Client Management and Outcomes Tracking Databases

Client Management and Outcomes Tracking DatabasesWhen your nonprofit works directly with clients, it can be difficult to figure out exactly how your organization is helping, and which resources you're providing are the most valuable. A nonprofit might provide a young adult with access to an after-school program, life skills training, drug abuse prevention, and mental health counseling services. When that young adult succeeds in life, enrolls in college, and lives independently, how do you know which services made the biggest impact?


Difficult as it may be, quantifying how your organization's programs and services impact the community you serve is one of a nonprofit's most important and challenging tasks. Nonprofits want to invest their limited resources in the programs and services that are most successful, and funders and supporters want to know the impact of their investments.

It can be a struggle to provide proof of your impact on individuals, children, and families in the form of numbers, analysis, and evaluation. But when technology is used as an integral part of service delivery, it can help address some of these challenges and even uncover new opportunities.

Databases to the Rescue

Client management and outcomes tracking databases can help nonprofit organizations and funders achieve maximum effectiveness with limited resources. In the best cases, these tools increase service capacity and improve program effectiveness so that nonprofits can better support those they serve and better understand and quantify their impact.

Such databases take many forms -- from a homegrown Access database to a Web-based data system. The databases go by many names, but their purpose is the same: They allow organizations to enter and track client information needed to maintain client relationships and offer appropriate services. They help collect client contact information, demographic data, and track what services they have received. Some databases even allow organizations to track progress towards specific goals. Once information is entered, it is stored centrally so that other staff members can access it. A good client management database can help nonprofit organizations:

  • Capture information consistently and effectively. Software applications that record information in a database make data capture more useful and efficient. Staff can be required to complete specific tasks when entering data, assuring that critical service and client information is always there.
  • Assist in the analysis of capacity, effort, and program effectiveness. Because the information is in electronic form, it can help provide an in-depth understanding of what is working and what is not. The ability to view and manipulate information in different ways gives organizations tools to help direct their efforts where they will do the most good.

Think Before You Implement

Like all strategic technology solutions, the successful selection and implementation of client management and outcomes tracking databases depends on judicious and thorough planning. Without it you could select the wrong tool for your organization's needs, waste valuable staff time, run over your allotted budget, and simply fail, leaving the new database unused by staff in your organization.

But by using thoughtful strategies, understanding data management practices in your office, and choosing the right technology solution, you can implement a database that really helps you deliver services and demonstrate results to your community and funders.

Following are some common challenges that nonprofits face when designing, purchasing, and implementing a database. Whether you are designing a database for your own needs or working with a consortium to create a joint solution, pay attention to these technological and organizational challenges in the initial planning stages of the process, and you'll be in a better position to address them.

The Change Factor

The success of the new database includes human components. When you implement a tool that is deeply integrated with the way your organization delivers services, you're making a cultural change. Take time to include staff who will be using the database in order to develop buy-in and set appropriate expectations.


  • Give yourself time to deal with the complexity of changing fundamental processes, so change can happen at an appropriate pace.
  • Determine a timeline that takes into account staff resources, organization activities, and staff holidays and vacations.
  • Provide adequate resources for the planning and implementation process; include a project coordinator, dedicated time from frontline staff and managers, funding resources, technical knowledge, and ongoing system support.
  • Leave plenty of time for testing the new database and receiving feedback from users.
  • Assess the current level of computer literacy among staff as well as their ability and interest in learning. The learning curve may be steep, especially if transitioning from paper-based systems.

Leadership Involvement

Don't leave the database planning and implementation solely to the technically-minded staff. For success, you'll need the active support of organization leaders, management, and the board of directors. They'll need to lead, communicate, train, motivate, and support employees to ensure they're involved in the process and are actively learning the new database -- and perhaps a new way of doing their daily jobs.


  • Help your organization meet uncertainty by promoting an interest in growth. By remaining confident about the organization's ability to adapt to changing pressures, leaders can approach the necessary conversations with an optimistic, learning-oriented perspective.
  • Help articulate and clarify your organizational strengths and weaknesses -- an understanding of both is important when assessing your current service delivery methods and creating your ideal ones (see "Defining Your Needs" below).
  • Once you've made a foundation for the process, it is not necessary for leaders to attend every meeting. But have someone create summaries of meetings that outline discussion points and action items, so that leaders have a clear view of the progress.

Stabilizing Technology Infrastructure

Before you implement client management and outcomes tracking databases, you need to make sure your organization has a stable foundation in technology. Whether you support a database internally or choose a Web-based program hosted elsewhere, you'll need to have some technology requirements in place first. Of course, each option will have its own requirements, but there are basic needs you should plan on addressing for any solution.


  • For Web-hosted solutions, you will need Internet connectivity that is fast enough to allow users to access information quickly.
  • If you are using a desktop solution, you will need to have a server for sharing access to the database so that multiple users can enter and retrieve information simultaneously.
  • Protect yourself from information loss by having a data back-up method in place, and ensure that it is being used on a regular basis. If your solution is hosted externally, be sure they have an adequate back-up policy.
  • Server-side virus protection software must be installed and updated on a regular basis.
  • Individual PCs should have adequate system resources, such as the appropriate operating system, processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory capability.

Defining Your Needs

Identify what you need the database to do. This process is not simple and will most likely be the lengthiest part of the planning process. A new database that is embedded in your daily activities will inevitably change the workflow in your organization, so make sure that those changes are guided by your ideal process for how information should flow through your organization, not by the functionality of the software you happen to choose. In order to do this successfully, review your workflow processes, and look for opportunities to promote productive and effective service delivery. You will need to create a detailed model of your ideal service delivery workflow processes in order to know what the functional requirements of the new database will be. For an example of a service delivery workflow model, see Creating a Service Delivery Flowchart .


  • Identify the data you need -- including the data you're already gathering and the data you aren't yet collecting.
  • Solicit input from your staff to determine practical data needs for both staff and management.
  • Think about reporting requirements for your board, funders, or other external stakeholders.
  • Is there additional data needed for internal evaluation? What are your measures for success as an organization?
  • Avoid the desire to collect everything -- that will be burdensome to staff and your clients. Try to agree on the minimum data you can collect that will meet your needs and your reporting needs; you can always build on the data you are collecting later.
  • Prioritize your list by placing each desired component into one of three categories: Non-Negotiable, Value-Added But Not Imperative, and Luxury.

Planning for Future Needs

Organizations often implement new technology solutions to address a specific problem or operational need, such as automating client intake forms or providing a registration system for a training program. This can be a very useful starting point that helps you avoid being overwhelmed by trying to solve all your problems and fulfill all possible needs at once. At the same time, you do not want to select a solution that is too specific and won't accommodate future service needs.


  • The database should be flexible enough to accommodate new data elements.
  • Make sure you understand the costs to customize and grow a database.
  • During the planning process, considering brainstorming what you think your data needs will be in three years.

Involving All Stakeholders

Client management and outcomes tracking should help your front-line and managerial staff in their daily activities. Engage users early in the planning process -- they know what they do on a daily basis better than anyone else, and their involvement will lead to accurate workflow information, buy-in, and investment in the end product.


  • Select a project leader who has a comprehensive understanding of your organization's workflow, programs, and data needs.
  • Identify the key staff members who will participate in each phase of the project meetings. Some staff members may play a role in the entire lifecycle of the project, others may be selected for the planning, but not the data management phase.
  • Be sure to have somebody with technical knowledge involved in the decision-making process.

Training and On-Going Support

It is essential to integrate training into your implementation plan. If staff are inadequately prepared, uncomfortable, or lack confidence in the end product, you risk having inappropriate data entered into the database or facing a lack of understanding about how to extract data. In addition to training users on the areas of the database they use regularly, make sure staff understand the whole process. It can be helpful to see the big picture, such as how data elements entered by front-line staff lead to aggregated data reported to funders.


  • Identify who will conduct the training. Will it be lead by staff, a software vendor, or a consultant? Training through the vendor might seem expensive, but not using the full functionality of a robust client tracking and outcomes management database is a waste of money.
  • During the first phase of staff use, provide additional on-site support and coaching for users even if they have had training.
  • Check on the quality of the data going into the database on a regular basis.
  • Provide user manuals and database documentation.
  • Identify power users who receive regular training on the database who can help support other users.

Abstracting Useful Information

Don't lose sight of how data entered into the database will be used. You may wish to generate reports or calculations for providing outcome measurements to funders, create internal analysis of service usage, or aid in compiling information for quarterly board reports.


  • Identify needed reports -- those that exist and those that do not yet.
  • Make sure you are tracking or will be tracking the data needed to populate reports.
  • Prioritize your needs. Custom reports and calculations can save a lot of time. If you find yourself spending time manually calculating something, move that to the top of the list.
  • If selecting hosted or proprietary software, be sure the software vendor is able to create custom reports for an affordable amount of money.
  • Check for a flexible query or reporting tool that allows you to download data to Excel. This will allow you to conduct your own data analysis and create ad-hoc reports.
  • Review the canned reports already in the database -- the report you need may already be there.

Selecting the Right Vendor

Guided by your prioritized list of functional requirements, research and identify potential software packages. Then ask the vendor for a product demonstration. Stay focused on the essential features you have identified, and use a scorecard to assess where each product excels or falls short. For an example of how to evaluate software, download a sample functionality scorecard that was created for a human services organization. You may also want to do a Request for Proposal (RFP), and solicit a number of bids based on your functional requirements. An RFP is an organized way to get multiple bids written to your specifications. For an example of an RFP that was developed for a Web site project, download our Sample RFP .


  • Be sure the solution will meet you requirements and will grow with your organization.
  • Know all the costs -- one-time and on-going.
  • Compare total cost (implementation, training, maintenance, customization cost) of a homegrown solution to off-the-shelf products.
  • Check references. Talk to other nonprofit organizations and ask them about the database's problems and benefits. Also ask about the vendor experience during the implementation and on-going support phases.

Ensuring the Database Meets Your Needs

Once you find a package and vendor that looks like an excellent choice, pilot the database with a small user group of your employees. If the pilot project meets with your satisfaction, consider implementing the full database in stages. Introduce it on a program-by-program basis; it will reduce the stress of your entire organization being upended at the same time.


  • Before you start, develop a detailed set of evaluation criteria so you will know what constitutes success or failure during the pilot phase.
  • Create a learning environment by encouraging the pilot users to make mistakes; it will help you know what training needs to address when you roll out the database organization-wide.
  • If the pilot phase is successful, contract with consultants to provide data conversion, report writing, documentation, and training if you do not have enough staff time to do it well.
  • Ensure that the project lead or other dedicated staff member will serve as the database administrator; the administrator will be able to offer quality control for data and provide additional database knowledge to staff. This will decrease errors in the database and lower the cost for additional vendor support.

There's More to Life than Numbers

Numbers don't tell the whole story. There's a personal and unique story about every human being a nonprofit organization comes in contact with, whether it is a teen who is placed in a workforce development program or a child in need of math tutoring. In our efforts to do our best to effectively serve more and more youth, the numbers may not tell the background stories -- how it may not have been in the best interest of one client to place her in a particular job situation due to her unique family situation, or how it may not have been right to place a child in a certain after-school program. Nonprofits still have to make judgment calls about individual people every day.

Develop your relationships with your funders, government regulators, and other nonprofits doing similar work, and have discussions about what true mission-driven success means.

This article was authored by the NPower Network. Special thanks to Gala Barnes of NPower DC Region, Stacey Chen of NPower NY, and Shawn Michael of NPower Oregon, a program of TACS , for the information in this article.

This article was supported by a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation .


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NPower is a national network of independent, locally based nonprofits that provide high-quality, unbiased, affordable and appropriate technology assistance to other nonprofits.


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