The Database Matrix - Part 2

Why Use a Database Anyway?

I just got a new e-book about how to measure success. The email promo for the book professed that “the best run service companies know how to measure success. The first step is understanding the data that is driving your business.” This is wholly true for non-profits as well--and your database will help you get there.


Setting up your database for success starts with your theory of change. An engagement-based theory of change may read something like this: if 10,000 people in our community support (in name, as donors and as volunteers) our efforts for monitoring local water quality, then we will be able to effectively measure the health of all our local waters and advance efforts to eliminate threats because we need community members to help us understand and take action for the health of our waters.

In this theory of change, we have embedded assumptions, for example, that engaging 10,000 people will lead to specific outcomes. Often, we base the whole of our work on assumptions about what we think will be effective in addressing any given issue. We certainly could be more confident in our work if we had some evidence that our assumptions are accurate. Fortunately, databases can help us to validate assumptions such as the one above, for example by tracking our supporters and their level of engagement with our organization’s work. Using the above example of a goal of 10,000 people engaged, a database would allow us to track this number at its aggregate level, i.e. the total number of people engaged.  But it also allows us to break down that number in a variety of different ways-- for example, how many of that 10,000 have donated to our organization, how many have signed a petition, how many are volunteers supporting on-the-ground activities et cetera. We can then start to test whether our theory of change holds true. Are we really achieving the change we want to see and are our engagement activities supporting that change?

Let’s walk through this again, with a practical example. The Canadian Freshwater Alliance is currently running a campaign in BC to strengthen the implementation of the new Water Sustainability Act. Our theory of change for the initiative is: if we engage 10,000 British Columbians to support stronger freshwater protections in the province, then we will get an Act that is better equipped to protect freshwater systems, adequately resourced and effectively implemented.  We believe this will happen because government is responsive to its constituency, and is more likely to prioritize spending and allocate resources to the issues that  are most important to the residents of the province--and we think that 10,000 British Columbians is a “critical mass” of constituents that can elevate freshwater protection as a top issue of government. Similar to our fictitious example above, the engagement assumption in this theory of change is the 10,000 person tipping point.

But how do we know if 10,000 is enough? We test it.

Back to that email I got in my inbox: the best run non-profits know how to measure success and the first step is understanding the data that is driving our engagement.  

So, what does all this have to do with a good database again? Your database can, at any given moment, tell you:

  • how many people you have engaged;

  • how deeply you have engaged them; and

  • What strategies have worked best to engage them.

This information alongside an analysis of impact of that engagement (e.g. did we get the change we were looking for?) enables you to test the assumptions of your engagement programs, learn from them (it’s not often just numbers but strategies) and in many cases revise them. For example, maybe we engaged 10,000 people, but are still not getting the change we want to see. Or, maybe we got the change we wanted to see with less people engaged? Both of these outcomes merit reflection and analysis about what happened and why, and from there we can revise our strategies accordingly.

Therefore, a good database helps you to foster relationships with an increasing number of people and engage those people in ways that make sense for them. A good database will also allow you track the impact of that engagement, as it relates to your overall theory of change.

Now that we’ve explored the need and value of a good database, Parts 3 and 4 of this series will begin to explore how you go about choosing the right one for you?


The Database Matrix Series 

Part 1 - The Database Matrix

Part 2 - Why use a database anyway?

Part 3 - 5-Steps for choosing your new supporter database

Part 4 - Before deciding on a new database...

Part 5 - Setting up for success: integration, staff buy-in, training.

Part 6 - But we are volunteer run with little capacity - what do we do?

Part 7 - Your database and communication workflows