Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Is There Any Need to Develop Bespoke Database Applications anymore?

I was interested to see a recent article on ComputerWorld which detailed how the charity, Freedom from Torture has developed a bespoke case management system because they couldn't find an off-the-shelf system which was suitable for their needs.

Now, I of course have no knowledge of the charity's requirements, so it might well be the case that they did need to develop their own system and it sounds as though they have ended up with a good solution for their needs.

But what is interesting is that, for database applications such as this, the bespoke approach is becoming a rare occurrence these days, primarily because of the flexibility, adaptability and affordability of many "generic" CRM systems which are now available to charities and NFPs.

The rise of the CRM system
I have discussed before on this blog how systems such as Salesforce, Microsoft CRM Dynamics, SugarCRM, civiCRM and others are all great solutions which, although they have their roots in sales and contact management from years ago, have progressed way beyond that now and have been enthusiastically embraced by the nonprofit sector worldwide (and by other vertical sectors too) because they can be adapted to so many requirements which are essentially based around contact management - but of course can provide so much more around that, be it fundraising and income, membership, volunteer management, case management and so on.

This is the case for large NFPs such as Barnardo's and the Alzheimers Society, who are both implementing Salesforce for their 'cause related' database, and there are many, many small charities who are using all these systems for all sorts of applications and requirements. And just recently, I was talking with a senior manager of another large UK charity who are considering using one of the above CRM systems for their entire volunteer management because it will be so much easier to do than write one from scratch - and that will support part of their core work.

There are also many examples of companies who have developed 'templates' for various charity requirements on these CRM systems - and I know of at least two companies (HomelessLink and Vera Solutions) who have developed case management systems based on the Salesforce platform.

The Probable Decline of Bespoke Database Developments...
So whilst I appreciate that bespoke database solutions are not going to disappear overnight, and there may be good reasons and occasions when they could be right to use - and I am sure that there will still be thousands of Microsoft Access implementations in the sector for years to come - I would still almost always at least consider first if a charity could use a generic CRM system as the benefits are so great: speed of implementation, flexibility, third-party apps and tools, reporting, email integration are just a few which immediately spring to mind; plus, importantly, a better chance of future-proofing (and future enhancements) and, of course the bottom line, they can very well be more cost-effective.