Getting External Software to Play Nicely with Your Donor Database


Increasingly, there are tons of specialized software tools that nonprofits use in addition to their primary donor database, like auction, email or volunteer management software. Are you trying to decide whether to adopt a third-party tool and get it to play nicely with your donor database? Read on for some tips to make your software play nicely.

Because it’s become easier than every before to integrate multiple data systems, there’s been a huge shift in the conversation about databases. In the recent past, a lot of organizations were looking for an enterprise system that would meet all their needs. Many now are moving to a data management “ecosystem” model – that is, various data systems that interact with one another. This is sometimes called a “best of breed” approach, reflecting the idea that you should choose the best data system for a specific functional task, rather than trying to find one system to rule them all.


Integration methods

·         Direct integration
Some donor databases have integration with external systems baked directly into them. This is very common with email and online giving applications. This is generally done via an API (Application Programming Interface).

·         App plugins
More and more donor databases are offering third-party integrations available as a plugin for your database, often through a searchable marketplace. This is also an API situation.

·         Third-party integration apps
There are new integration apps available that allow you to connect various data sources yourself (again with the magic of APIs). Check out Zapier for a great example of this. Some donor databases will allow you to use this kind of application, whereas others are not set up to handle this.

·         Import/export
While an API is nice, it’s not always necessary. Depending on how frequently you need to transfer data, this is often a great solution.

·         Manual data entry
This should be your choice of last resort. Manual data entry is time-consuming, and more likely to introduce errors into your data.


Which method is best for me?

Choosing how to integrate data will depend on three factors: frequency of data transfer, availability of integration tools, and technical savvy.


1)    Frequency

Frequency is a critical factor. If you have one auction event per year and you use an external auction management system, it’s probably not incredibly important for this system to be directly integrated with your donor database. An import will do. On the other hand, if you have a robust email communication program, you’d be best served by having this system communicate directly with your database. Ditto for online giving. When data needs to move frequently between systems, it will save staff time and increase accuracy for those systems to have a direct connection via API.


2)    Availability of tools

When you are shopping for third-party software, take into consideration with which third-party applications, if any, your database integrates.  In turn, if you are selecting a new donor database, consider which third-party tools you are using (and liking) and whether your new database will integrate with those tools. If you envision yourself building a robust data ecosystem, then ask prospective database vendors about how open their API access is to third-party developers.

That said, it is not worth using a poor-quality tool just for the benefits of integration. The most important things to consider are how the tool will affect your donors, and how usable/useful the tool is for managing your data. It may be worth using a more time-consuming data import process for a noticeable gain in donor stewardship or productivity in other areas.


3)    Technical savvy

Integrating data systems takes some technical savvy, and strong organizational skills. Take advantage of your vendor training and support when you are configuring an integration or learning how to use your import tool.

If you don’t have the technical savvy you need on staff, this is a place where an external consultant can come in handy to help you set up integrations, or to handle semi-annual data imports. Ideally, hire a consultant who can not only perform data imports, but teach one of your team members to confidently import data as well.


If you’d like to learn more about integrating third party software with your donor database, check out Volunteers and Events: Managing Engagement, from Fundraising Nerd’s Make Your Donor Data Work webinar series.

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