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Calendula: A Universal Fundraising Database Standard

Tracking the Dollars:

On Seeking a Universal Fundraising Database Standard

by Darryl Caldwell

Introduction

The goal of the Calendula project is to create a Free Software fundraising system available to nonprofits. The plan is to adhere to open standards so that the system will be accessible from any computer platform (Macintosh, Windows, Linux, etc.). This system will contain many of the essentials found in large proprietary software like DonorPerfect, Paradigm, and Raiser's Edge, all of which are quite expensive. With this project, organizations will have more control and the freedom to customize their databases without the being dependent on a particular vendor.

The Story Thus Far....

One of the most important pieces of software at work in most nonprofit organizations is the fundraising management system. This was true even before the current economic climate; it is an imperative now. Fundraising management systems in the form of specialized databases help NPOs track their donors, track their prospective donors, and help manage their events. Many charities, schools, and educational groups can't survive without healthy relationships with their supporters, a relationship made easier with this software.

The choice for today's NPO seeking to track their fundraising efforts is to purchase one of the proprietary systems, which can run from a few hundred dollars on the low end to $10k-$20k on the high. Those are dollars that could go toward a nonprofit's mission instead.

Computing costs have dropped drastically over the last 20 years, and the effects are such that computers and computing devices are everywhere. In contrast, proprietary software prices have gone up. So in the case of NPOs, some have $500 machines which would have cost 10x as much not long ago running software that now costs $15,000, not to mention the annual update and technical support costs.

If we look closer, there is another problem, one that has plagued personal computer users for years: compatibility. Each of these proprietary fundraising systems exists in its own ecosystem, and there isn't much dialog in between. Though the needs of fundraising professionals are pretty standard on the whole, each software system takes a different approach, and users of this software are beholden to each vendor to get up to speed.

In the world of the Free Software Foundation, the popular slogan is, 'Free as in Freedom.' Nonprofits can benefit from this idea. Here are some examples:

Sharing Across the Country (countries)

A popular public radio station uses a fundraising management system that they downloaded from the Internet. It is based on universal standards mandated by fundraising professionals around the world. However, Lindy, the development director, realizes after a while that it lacks a really important component that is unique to the type of fundraising they do. She brings this issue up with the staff. One intrepid staffer named Katie does a quick search on the Internet and notices that a public TV station in Seattle that uses the same universal fundraising system took the source code and had some volunteer programmers alter it to add the needed feature. They have made their enhancements available to the rest of the world. Katie downloads the enhanced software, and since it is based on the universal system, she is able to import their data over to the new database in less than an hour. Lindy and Katie run some test reports and are quite pleased. With a new appreciation for the power of this kind of sharing, they decide to share some ideas they have for further changes with the TV station in Seattle in a collaborative effort. The fun continues. Lindy has a friend named Diane, a fundraiser executive for a local food-bank, who could also benefit by this database. She sends Diane an email message and Diane's group is able to download this system as well and use it without fee or sharing restrictions.

This scenario doesn't exist in today's world, but change is on the horizon.

Changing Jobs/Databases

Like most fundraising professional Nick has stayed with an organization for only 4 years or less. Each time he moves there are costs to the organizations he serves in terms of their fundraising system. These are usually manifest in one of 3 possible ways:

1. Nick convinces the executive director and/or the board of the new organization to purchase the same fundraising system that Nick had in his old job because that is the one he is familiar with. With the new proprietary database there is a cost for the new license and for converting the current data over to the new database. There is a lot of time and money involved here. Or....

2. Nick convinces the new organization to pay for one to two weeks training to get him rolling on the learning curve to the existing fundraising system. Each of the proprietary fundraising system comes with its own traits, features, and characteristics. Nick has a pretty good idea what he wants to get out of the database; it's a matter of learning to get the system to do what he wants.

3. Nick rolls up his sleeves (or the sleeves of a hired consultant) to create his own system using a popular proprietary desktop database. At least this will be customized to his needs, but it also contains some drawbacks: the development time and costs, the limitations of the database vendor, and the database will be a "one off" -- a custom job that will serve Nick while he is employed there. His successor in a few years will have to deal with this, and the cycle starts all over again.

Bugs, Security, and Waiting on The Man

Leslie is in trouble. She is the Development Director for an AIDS organization in Chicago. She gets a call from her friend Sharon who is in charge of Major Gifts for a large university in Eastern Washington. Sharon tells her that she just got a reliable email message telling her that the proprietary fundraising system that she and Leslie use has a huge security hole in it. Leslie had noticed that the system was acting rather sluggish. She had rebooted the machine, which didn't seem the help. Leslie has a major fundraising campaign set to launch in two days and really doesn't want to have to deal with a software problem right now. From bad to worse, she gets an email message from her Internet Service Provider, informing her that there is an amazing amount of spam coming from her network, and if it is not stopped immediately, her account will be shut down. The situation gets still worse, the email message comes with an attached copy of the spam that is being sent out, and she realizes that it is donor and prospect records from her database. She desperately calls her vendor's tech support, the only people who can fix her database. In doing so, she learns that they are aware of the issue. The techs inform her that she can expect a fix within 72 hours; in turn, they are sorry for any inconvenience.

The Case for Open Standardization

"If I have seen farther than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." This quote is attributed to Sir. Isaac Newton, and it does an excellent job of setting the tone for the idea of open standardization. Nonprofits go farther by collaborating and contributing back to each other. Indeed, this is the spirit behind organizations like Spokane's INDC and King County's NDOA, which aim to pool resources and training among fundraising professionals.

Currently, there is not an organized standard on how a software fundraising system should operate. If the Internet operated in the same way as fundraising databases, it would be hard to send email or browse websites as freely as we do now. Each existing system is different; the skill-set to use them does not transfer from database to database.

If Nick had been trained on a universal standard, and if the nonprofit for which he works had adopted a database built on that standard, his transition to this job would have been a non issue. He would not have needed to spend any cycles on a learning curve nor would there have been an issue of getting something in that he is familiar with.

If Leslie had been using a Free Software fundraising system, she could expect a fix to her security hole a lot sooner, and the fix could come from anywhere, not just the original creators of the program. The fix could come from anyone in its user base. This is because the source code to the program is available to all. More eyeballs on the problem generally means less of a chance of crippling bugs and holes to sneak through, and those that do slip by get attention fast.

Lindy, Katie, and Diane are in the better position because of the freedoms that come with their software. With a nod to Sir Isaac, their relationship becomes less like a customer base for a particular product and more like scientists. They are free to share and build upon ideas.

What About Software Vendors: Or How Does Anyone Make Money With This?

"How can they make any money if they are just giving software away?" This is the first question asked about this kind of an endeavor, and the answer is through services just like those provided by scientists, lawyers, and doctors. Doctors freely share their knowledge and techniques with each other. Lawyers draw from the freely available techniques of other lawyers in the form of publicly available court cases. These professionals make their living by providing a service. Programmers can do the same, and there are many programmers doing just that. Some are hired to build certain free software tools, and they are paid for their efforts. The largest example of this are those IBM employees working with Linux and the Apache webserver. Others make their livings doing something else and offer their programming talents for free. Why? 1. It scratches an itch that they themselves have had. 2. Programmers enjoy the notoriety and acclaim given by their peers when they create something useful.

The example with Lindy above was of the second category, but if the free work of others was not available, she also had the option to hire a programmer herself and get her changes to the database made. Either way, she is still free to give copies of the finished product to anyone she wants.

We, The Development Directors, The Programmers...

In order to form the perfect software solution, there needs to be a perfect union of individuals, organizations, and groups up to the task. As mentioned, there are bodies of professional fundraisers around the country already set up to help facilitate each other with training and informative resources. The task at hand is to get their attention. Fortunately, the lackluster economy has put a lot of charities on notice. Many organizations are already scrambling for money, and the hint that their operational costs may be lowered might be enough to get them on board. Certainly, their supporters will want it.

Economic necessity alone won't get the word out. This idea needs a voice; I am doing that with this article, and I am working with the Free Software Foundation to create a free software fundraising database called Calendula. The Calendula project will consist of a database server and client software built with free tools. It will be built on the input of development directors everywhere. Anyone is free to join the discussion and contribute.

For more information, go to http://savannah.gnu.org/projects/calendula.

To join the mailing list, visit Calendula-devel.