Is Your Data System Free….Like a Puppy?

Posted on November 16, 2021 | in Data Management And Databases | by Taj Carson

We all love free stuff.

Free lunch.

Free as a bird.

Free for all!

Free throws (ok, that one is stress-inducing).

We especially love free stuff in the nonprofit sector because we know how to do more with what we have. We’re also used to getting things for free, whether through donations or volunteers giving us their time.

(Let me pause here and ask though, have you ever spent 20 hours trying to explain to a volunteer how to use your database? You know that all of a sudden, free can get pretty pricey.)

If you don’t have a clear vision for your data, using free software can be more costly than the paid system you initially considered and decided against. You need to take into account all the short and long-term costs of your data management system to free yourself from headaches down the road.

Why do we EXPECT things to be free?

Let’s walk this issue back for a moment. Facebook is free, right? So is Google. The thing is, it isn’t. We trade our personal information to use these services. They add value to our everyday lives. But they also train us to expect something for nothing. And when it becomes clear that Google and Facebook are using our personal information to make money off us (that exchange is not transparent) we get upset.

I’m going to pin some of this, believe it or not, on venture capitalism. Since the late 1990s, when the startup movement took off, companies have been able to offer things for free or less than they cost in order to build a customer base. Bootstrapped companies can’t do this, by the way. Only funded companies, like Twitter, Uber and Lyft are able to go years without turning a profit.. Because of this shift in how businesses are run, and since we’re not directly selling our data to advertisers, we’ve become used to not paying for software.

We’ve gotten used to having “free” data systems. I can’t tell you how many times we are asked to recommend free data systems. After working with nonprofits for 20 years, I have a great respect for the ability to stretch a dollar and accomplish amazing things with limited resources. But I’ve also become painfully aware that sometimes a data system is free… like a puppy. While you might be able to get software (or a limited version of it) for nothing, hidden costs sneak up on you. And once your data is in the system, you are stuck with a rescue puppy that digs up your prized roses. Week after week.

You might use a free or low-cost data system and have to hire staff to manage it, sometimes even full time. This is expensive and stressful for the unintentional data analysts who have to run the system—especially when it’s not what they were hired or trained to do.

Or you may have to hire consultants to migrate your data, manage the set up, and get you out of tight spots. This is also stressful, leads to unexpected expenses, and can lead to a last minute scramble to find someone to get your “free system” to work (usually right as you are preparing for a board meeting!)

Sometimes a free system means your needs are not fully met, or your data is siloed, or in “data jail” (and good luck getting it sprung). You’ve invested lots of time, possibly money paid to consultants, and you STILL can’t get the reports you need.

You may think something is free. But it’s imperative to consider ALL the costs of a free program. We love to help people find and get the most out of free tools like Excel, AirTable and Google Apps. But we want to make sure the free choice is the right one for you. Or when it’s free like a puppy.

Getting the Right System Means Your Costs (including staff time) Are Predictable and You Get What You Need

You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a forever data system. But you also don’t want to rescue a puppy from the shelter only to find out they need a $10,000 operation to survive.

What you want to do is make sure you really understand your needs, and what breed of system you need. Then you can know exactly what kind of investments you want to make, can make, and should make.

What’s the solution? Ask three questions. You will get the right fit, and no surprises. This applies to both free, low cost systems, and high end systems. (But especially to free and low cost systems.)

So let’s look at the three things you need to ask to figure out if your system is really free, or free like a puppy. And I’ll address how to deal with it.


ASK: What will it cost me annually?

I want to help you think about the cost of your system, beyond a licensing fee– know what your organization can afford monthly and yearly, for EVERYTHING. That includes licenses, but also customer support , consultants AND staff time. (No surprises.) We had a client with a full service data management system who also had to hire us to export their data and run it through a separate tool to create their reports because they couldn’t get them out of their data system. We want you to avoid exactly this type of unexpected cost.

Excel, a low-cost data management system we love, is a good example of a system that can take unseen tolls on those who use it.

I recently had a client who spent one month a YEAR wrangling Excel sheets to get the reports she needed. Think carefully about how much time you spend entering data, validating it, and (this is crucial!) combining spreadsheets to get the numbers you need. If it’s more than a few hours a week, Excel is not free. That may be fine if you already have a data analyst on board. But if your Director of Development is messing around with spreadsheets instead of developing relationships with donors, you need to rethink the opportunity cost of this free tool.

What about higher end systems? The obvious example that comes to mind is Salesforce. People think it’s free because the license is free. But that’s just the first ten user licenses. Then there’s the cost of getting it to do what you want. A basic build in Salesforce can cost you $10,000 to $50,000 plus in consulting fees Then there’s also the cost of training staff as administrators.

And don’t forget about customer support. Make sure you find out what the costs to support for your “free” data system.

DO: Create an Impact Blueprint

- Figure out what data you collect, where it all lives, and what your high priority data is (and for whom). Ask stakeholders what data they are using and how.

This will help you finally see how to link multiple systems and deliver the exact information your team needs. You will have a clear blueprint that you can share with others in your organization to get clear and accurate quotes from vendors, or to give to your internal staff for an in-house build. Creating an Impact Blueprint will ensure you get the right solution, built the right way, for the right price, (whatever that price is).

We recently worked with a county government agency shopping for a vendor system for their data. They were starting from scratch, which gave them lots of options. They came to us to ask about our system, Incite, and we worked with them to do an Impact Blueprint. While they didn’t have the budget for a fully supported system like ours, instead we were able to build them a system in AirTable. They used a free tool, but one carefully constructed by experts, and mapped their data based on their past, present and future needs. Though they had some resources to spend on data management that year, very little was budgeted for later years. Had they gone with a high-end, fully hosted vendor system, their original instinct, they would have been in a pickle later. Especially if they needed to do the messy work of bringing in consultants years later to support their chosen system.


ASK: What data do I need to analyze and report on? And how important is it?

Do you have 3 donor databases for your planned giving, digital marketing, and annual fund donors? Or run an afterschool program and have a spreadsheet for program attendance and a data dump on standardized test scores? Be clear on where your data are coming from and how you will need to bring it together.

DO: Create an Integration Plan

- Know what you need to pull together and from where. Map it out, document it, and identify the key data you might need to merge. This will reduce surprises halfway through the build, as well as once you get to the reporting stage.

When making this plan, collect details about the data you have and where it is located, and check the quality to make sure it’s consistent and accurate, so that it can be trusted.

How do you bring you data sets together? This addresses the structure of your data in each location, things like whether you have unique identifiers to connect systems (or sheets). It’s also a good time to assess the quality of your data.

  • For example, can I use the email in this CRM to connect to the conference database and see who has donated and attended our conference?
  • Are those emails clean and valid?

When we first met Janet, a successful fundraiser at a national nonprofit, she was struggling to see who was giving, when and how much they gave, and what moved clients from asking for information to making a gift.

She kept getting questions from the board like “Do people who make a request for information end up putting us in their will?” And “Are we sending the same people direct mail pieces and emails?” And she had no answers, making it look like she didn’t know what she was doing. Her boss expected her to target fundraising efforts with data. But because the data was in multiple systems, she struggled with even obvious questions and was embarrassed when answering her boss. After a particularly humiliating board meeting, she met us. And it was good that she did.

We pulled all her data together and connected it, using a data warehouse (though this can also be done with free tools like Excel and AirTable.) Once you know where all your data is, (because you mapped it out in your blueprint!), you can think strategically about bringing it together, whether through combining spreadsheets or merging it in a vendor system. Knowing how you need to combine your data in advance helps you choose the right options, and SET UP YOUR SYSTEM so you can always get what you need out of it.

For Janet, having everything in one place meant making better decisions, building better relationships with donors, and knowing when to move them along the pathway to giving more or even being included in a will. Now she answers whatever questions the board throws at her with confidence.

Speaking of reporting…


ASK: What Reports Do I Need and for What Purpose?

The biggest time suck we see is getting reports out of systems. That’s why you should figure out what reports you need, and where that data comes from in advance. Be very clear about exactly what it will take for someone (probably on your staff) to get the data out in the way you need it. Also be clear on what data you need from OTHER systems, like EdTrust or Salesforce.

  • Create an automation and reporting plan - Since you asked the key questions, you need a clear plan on what our reporting system needs to do. How much automation and integration is involved? What skills will staff need? What are your options?

We worked with a domestic violence agency that wanted to rebuild an Access database. They had 11 funders who all had different requirements. Before starting, we mapped out the funder reports they needed, in addition to key reports for their Director. Once the system was built, they had everything they needed. Before this, they would pull reports from Access and keep data in separate spreadsheets, a labor-intensive process.

It’s possible to use a free tool for data entry and storage, and another tool for reporting. You don’t have to do all or nothing. This can be an efficient way to use your budget to tackle the hardest part of the system (reports) and save money by using a free tool like Excel or AirTable for entering and storing data.

DO: Choose the Right Reporting Tool or Approach

After mapping out your reporting requirements, you want to choose a reporting tool that fits your budget, and of course, you take into account ALL the costs associated with it.

If you separate your data entry and management system from your reporting tool, you can make decisions on how to invest your time and money. Just like there are a lot of free data entry tools, like Google Forms and Excel, there are free options for reporting tools. Charts and graphs in Excel can be as effective as more expensive programs, like Tableau.

Things to look out for when you choose a reporting tool:

  • Does it require a developer to install?
  • Are there limits to the number of users?
  • How do I share reports with other people? And in what format?
  • How easy is it to learn?
  • What kind of documentation is needed to hand off reporting to a new staff person?

We’ve made reporting systems for nonprofits from free or low-cost tools like Google Data Studio and PowerBI. We could hand them off without any ongoing licensing fees, and our clients were able to update and maintain them with their internal staff. This required an understanding of the data as well as the tool but has worked well in the past. We’ve also used high-end tools like Tableau to build complex data pipelines and reports for organizations that had a license, staff who knew how to use the tool, and a need to share data within the organization or with funders using that system. Both options can work well.

No matter what reporting system you use, if the data behind it is well thought out, clean and complete, it will serve you well. Be clear about what expert help you might need, if any, and the skills your staff will need to keep it going. If you want to learn more about choosing a reporting tool, request our free guide here.


When you take into account ALL the costs of a system, including the license, cost of implementation and data migration, consulting help you might need, internal staff skills required, and what features you have to have, you can get a Goldilocks system that is the perfect fit for your organization.

Are you trying to choose a system and feeling overwhelmed?

Book a free consultation with us and we will help you decide!

We are tool agnostic, so we make it our job to know as much as we can about all the different options so organizations can choose the right one.

Taj Carson