Illinois Legal Aid Online

Using Database Management to Support a Nonprofit’s Mission

Not-for-profits wish to spend most of their funds helping the groups they serve. But sometimes investing in technology—particularly database management—allows them to better meet their mission.

Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) faced an ironic situation. Its mission is to use innovative technology to increase access to justice for lower income and vulnerable Illinois residents. The organization’s website was recognized as one of the nation’s best in delivering legal information to the public. However, its internal donor database was housed on a Microsoft Access program that had stopped meeting its needs years ago.

“While our system could keep a record of donors, it didn’t allow us to track their engagement—or help us identify the best ways to reach out to them,” says ILAO Development Associate Samantha Kyrkostas. “We needed to find a more efficient approach, which was flexible enough to respond to our specific needs but also grow with us over time.”

No One Could “Speak Database”

No one in the organization had a good understanding of customer relationship management (CRM) programs. “This represented a significant investment for us, and we really couldn’t afford to make a mistake,” Kyrkostas explains. “So we decided to have an outside expert guide us through this process. But how could someone who didn’t work here understand our brand and our needs?”

A Thorough, Thoughtful Process

Massa & Company’s process gave Kyrkostas some immediate comfort. Bonnie Massa interviewed everyone in the organization. Her goal was to understand their individual needs, how they would use the database, and what they wanted from it. She listened not only to what they needed now but asked how their requirements might change down the road. Then she came back to ILAO with a summary of what she heard, to ensure she had identified all key issues.

“The summary was really useful,” Kyrkostas remembers. “It was the first time we could see what each department needed, all in one place.”

Massa combined this information with what she already knew about CRM programs and recommended three options. She walked Kyrkostas and others through each choice, explaining its plusses and minuses, and suggested questions they could ask when they interviewed vendors.

The Comfort of a Clear Direction

“In the end, it was clear which system was best for us,” Kyrkostas states. “So now—as we are in the process of signing the contract and getting started—we feel very comfortable with our decision.

“Bonnie did for us what we do for our clients: she became our advocate. She gave a voice to our concerns and wishes, gave us the language to express these to the vendors we interviewed, and an ability to understand their responses. Now we’ll be able to record the amount of money we get from donors, track the involvement of volunteers, see interactions with project partners, and know the best ways to keep all of them engaged.”