Simple database options for non-profit
April 22, 2014 11:43 AM   Subscribe

My organization is currently using a very bloated Excel spreadsheet to track a bunch of data about our clients. I'd like to build us a really simple database with a nice form input to make it easier for staff to enter all of the information we need to track, but I'm not sure what my options are for software.

I've built something similar for an organization I volunteer with, using Access, and that worked really well. I am by no means a computer whiz, so I need something no more complicated than Access or Filemaker (which I'm also familiar with), or at least with excellent tutorials available if it is more complicated!

We're running Windows 7 (on PCs) in our office, and we would need at least 3 staff to have access to it, though ideally it would be something everyone could access (about 12 people) - which makes Microsoft Access not the best option since I'd need to buy individual licenses, apparently.

So, what exists out there for simple, relatively easy-to-use, database software, for a small organization tracking data for not many clients, but with quite a few fields for each? I do have some budget for this, but not a whole lot.
posted by sabotagerabbit to Technology (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Zoho is a free option though it might not have enough custom fields. My organization uses Neon which isn't horribly expensive and has basically unlimited fields.

Best option is to take a sample of your data set and take advantage of free trial offers based on the recommendations you get here. It's hard to know what will work best for your specific data without trying things on for size.
posted by cessair at 11:47 AM on April 22, 2014

Filemaker is really perfect for this. You can either share it off one of your existing workstations, or buy Filemaker Server if you want to be able to scale it up and access it remotely.
posted by odinsdream at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Filemaker is a great solution for your exact needs. I'm pretty sure they have a windows version.
posted by brorfred at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2014

If you're already using Excel, you might already have a license for a version of Office that includes Access - but maybe it just wasn't installed with the others because nobody thought they needed it.

If not - you can get licenses for your non-profit's computers for the latest version of Office very cheaply through
posted by trivia genius at 11:50 AM on April 22, 2014

Have you considered Google Spreadsheets?

You can import existing MS Excel spreadsheets, publish or share or embed your data on an existing website, set different levels of view/edit rights, and even edit them offline (as part of Google Drive).

For data entry, you can update them directly, or you can create linked forms to facilitate input.

It's free unless you want some very advanced features.
posted by rada at 12:22 PM on April 22, 2014

Does this need to be a custom solution? There are plenty of CRMs out there - perhaps one can be made to work for your use case? You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Most non-profits that I'm familiar with moved away from Access or similar many years ago.

If you provide some further details about your needs, people could probably help better.
posted by ssg at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2014

Thanks for the input so far. I didn't realize that there was a Windows version of Filemaker; I'll definitely look into that.

SSG, without being too specific: we're an independent healthcare facility, and we track a wide range of data on our clients including when they register with our facility, when they come for a tour (and when we contact them), and then lots of stuff for when they're actually here - information about the type of care they receive etc. (sorry for being vague!). There are not a lot of organizations like ours, so I'm not sure there is an existing CRM that would work, but I'm certainly open to that idea.
posted by sabotagerabbit at 12:45 PM on April 22, 2014

You could give LibreOffice Base a whirl. Tutorials abound.
posted by flabdablet at 12:45 PM on April 22, 2014

Oh, and we unfortunately do not already have Access, according to our IT company.
posted by sabotagerabbit at 12:45 PM on April 22, 2014

You imply, but don't say, that the users need to access the data concurrently.

If they do not because each user has their 'own' data, then give each user their own spreadsheet and devise a collation process for when you want an overall view.

If they do, then neither Excel or Access is suitable and Filemaker requires a special and, I assume, very expensive server license.

The tricky problem with this kind of system is what to do if two users are looking at the same item and one of them makes changes. How does the other see the changes? What if the other user is also trying to make changes of their own?
posted by epo at 1:32 PM on April 22, 2014

If they do, then neither Excel or Access is suitable and Filemaker requires a special and, I assume, very expensive server license.

The workstation license allows for concurrent record editing just fine.
posted by odinsdream at 1:39 PM on April 22, 2014

The workstation license allows for concurrent record editing just fine.

I stand corrected, I hope their software is better then their website.
posted by epo at 1:52 PM on April 22, 2014

"information about the type of care they receive etc. (sorry for being vague!)"

General CRM probably won't work due to HIPAA then?
posted by isauteikisa at 2:05 PM on April 22, 2014

epo, no, we don't need to have multiple users accessing the data at once - I just need to have it available on multiple workstations.

isauteikisa, I'm in Canada so the laws are a bit different, but yes, it needs to be relatively secure (bearing in mind we currently have it in Excel, so...).
posted by sabotagerabbit at 2:59 PM on April 22, 2014

Weird but possibly useful solution: I've used Surveymonkey for data entry purposes before. Convenient because it is web-based so data from different machines all goes to one place. It can be downloaded into Excel.
posted by metasarah at 8:11 PM on April 22, 2014

If you find you already have professional versions of Microsoft Office, you'll already have InfoPath, which is a great way to collect and review information. It's like how a multi user Access should have been.
posted by ambrosen at 10:03 PM on April 22, 2014

If there is no concurrency conflict then why exactly do you want to change? A big Excel spreadsheet is unwieldy but that can be re-organized into tabs. Is data entry the issue or is it lookups? Which is the more common task?

Any change is going to involve work so you might as well get it right. Because of privacy you must keep the data in house so a browser based solution accessing an internal database seems to me to be the most promising next step. I have had great success putting databases on the web using this but there is development effort and a learning curve to go through.
posted by epo at 2:03 AM on April 23, 2014

I highly recommend the Filemaker option. Another way to use Filemaker that people don't always consider, is to house the data on a server in a mysql database and through ODBC connections use Filemaker as a front-end/GUI to access, sort, and export the data. The filemaker file is stored on a local server, or synced to the cloud via something like Dropbox so its always up to date for everyone.

This option lets you access the data via Filemaker from anywhere without needing to pay for Filemaker server.

The downside is having to install mysql drivers and ODBC connections on each machine, and your server may or may not allow remote connections (or require you to whitelist the IP address).

The benefits of this option are that the database is in a very common, easily backed up, and easily exported/transferable format. You can also build very simple web apps to make use of the data or incorporate it into existing websites.
posted by alhadro at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2014

Thanks all. I'm going to look more into the Filemaker option, I think. epo, both data entry and lookup are issues, and I think a form set-up is going to be a lot easier for our team to use.
posted by sabotagerabbit at 12:26 PM on April 23, 2014

Do have a serious look at LibreOffice Base. It can do pretty much everything Access can, though the documentation is awful by comparison; if you've worked with Access before, and you're patient, you will eventually be able to build what you need with Base.

Like Access, Base defaults to using an embedded local database engine (HSQLDB) and can move from there to just being used as a front end for a more capable shared back end should that be required.

Unlike Access, every component that will ever be required to do any of that is free software.

This project will undoubtedly experience scope creep, and it also won't be the only IT project your organization ever gets you to build. If you do this one with free software, and gain the familiarity with the capabilities of that software that this will give you, then you could easily end up saving your org tens of thousands of dollars in licences and associated administration costs.
posted by flabdablet at 11:01 PM on April 24, 2014

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