Promoting the database revolution for philanthropy

Discussion about databases in the nonprofit sector usually centers around donor databases that empower the act of asking for money.  But the act of giving money has complex data flows of its own: grant applications, follow up information to seek, grantee reports, and more.

Consulting Within Reach has served the data needs of philanthropy in multiple projects, most recently supporting state of the art databases for Tipping Point Community and San Francisco School Alliance, two key philanthropic organizations in the area.

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These databases were customized implementations of one of the world's leading corporate database platforms, Salesforce. Salesforce is inarguably the most important database company to the nonprofit world as it has made its software available at no charge to small to mid size nonprofits. The product has captured a huge share of the nonprofit market in a short period of time.

Our experience in these and other successful projects has convinced us that the philanthropy world is hungry for new technology solutions.  We believe that as a broad generalization, the current state of database solutions for philanthropy has not kept pace with what is needed and what is possible.  Specifically, we feel that philanthropy is missing out on three revolutionary trends in computer technology that are benefiting other sectors.  Salesforce embodies those trends and offers a promising future for grant makers seeking to take the next step forward in their technology.

1.  Cloud computing 

Most grants management software requires installation on the foundation's computers.  This means either only one person can enter data on one computer or the foundation must maintain its own server network for multiple staff.  Either way, staff are tied to working only on computers that have the software installed.  Software updates are released infrequently as companies have to physically deliver them to customers.  Technical support is weak because experts cannot easily come on site to look into the database.

cloud computingThe Salesforce database is the leader in the cloud computing paradigm that solves all of those issues. It provides software located on the provider's servers, enables staff to work anywhere they have internet connection (there is even an excellent app for Salesforce on the iPhone and Android), is constantly updated by the provider automatically, and technical support can (with permission) peer under the hood immediately. Sidenote:a small startup project called Fluxx has emerged in the grants management space and uses the cloud computing paradigm; we're keeping an eye on how it progresses.

2.  Customization

The previous era of computing was marked by large software packages that set out standard workflows and expected custmers to adapt themselves to the software.  We believe too much of grants management software reflects this paradigm.  Our current era recognizes that the increasing complexity of the world means software must be the thing that adapts to individual workflows and needs. 

Salesforce is at the leading ege of this recognition and has built a platform that in the for profit world is being used by an incredible diversity of organizational types.  We have taken great pleasure in bringing that same customization to our clients in philanthropy.  The need for customization of workflows is especially keen when clients desire to integrate grants management with other organizational processes in one database.  For instance, Tipping Point and the San Francisco School Alliance are grant makers that raise money from corporations and individuals as well as make grants. The San Francisco School Alliance also provides HR support for its grantees and thus requires yet another kind of data.  Supporting this complexity means designing and integrating different workflows - which Salesforce allows with unprecedented flexibility for the small to mid-size organization.

3. App Ecosystems 

The slow pace of innovation in databases for philanthropy results partly from the small number of companies engaged in this space.  This means that the total universe of software developers hired to think about and build solutions for philanthropy could probably fit in a modest sized conference room. Under the old era of computing, innovations in software products for philanthropy could only emerge from that room.

In contrast, Salesforce has catalyzed an immense community of outside developers building solutions that augment the base product.  Many of these solutions are custom designed to solve niche markets.  Salesforce has accomplished this in the database market the same way that Apple did in the smartphone market: by making it easy for individual developers to build apps that run on the underlying platform.  Thus, one foundation can install an app to integrate their database with their Outlook contacts in a particular way; another can choose an app that connects grants with their Quickbooks system; a third can choose an app that puts a survey form on its website for impact reporting, analyzes the results, and then generates a dashboard for reporting to staff. 

These kinds of improvements and innovations are all quite possible for philanthropy today. Change is coming to the philanthropic sector, and Consulting Within Reach is honored to participate in this new wave of technological improvement.

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