What’s the Best Database for My Organization?
How Do I Choose?

Today’s guest blog post is written by Jordan Simmons, Senior Account Executive, Patron Technology. This post was originally published on the Audience Building Roundtable blog

We can all agree that capturing and tracking information and making data-based decisions is important for any arts organization, but how do you know which database tool to use to facilitate that? How do you choose a great system when there are so many varying options on the market these days?

Many organizations think that they need to have a ton of technical knowledge to choose a database system, but the fact is, if you can answer a handful of questions about the direction your organization wants to go in and where you are now, you’ll have most of the ammunition you need to make the right call.

There are a lot of systems out there that operate purely as a database, such as MySQL, Access, and FileMaker, but generally when arts and non-profit organizations are considering database programs, they are more focused on systems which include some combination of ticketing, fundraising, CRM, and marketing – among other tools – so I’ll mainly address how to think about these combination systems in this post.

What are the challenges and goals at our nonprofit?

The first thing you’ll need to ask yourself is “What are the real, day to day business challenges and goals for our nonprofit?” These aren’t vague concerns like, “we want to have all of our data in one system;” these should be concrete statements that describe what you hope to achieve or avoid when using a system: things like, “we want to increase our donor base by 10% in the next fiscal year”, or “our subscription renewal rate is currently 54%, and we need to increase that rate to 60%”.

The tricky thing about these business challenges is that you’ll need everyone on staff to agree to them. Choosing a database is a decision that will affect everyone, so having buy-in from both leadership and your colleagues is crucial. Define your organization-wide goals in very specific terms. For example: “we need to end next fiscal year up 20% in earned and contributed income over last fiscal year.”

Clarifying specific goals will help you to zero in on the tools in each of the systems you are reviewing that may help you achieve your goals. As a bonus, you’ll also have a yardstick to measure your success once you are up and running in that new database.

After you’ve defined these specific goals, then each individual or department can decide how they will contribute to the achievement of the goals. For example, development can focus on increasing individual giving, while guest services focus on increasing membership renewals. When your whole staff is engaged, and agrees with the goals and challenges you are tackling, you don’t wind up in departmental stand-offs when it comes down to a handful of database choices and then make a decision that no one is happy with, (or don’t make a decision at all!), because you’ll be focused on the system that will help you achieve for the whole organization. 

Know the Difference between “Necessary” and “Nice to Have” in Your Database

Make sure that everyone understands the difference between “nice-to-haves” versus necessary tools that your database must have – and make sure the loudest voice in the room doesn’t win out. And remember: there’s no such thing as a perfect system! Compromises will need to be made, but if everyone has their eye on the bigger picture, you’ll make the right choice.

Your Next Database: What’s Going Right That You Want to Keep?

You’ll want to think about what is going right at your organization currently:

  • Are there a handful of reports that you rely on daily?
  • Is the way you generate ticket orders pretty slick?
  • What tools do you have now that you would be sad to lose if you didn’t have an equally good feature in the next system you use?

If there are reports in your current system that contain information you need to do your job, have them handy when you are seeing demos of programs and show them to the salesperson you are working with to make sure that that information can be pulled from the new system as well. If the database has built-in ticketing, ask to see how a ticket is processed. Can you envision that process working well in your organization’s set up?

What are the skills of your “end users?”

When reviewing database systems, you always need to keep the end users in mind: your staff and colleagues. Is everyone you work with a tech wizard? Does your Development Director barely know how to send an email? Whatever system you choose will only be as good as the data you put into it, so if your colleagues refuse to use your new database because it is too complicated or hard for them to use, it isn’t going to do you any good. 

On the flip side, if the system you choose is catering only to the least technical among your co-workers, are there others who are missing out on the higher-level functionality that they could really use to your organization’s advantage? You’ll need to balance everyone’s skill set and requirements and find ways to make people comfortable with a new system.

What about technology concerns?

  • Can someone at your organization take responsibility for keeping your org compliant with payment card industry (PCI) standards?
    • If not, you will need a system that provides that for you.
  • Do you have the expertise to manage servers and network infrastructure or the funds to hire someone to manage them for you?
    • If not, you’ll want to look into a cloud-based system.


Choosing a customer relationship management (CRM) system or database program for your organization doesn’t have to be daunting if you keep your eye on what you hope to get out of the system in the long run. It can be an exciting and illuminating process that helps you uncover what is most important to yourself and the people you work with in achieving your common goals and fulfilling your organization’s mission!

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