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

There is no doubt that contact management systems are geared towards staffed organizations--or at the very least, organizations with capacity to manage systems. But there are affordable solutions (and even free solutions) that can offer the volunteer organization a better system for managing and engaging growing lists of supporters. Salesforce offers a free system for charitable organizations that will give you basic features for contacts management and engagement. MailChimp, designed to enable mass e-communications, has tools to help you organize your lists (segmenting) and measure how engaged your supporters are. Google Docs and other cloud-based tools can help you share contact spreadsheets with others in your organization, which can enable better workflow when it comes to engaging supporter bases.  

OneCowichan and Wellington Water Watchers are two grassroots initiatives that have chosen NationBuilder to support their engagement activities. Both organizations have part time staff but are run by teams of committed volunteers.  For Wellington Water Watchers, the adoption of the suite of tools offered by NationBuilder has taken some time. At first, they simply used it as a tool for tracking supporters, sending emails and collecting donations. In 2016, their campaign hit new heights as they won a significant victory in Ontario with a provincial commitment to review water taking policies in the province. The victory meant they had a two year window to build a supporter base that would be sufficient to both influence this review and become the first province to end water bottling practices altogether - the latter being their ultimate goal. They had to kick their engagement efforts to new levels.  NationBuilder proved to be an effective mechanism to undertake this work. They trained themselves and their key volunteers on how to use NationBuilder’s different tools, they began tracking engagement pathways, they explored using NationBuilder’s text messaging features to sustain engagement of their growing younger supporter base. After several years of only using the platform’s basic features, they were more readily able to capitalize on a period of growth customizing messages to supporters and better driving engagement of their growing list.

The Wellington Water Watchers example is one that offers an important lesson for other largely volunteer run organizations. It may seem like learning and adopting a database tool is a lot of effort. It may even seem like you are not using your tool to its utmost capacity. But, in building familiarity with a tool and getting your core team used to its functionality when the time comes to scale up, you are ready and not trying to adopt a new tool at this time.  

However, NationBuilder does take capacity to run, and for volunteer-based organizations, dedicating precious time to managing NationBuilder might not be the best allocation of resources. Fortunately, an increasing number of mass mailing systems have emerged as affordable - and sometimes even free - avenues for managing contacts. MailChimp offers some perks, such as allowing users to segment contacts according to specific criteria. It is also free up to 2000 emailable contacts. As an engagement tool, it quickly becomes limited as engagement efforts deepen. For example, as a database, it doesn’t allow you to track easy multiple points of engagement for any given contact, it’s limited in its ability to track donors nor is it designed to manage volunteer engagement and management.

A large number of groups still use Excel spreadsheets to manage, sort and organize contacts list. This has gotten easier with cloud computing as tools like Google Sheets that allow these sheets to be shared and managed by a number of people. Though maybe a workable solution for only a few hundred contacts, spreadsheets leave far too much room for error and often take more time and effort to manage than mass mailers like MailChimp. I strongly recommend that even the smallest groups who have supporters they want to communicate with should migrate to contacts solutions that will allow them to better track and manage supporters.


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