evaluating any system, ask these questions:

  • What are the limitations of our API? How does it work with your test environment?
  • What is your philosophical commitment to openness? To working with other vendors?
  • We want to buy your competitors donor/web/finance/ticketing solution–what is your track record of working collaboratively with others?

Your donors, and systems, are entitled to proper treatment. Seeing the signs that your systems need integration and responding go a long way toward achieving that goal.

What other signs have you seen that you need to integrate your databases? Let us know in the comments below.

Steve Birnbaum

About Steve Birnbaum

Steve Birnbaum has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management, with particular expertise in organizational planning, technology implementation, and change management. Steve is Vice President of Client Solutions for SofTrek Corporation. He develops and executes SofTrek’s short-term and long-term sales and implementation strategies, and oversees the company’s client services efforts. Steve previously was associated with Jacobson Consulting Applications, Inc. (JCA), a firm specializing in helping non-profits use technology more effectively to achieve their fundraising goals. There, he was responsible for managing delivery of consulting services and new business development. He also provided strategic guidance for large organizations launching complex technology initiatives.


  1. Susan Kenna Wright

    Thanks for explaining some of the symptoms of lack of integration.

  2. Another sign that an organization need to integrate its database is when an organization says “I don’t know how are donors are interacting with us”. Often the fundraising department doesn’t know whether a donor is also a weekly volunteer. Sharing this information across departments, in integrated systems, allows organizations to to be more personal in their communications.

Leave a Reply to Susan Kenna Wright Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *