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Database Experiences - Survey Results from 78 River and Watershed Groups

Part I - Current Experience with Databases

Baird Straughan, LeadGreen, 4 June 2009

Database options for river and watershed organizations are changing rapidly. Web-based databases offer the kinds of capabilities that once required an in-house multi-user computer network and expensive software. Survey respondents most frequently mentioned two - Salesforce1 and eTapestry2. In general, they reported better experience with them than with the most common in-house options - Excel spreadsheets or customized Microsoft Access databases. Organizations which chose non-standard options also reported good results.

In response to an invitation posted on the Watershed Support Network listserv in November of 2008, 27 organizations filled out the survey about their experiences with database programs for tracking members, volunteers, and donations. In May and June 2009 another 50 organizations responded to a slightly revised set of questions. In all, we have 77 responses.

If you HAVEN'T yet filled out the survey, it's STILL OPEN and awaiting your input at:


Disclaimer: This isn't a random sample of river and watershed groups. These 78 groups distinguish themselves by having enough interest in databases to log on and fill out the survey. The conclusions drawn in this report come from these 78 groups only, and may not be what you experience if you adopt one of these programs. That said, the best indicator of the future is past performance, and if you're a river and watershed group, this is probably the closest match you'll find.

Who Filled Out the Survey

The respondents were almost all from small staffed organizations.

What Program They Used

Many organizations are still using spreadsheets, which means that they can't easily segment their donors, or keep their information up-to-date, since the spreadsheet resides on one computer. Many other organizations had progressed from spreadsheets to Access, which most had customized to meet their specific needs.

4. What program does your organization use to track members and donors?

answered question - 77
skipped question - 0

Program Response Percent   Response Count

Text document (Word)
Spreadsheets (Excel)
Microsoft Access
Giftmaker or Giftmaker Pro (now owned by Blackbaud, no longer available)
Paradigm (Now Sage 50)
Raiser's Edge (Blackbaud)
eTapestry (Blackbaud)
Democracy in Action
Other (please specify)



The groups which relied on Excel and Access tended to be smaller (1-3 staffers) whereas those who used Salesforce, Filemaker, or eBase were somewhat larger (4-7 staff).

Among the "Other" choices were the following: Lotus Approach, CLASS, Lifeline, Fundraiser Select, "Gift, Friends and Time," FastFund Raising, Results Plus, DonorPro, and ACT. There were also some groups that reported using non-database software, like Quickbooks, to track their members. None of these was used by more than one group.

What They Use it For

Currently organizations use their databases mainly to track information and generate lists. About half generate emails, and about 40% also track volunteer hours and interactions with their constituents.

Fewer use the database for reporting, and fewer yet for planning and structuring events or future activities.

5. What do you use it for? (check all that apply.)3

answered question - 50
skipped question - 27

Use Response Percent   Response Count

Keeping track of member contact information
Keeping track of donations
Keeping track of volunteer hours
Keeping track of all your interactions with a person
Generating mailing lists
Generating lists of prospective major donors
Generating lists of potential volunteers
Generating emails
Structuring and planning fundraising activities
Structuring and planning volunteer activities
Reporting on your organization's overall fundraising
Reporting on your organization's overall volunteer participation



Number of contacts

Only one in three organizations had fewer than 1,000 contacts - an important consideration, because some web services like eTapestry raise their prices substantially once the database crosses that threshhold. Those organizations tended to be the smaller groups which were using Excel and Access.

Here's a hypothesis of mine: Not only are Excel and Access chosen by groups which smaller numbers of contacts, but they may also keep the databases smaller - since Excel and Access users report more difficulties inputting data and keep it up to date.

How Much They Use the Database

Two-thirds of the organizations reported using their database almost every day or more frequently, and five out of six used it at least once a week. The smallest organizations were least likely to use it often.

One corollary for costs: If organization staff or volunteers spend an average of two hours each time they use their database, which is probably a conservative estimate, and if that time costs them $20/hour or more, then five out of six organizations are spending at least $2,400 per year on staff time for the work with the database, and two out of three are spending at least $8,000. Hence, the costs of staff time are almost always more than the software, and investments in software or support that improve staff efficiency probably cover their costs.

Who Uses the Database?

In smaller organizations, the executive director was the most frequent user, followed by the lead fundraiser/membership coordinator (if the organization had one.) Some smaller organizations also included board members, volunteers, and program staff.

In larger organizations, it was the fundraising staff which made heaviest use of the database, followed by the executive director and program staff. Larger organizations rarely reported that board members or volunteers used the database.

Few organizations reported that all staff used the database. (The benefit of getting everyone on the database is that any changes to the contact information are more likely to be captured, and that program and fundraising can be better coordinated.)

Experience with Database Programs

Note: In the cross-tabulation and report, I have highlighted the four programs which had six or more respondents, for two reasons:

  • It's unfair to draw conclusions with any fewer data points; and

  • It's my experience that users are best served by selecting common database programs for which they can find support. Database programs come and go over the years. Transferring from one to another is usually expensive and painful, especially once the organization has amassed a lot of valuable data. So this focus on four programs reflects my inclination away from new or niche products - many of which are technically wonderful - and toward vanilla, mainstream database options from solid companies with extensive consultant networks.

That said, among the "Other" category are many satisfied users.

From the detailed information on users' experience with the programs (see Appendix A) arise a number of general conclusions.

  • A significant number of Microsoft Access and Excel users report that the program doesn't always function and that they lose data. Big red flag. The problem could be:

    • The organization doesn't consolidate its files, so that information is scattered across various users;

    • It doesn't save files regularly in a place that all users know, so that when one person leaves, others can't find them;4

    • The organization loses the expertise needed to run the programs (especially customized Access programs or Excel files with complex macros).5

    My impression is that many small organizations don't gather data systematically or periodically lose what they've got, and so they are treading water in their membership and fundraising and failing to develop the long-term relationships they need. For some, this is probably a stage they pass through; for others, a chronic problem.

  • Among the choices for which we have six or more responses, Excel and Salesforce have the highest percentage of users who consider them relatively easy. (Excel because it's the spreadsheet most of us know, and Salesforce probably because it had been customized to fit the organization.)

  • A significant number of Access users had trouble getting data into the database, and even more getting it back out again in mailing lists and reports. In these areas, the happiest responders used Excel, Salesforce, or "Other." (The "Other" category contained those organizations who had a mix of different programs, or those using a program which was only mentioned at most twice.)

  • Organizations using Salesforce reported the broadest access to the database for everyone across the organization. But there were varied responses for every program, and in each at least one respondent reported that it was absolutely not possible for everyone to use it. (Salesforce is a web-based service that gives free licenses to up to 10 users, which is probably one reason that so many people in each organization are using it. In the case of eTapestry, the annual cost rises with the number of users.)

  • Information was most likely to be up-to-date with (in order) Salesforce, eTapestry, and "Other," least likely to be up to date with Excel and Access.

  • Satisfaction with customer support is highest among eTapestry users (who pay a monthly fee). About half the users of Salesforce and "Other" report very high satisfaction, but a significant number also report low. (Salesforce is usually customized by individual consultants, and satisfaction with those consultants varies. Organizations that customize it themselves get no support.)

  • Users of Microsoft Access and Excel were least likely to answer that the program meets their needs, either now or in the future. eTapestry users were the ones most satisfied that the program meets their needs now. Salesforce and "Other" users were those most convinced that their databases would meet their needs in the future.


1. As its name implies, Salesforce is a database for business sales and support. It can be customized to meet the fundraising and membership tracking needs of most nonprofits, to which its offered free. A network of Nonprofit Salesforce consultants has created a nonprofit version. For watershed and rivers groups, the author has cutomized a version called "WaterGrass." (Back)

2. eTapestry is one of the original online fundraising databases for nonprofits. It charges a monthly fee. It's now owned by Blackbaud, the largest nonprofit fundraising database service provider. (Back)

3. This question was added for the May 2009 version of the survey. That's why there are only 50 responses. (Back)

4. For small organizations, a suggestion - save your important lists and files on website like Google Docs for the people who need to access them. In this way, they don't get lost on one person's computer. (Back)

5. More advice - When your customized database is getting too complex for more than one or two people to manipulate, it's time to look for a more robust system that people can be trained in so that expertise can be spread across the organization. (Back)

Appendix A: Experience with the four major packages - detail

Database Survey Part 2