Last week I took the train to New York City to attend a board meeting for a non-profit arts center I work with.  A lot of interesting things were discussed, but the one that stuck in my head was, “our database still stinks.”  That’s a Microsoft Access kludge I helped hack together maybe ten years ago.  They’re limping along with it, but everybody recognizes that it’s got big problems.

Back in Boston, doing a project for a similar organization, I saw it again, “our database sucks!” Another MS Access project half done half right.  I fixed a couple of small things, but the bigger issues will take some doing.  When somebody sets up a database using the wrong data type for some key fields, it’s pretty tricky to fix.

Two points determine a line.  Maybe this isn’t a trend, maybe it’s not even a market, but it sure looks like something to me.  Membership organizations of a certain size don’t seem to be very well served by the database software market.  Sure, they’re non-profit organizations, so they may be priced out of lots of solutions, but they do have money, and they have a need.  Markets abhor a vacuum, don’t they?

In the course of doing some work at Firstgiving, a for-profit company that serves non-profits by enabling them with online fundraising, I stumbled on some stats.  There are over 9,000 non-profit arts organizations in the US with annual revenues similar to those of the examples with which I started this post.  Looks a bit more like a market, doesn’t it?  Expand beyond arts organiztions to all kinds of NPOs at that revenue band, and there are 200,000 organizations.

If any enterprising software developers are tuned in, here’s a high-level spec for what I think these non-profit membership organizations need from their databases:

  • a contact management system that
  • handles members of various levels, lapsed/expired members, and prospects
  • tracks donations and gifts, and participation in various events
  • generates demographic and finacial reports
  • creates merged letters and emails on demand and on a schedule (such as renewal letters for expiring members)

This doesn’t sound too much like rocket surgery, does it?  I would venture to say that a hosted approach would further save the NPO customer money on hardware, backups, and perhaps most significantly, Microsoft Access licenses and consultants.  Charging per member might also be appealing, as these organizations derive as much as 30% of revenue from membership.

This must be out there somewhere already, right?  Send me a lifeline if you’ve seen it, or if you think you can build it.