This is a guest post by Elizabeth Meyer, a retired executive director with 25+ years of leadership experience.
During my tenure as an Executive Director, my best software made it easy to get the data I needed, when I needed it. And I needed data a lot. I needed it to track service demand so that I could determine staffing needs and predict revenue, to justify funding requests to grantors, and to educate my community about critical issues. Whether non-profit or for-profit, public or private, in today's world, every organization needs good data for management and marketing. As the organization changes, those needs change overtime. Therefore, your software needs to be designed to capture the information that is critical to your organization now and in the future and make that data accessible. Access to your data allows you to investigate and explore the questions that drive your management and marketing.
When choosing software, consider the following:
Your software needs a robust database
All of the software we used to generate data had some form of database behind it. Some software products were better than others at generating the data we needed when we needed it. Those that did the best were built on a relational database model. These databases, if well designed, have the capability to answer just about any question that is relevant to the business function it serves. In a relational database, unique sets of data are stored in tables and the tables are linked through unique identifiers. Any data from any database that shares those unique identifiers can be subsequently be linked to the main database as new table.
My best database was a custom database that was written in MS Access. The database allowed us to capture everything we needed to know about the many and diverse events we offered each year. Over time, we built a history in this database so that we could examine trends from multiple perspectives and test new approaches. We could tell people what we were doing, how well we were doing it, and how much of a difference we were making. This database was built to last. As technology advanced, it was upgraded to newer versions of MS Access. As our needs and processes changed, our custom software developer, made changes in the application so that it could support our changing practices, while our underlying database was preserved.
Your software should make it easy to extract information
Most database applications come with some level of built in reporting. When database applications are not customized to your particular needs, it is unlikely that the built-in reports will meet your deeper and evolving needs. It is just not possible for a developer who is developing a product for the mass market to integrate all of the questions you might ask for your specific business. Given that, if you are purchasing a software product, be sure that your software has a robust query builder for your ad hoc needs or the ability for a developer to write custom queries against the software's database.
One of the key database applications we used was a specialized product developed for our particular industry but not customized for us. It had a flexible ad hoc query function and could answer many questions fairly easily. However, there were significant limits to its query ability that made it difficult and complicated to answer some of our most important questions. Again, our customized MS Access database beat this specialized software product with its flexibility and querying capability hands down. In fact, there were times when the easiest way to analyze data from the specialized application was to export data sets from it and create our own MS Access database from these exports.
A good relationship with your software developer is essential
As I mentioned above, my best database was a custom MS Access database that changed and evolved with my organization. This change was only possible because we had a long-term relationship with a software developer. The software developer was our mentor, helping us learn how to make the best use of the database. Over time, the software developer learned our system and our business and was able to help us make changes to the database to ensure it continued to support us as we changed and evolved. This partnership is vital and is only possible through continued partnership on the system over the long-term.
With all this in place, you can transform your data into information
The power of the relational database, especially one customized for your needs, helps you understand your business world in a way that is not otherwise possible. It makes it easy to capture important data and transform it into the information you need to drive decision making throughout your business. While standard business needs (e.g. accounting) can be well addressed by packaged software and software as a service models, custom software is the best solution for managing the information that makes your business unique.