August 30, 2014


Tech for small nonprofits: Making the shift from Excel

Steve Rusche

Steve Rusche

[Publisher's note: This article was provided by Blackbaud, a maker of fundraising software. Blackbaud is a PJ business partner.]

For those of you reading this article still using Excel, you can take solace in the fact that you are far from being alone. 

When you probe into the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in North America, you will find nearly all of them using an Excel spreadsheet in some manner. 

My guess is that Excel is the main recordkeeping system for approximately 40 percent 50 percent of those organizations. Who can blame them since there is little to no training and any organization with an Office license has a copy. 

However, at some point you are probably discovering that Excel does not meet all the needs for fundraising management.

There are many things to think about:

  • The need to do pledge processing for an upcoming campaign
  • The need to directly interface with your web site for online donations
  • The need to track restricted versus unrestricted funds or memorial gifts
  • The need to produce a variety of reports (like those comparison reports your board wants)
  • The need to have more than just one person doing some aspect of recordkeeping at the same time, perhaps in different locations
  • The need to begin some marketing back to your donors and prospects where you need to easily segment, create mailings, automatically create thank-you letters, mass email and invite people to events
  • The need to insure the security of your data by moving to an online recordkeeping solution where a reputable company performs maintenance, updates and back-ups at a remote site automatically

Do not panic. These challenges may mean you are raising more money, allowing you to better fulfill your mission. It is part of the evolution of every thriving nonprofit, so let's see how easy we can make the shift from Excel.

First, realize that even if your Excel file has hundreds or thousands of rows, you have organized it in the very best manner for converting to a new system.  This will keep the transfer costs low and the data clean if your data entry has been done consistently.

Second, think about your needs. More than likely you can begin with the items I listed above. Add to that list the other reasons for considering a different tool designed with a nonprofit in mind. 

My reason for suggesting you compile a list is so you do not go overboard with your next recordkeeping system. 

Many of the vendors who provide these specialized systems have a built-in upgrade path, thereby not penalizing you for starting small, even basing prices on the number of records.

Third, find a system from a vendor who is well established, has good training, excellent on-going support and numerous happy customers in your area. 

Talk to others who are using the system you are contemplating. Try to speak to those who also upgraded from an Excel spreadsheet.

And finally, I saved the training, support and data conversion until last for a reason. 

This is where the hidden costs and secrets to later success lie. Be truly careful about verifying these costs even for "free" solutions. As your needs grow, even more assistance will be required and you must plan for it. 

Above all, take pride in what you are doing to help the mission of your organization. You are insuring the proper tool to help fuel your growth.

Steve Rusche is vice president of small markets and co-founder of eTapestry, a Blackbaud Solution.


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