Charity CRM - 8 tips on how to choose a database

Choosing a charity CRM database

As your charity grows, so will the number of people you interact with. The number of people in your team will also grow and inevitably there will be some staff turnover. These factors mean that if you manage these relationships through spreadsheets or in a very ad-hoc manner the cracks will start to show. 

A good charity CRM database will allow you to manage a single consolidated list of people and organisations that can be accessed by anyone in your team from anywhere. It will help you to keep accurate records of your interactions with those people and thereby improve the experience they have as they relate to your charity. This will make them happier and more likely to recommend you, volunteer, or donate. 

But how do you choose a supporter database solution? We’ve written before about some of the top options for charity CRMs, or ‘donor databases’ as they are sometimes called. This post helps you think through some of the main criteria to consider when embarking on the transition to a new charity CRM database.

Choose a charity CRM that is easy to use!

Databases are only valuable if they contain useful and current information. If they are difficult to use they are easily neglected and the data quickly become out of date and useless. 

There is always a trade-off between how flexible a system is and how easy it is to adopt. Very flexible systems often need a professional to set them up for you (a sign of complexity). If you have unusual requirements then this may be appropriate but it’s always worth asking whether this might be a good opportunity to simplify your systems rather than build that complexity into your charity CRM.

Database software tends to be targeted not just at the sector (i.e. charities) but also at organisation size. If you are small you may be better off looking at something simpler. Future flexibility is important too, but the highest priority is to get a tool that your team can use easily as this is most likely to help you grow. 

Email marketing integration (broadcasting)

One key way in which a database can be useful is its capacity to initiate and report on outbound communications. Often the central communication piece is an email newsletter but many charities still send paper mailings and also want to send and track individual correspondence with important supporters. 

Some databases offer email broadcasting built-in while others sync your contacts with one of the popular email marketing platforms for charities. The ideal is always to have one master database that keeps a clear record of communication preferences. This is even more important in light of the new data protection regulations.

Website integration (inbound marketing)

Manually adding data to a database is no-one's idea of fun. If your internal processes require data to be manually added to a database then, surprise surprise, it often does not happen. You'll want to automate this process as much as possible. Ideally, information like donations, volunteering enquiries, email list subscriptions, etc. should be fed automatically into your supporter database. This requires integration between your website and supporter database that is not always straightforward. Read more in this post about how to connect your database and website.

Donation processing

Caring for your donors is important. It’s therefore important that you have accurate information about them so that you can thank them and update them on the impact of their giving. A good charity database will help you track donor details and give you a view of how much money they are giving. 

For most charities, online giving is an important fundraising channel but it's not the only one. All your giving information is aggregated in your financial accounts but it's also very helpful if you can bring it into your supporter database too. Having oversight of giving information allows you to make smarter decisions about how you interact with your donors. 

We urge against the temptation to invest in expensive software that promises a lot but is targetted at organisations much larger than yours. It's good to plan ahead but don't let yourself be sold features that you don't think are going to be central to your fundraising over the next few years. You have to walk before you can run!

GDPR compliance

Data protection is an increasingly hot topic and compliance is getting harder with the new GDPR regulations. You want your database to do as much of this for you as possible. A database will never remove the need for you to have sensible policies but it can ensure the basics are covered (like ensuring opt-ins are properly collected and unsubscribing is automated).

Cloud-based SAAS

Every good Software as a Service (SaaS) database should be hosted in the cloud meaning you can access your data from anywhere and there’s no software to install on any computer. Modern cloud-based systems are also updated to the latest version automatically but it's worth checking this because some providers offer cloud-based access but their systems are still built on a more old-fashioned 'single tenant' infrastructure where you have to pay extra for upgrades.

Read more about the benefits of SaaS
Read an in-depth explanation of SaaS


While many functions of a supporter database are the same no matter where you are based there are quite noticeable differences between UK and US-based systems. Some examples are support for gift aid, direct debit and an understanding of UK data protection legislation and fundraising best practice. 

Other features relevant to some charities

Every charity is different but here is a list of other considerations that might help you shape your list of requirements:

  • Event booking. There are various event booking platforms available but how will this information be tracked in your charity CRM?
  • Memberships. If membership is part of your operating model is there scope to automate this process so that you save admin time currently spent sending out renewal invoices? 
  • Grant writing. Is grant writing a big part of your charity? For small charities this is often managed pretty easily through a spreadsheet but once you start to have 100+ grant applications on the go and multiple people working on each then more advanced systems may be required.  


6 November 2017
Owen Roseblade