In late 2009, towards the end of our third year of operation, ProBono.Org realised that it was managing its information in a fairly ad hoc and disorganised manner. The staff of the organisation was made up of lawyers and support staff, with no-one being particularly experienced in data management or information technology (IT). We had not anticipated this as being a problem, but the organisation grew and more information was being generated. We also came to understand that good information and statistics were imperative in our Advancement work. As such, we identified three forms of data that demanded better recording, management and utilisation. These were: the organisation’s contacts, its clients and cases, and its donors and supporters.

Managing contacts

ProBono.Org works with a wide and nuanced range of contacts, in a variety of sectors. We had made lists of contacts using e-mail address books, and were having enormous difficulty in updating and managing these lists. For instance:

  • Duplication of e-mails to the same contacts.
  • Return of e-mails due to invalid addresses.
  • Inability to determine contacts’ willingness to be subscribers to our e-mails as we did not have an unsubscribe function.
  • Technical constraints to sending more than 30 e-mails at a time.
  • Limited access to the master list of contacts which resided with one staff member, thus frustrating the ability of others to access and update the list.

Case management system

ProBono.Org sees clients in a number of different contexts and opens at least one file per client. These contexts include our offices, and a range of other locations around the country in which we run legal clinics and other projects. We manually complete an ‘intake sheet’ for each client and then also capture the information electronically.

Among other problems with the system, we discovered that our existing computerised system was inherently flat. That is, we required a system that was far more dynamic and more adequately satisfied our needs for the storage and management of case data.

In addition, by 2011 we were seeing in excess of 3 000 clients annually and it became imperative that more staff, and even interns, should be able to update information in the system.

Donor management system

When we started in 2006, we only had one donor, The Atlantic Philanthropies. Now that we have more than 20 donors and at least as many prospects, it seems very attractive to be able to manage them electronically.

Each donor is different. For each, reports are due on different dates, amounts donated vary, the types of projects funded are distinct, and tranches get paid at varying intervals. In regard to prospective donors, we have to know their application dates, the types of projects they fund, the relevant contact people, and the history of all contacts with them to date.

Selecting an Information Management System

We knew we needed an Information Management System (IMS) and, although we were not sure what it should look like, we had a number of basic needs:

  • To generate reports from the data for our Board and donors. Here we anticipated being able, with the press of a button, to generate statistics that could be used to advance the organisation.
  • To track all activities we undertake on a case, or in respect of a donor.
  • To enable staff to access and update the system, and use calendar functions.

We spent some time researching different data management systems in use by other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and spoke to experts about what might suit our needs best.

What we learned

The process of identifying and putting in place a really excellent data management system that is well suited to the needs of one’s own organisation takes time. It is not a quick and easy fix. The issue of pricing is important. Some service providers have special deals for NGOs, so it is advisable to shop around. In some cases a computer expert working independently can set up the entire system, whereas in others, an existing product can be purchase and tailored. Whichever option is chosen, one has to be very clear on what one wants and not hand over the process to the experts. Staff have to dedicate time to learn how to use the system to its full capabilities. A final word of advice: ensure that you and your staff are the experts and know what you want.

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