Stage 4 - Select or develop your database

Hurrah! You’ve got through 50% of the process and all that remains is to select a system. 

You are now fully armed with all the information about what you are looking for. You can approach some companies with your ‘must haves’.

If they can’t provide them, try not to let them side-track you with the other wonderful things their system can do. You know what you need.

Move onto the next company and see what they say.


There are two ways of getting a database. Buy one “out-of-the-box” or build your own.


Out-of-the-box, customisable databases

An “out-of-the-box” database intends to cater for 80-90% of your needs in their standard offering. They then work with you to customise and configure the database to reflect your individual needs (e.g. your data fields, reports, access levels etc).

Different companies offer different levels of support so this is one of the biggest areas you need to explore when talking to them. In all likelihood you will change some of the programmes you run or be funded to deliver new projects, and your database will need to change with you.


Build your own database

Building your own database is possible these days using 'low-code' platforms. We’ve included a few in our Database Matrix.


How to get started

To understand the pros and cons of building your own versus buying one out of the box, there are lots of articles to read online. We’ve even written one ourselves with an emphasis on the idea that your database needs to change with you.

Whichever route you choose, we would recommend the following top tips:

  • Make the most of free trials but make sure you’ve actually put time aside to explore these before signing up
  • Contact the companies for walk-throughs and demos – this is a valuable first glimpse of their offer
  • Check out the ‘testimonials’ or ‘customers’ pages of their websites. Are there UK organisations? Are there some like yours? Think about getting in touch with them to ask about their experience
  • Have database on the brain – ask in your network or when you meet people at relevant events. Not only about the product they use and what they think of it, but the things they learnt along the way or would do differently


Which databases should we consider?

We’ve done a lot of our own research to help you when it comes to selecting a database.

There’s a huge number of databases on the market, all promising the world.

So we put some boundaries on our research.

The list we’re currently working with is by no means exhaustive and we’d love to hear feedback from people about other systems that could be included.


Why have we chosen these databases?

Remember, we’re keeping our focus tight on a database that collects and analyses data about your service users, how they engage with you and the impact of that.

We have also selected databases which are likely to be affordable for small charities and community groups to implement and maintain on an ongoing basis.  We are well aware that cost will be one of your deciding factors when it comes to making your choice.

Some of the systems also have the ability to capture other data about membership, volunteers, donors etc but that’s not our primary focus. You will need to decide for yourselves whether these are essential components for you.


4 different kinds of databases

We’re trying to do as much of that work for you and will be publishing our full and detailed research later this year. In the meantime, we’ve produced a summary below which categorises the types of databases you might be looking at and what the high-level advantages and disadvantages are.

We're giving you as much information as we can to help you with your decisions before you start speaking to database companies.

Often we hear people say that they’d put so much time and effort in with a company before they found out it couldn’t do X or was going to cost Y that they felt disheartened to pull the plug and do it all over again with another provider.


1) The big players

Pros:  Single source of truth, organisation-wide database, catering for a large portion of your business needs. 

Cons: Complex systems - require larger organisational shift with extensive training before used well. Although often "free" they will require extensive paid-for support if you don't have the skills in-house.



2) Build your own (no code / low code)

Pros: Full flexibility to build a bespoke database that suits your unique ways of working and data collection / analysis needs. Drag and drop tools mean you don't need to be a computer programmer to create a database. 

Cons: Sizeable learning curve and you'll need skills, time and commutment in-house to build these yourself.  Or pay for support. You also may be building something from scratch when something already exists that will fulfill 80% of your needs



3) Off the shelf all rounder - Customise and configure

Pros: Great understanding of the charity sector - you'll feel well understood when describing your needs.  There's no middle person - you'll be dealing directly with the database provider themselves.

Cons: Some user interfaces might be dated, so there could be limitations like using on mobile devices.  There's likely to be greater upfront costs for these systems, but this isn't necessarily negative.



4) Off the shelf impact focussed - Customise and configure

Pros: Tight focus of these systems - quicker to implement and easier to learn how to use. Vendors can provide knowledgeable focused support.

Cons: You may need a larger system down the line, so consider how future-proofed your decision is.



Bolt on impact tools

Pros: Simple, well-evidenced tools to measure distance travelled outcomes

Cons: Not designed to access as a full database solution



Image of an arrow pointing downwards to indicate a download  Fuller database comparison