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"Make vs. Buy"



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For most nonprofit agencies, it makes sense to license a client database that already exists.

In a finance class I once took, we were given the classic "make vs. buy" problems. They laid out all the numbers for us, what it cost to buy item "X", vs. how much time it would take us to make it at what labor rate with what materials and with what cost of capital, etc. Crank through the numbers and get an answer.

In the real world, of course, no one lays out all the numbers for us.

The main thing about Make vs. Buy decisions is to recognize that you have a choice. Too often we tend to fall, bit by bit, into a "Make" decision without realizing it. I've done it myself. Before I know it, I've got a whole lot of time, sweat, and maybe even money invested in something that I could have bought from the beginning for much less aggravation and cost.

Sometimes nonprofit agencies fall into a "Make" decision before they know it. They start with a few client records in paper files. Then someone who is handy with Microsoft Excel puts then on a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet has some database capabilities, like sorting and filtering, and that's a big help. After awhile the spreadsheets are huge. Then someone else who knows about Microsoft Access databases makes an Access database for them. Now the nonprofit agency is set up for lots and lots of client records.

If the users' knowledge about computers is low, the agency's client database in Access might be just one big "table." That keeps things easy in some ways, and harder in others. But how does the agency keep a running record of the services you provided? So the agency starts adding fields for "Service-1", "Service-2", "Service-3", etc.

Maybe along comes someone who knows more about how to design a database. This person realizes that the nonprofit agency needs multiple "tables," and offers to set them up. Now, though, the database becomes more complex. The expert creates a "user interface" for the database. Eventually, a lot of work goes into it.

Building your own client database is expensive in hidden ways. If a staff person built your database, that staff person could have been doing other things. If the staff person is not a database expert, chances are that the person was inefficient in developing the database. That person probably came down a steep learning curve.

Then the person who made the database quits or moves away. And no one at the agency knows how to deal with it.

If you can find a client database that already exists, ideally as packaged software, then you can save your agency much time and money.

There are times when it makes sense for an agency to make its own client database. If the agency has unique data needs, for example. In this situation, the agency should get a database professional to develop a custom database.

The thing you want to avoid is falling into a "Make" decision unconsciously. For most agencies, a "buy" decision (well, actually, a decision to "license" some software) will prove best in the long run.

(And of course, you can license a client database for nonprofit agencies at Social Work Software's web site.)


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