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How to choose a database supplier

When choosing a database supplier it is of the utmost importance that they are the correct fit for your charity. In order to find this, you must, first of all, work out what you are looking for, and then create a plan. Once you do this it will make the process far more manageable and clear, so you get exactly what you need.  

Our How-To guide on planning a good database will be useful in this process.



  • See whether someone from outside your organisation can help you run the process, such as a project manager from the local council who has delivered database-related projects.
  • Start by writing the clearest database plan you can – a bit like a job description. Keep it simple but focused on what you require.
  • Use the NCVO preferred suppliers directory and feedback from contacts to draw up a list of possible suppliers. Advertise the main details through email lists and on your website and invite people to email you if they are interested.
  • Send your current database plan to potential developers and suppliers and ask for a written response to how they will meet your needs. Set a deadline and indicate interview dates. Invite informal contact beforehand, if you think you will have time to deal with it.


It is important that you review the work of anyone who is selling you a database, whether they are building something from scratch or adapting an off-the-shelf solution. Ask potential suppliers for details of reference customers similar to your organisation and contact them for an honest appraisal of the supplier and their products.

Although some of your requirements may be technical, such as whether it requires a server, or whether your existing computers will support it, the review is an opportunity to look at other issues.

  • Can you see work they have done for other similar charities or voluntary sector organisations?
  • Do the screens seem easy to navigate?
  • Are reports easy to set up and then print or export? Can they be adapted by the user? Ask to see how easy it is to change the reports, or have a go yourself if you can.
  • Who picks up the bill if deadlines are missed?
  • Do they use a language you understand, or overwhelm you with technical jargon?
  • How will they manage the project? How will progress be monitored?
  • Do they have time to fit in your work? If they’re offering a discount, will you be a lower priority?
  • What user manuals or training will you get for your money?
  • What is their hourly rate for any work outside the scope of this project?


  • Compile a shortlist in the same way that you would to fill a staff post. Identify the ones you think fit the budget and your needs, and then interview them. Two or three should be enough, although seeing more may help clarify your requirements.
  • Involve a small but diverse group in the interview process, including someone who will be putting data into the system as well as someone who will be using the reports.
  • Use the interview to decide whether they understand your needs and have the project management skills, technical solutions and experience to meet them.
  • Remember that you don’t have to make a final decision at the interview. You can follow up specific questions with each supplier, or ask them to re-submit their bid to reflect any changes you now realise that you need to make. You may ask for a further presentation, or bring the panel together again informally to review any follow-up information submitted.
  • Even if the interview goes well, always check with referees about how happy they are with what they got for their money.
  • Once you’ve selected someone, draw up an agreement about how the project will proceed, in the form of a letter of agreement or written contract. Make sure this includes a detailed payment schedule showing what is (and isn't) included in both the initial price and any ongoing subscription fee. Ensure questions about legal ownership of data, file structures and reports are covered at this point. 
  • An initial project plan will show key phases and milestones for completion and may be included in the submission for the tender. This may be used to reach final agreement, but never start work until it has been fully updated and agreed by both parties.


Page last edited May 24, 2017 History

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