Excel is not a database

The New Organizing Institute Education Fund, in conjunction with the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation released the 2nd Annual Survey of Civic Engagement Technology.

The report is full of interesting information on how nonprofits (mis)(ab)use technology to manage their organizations.


Page 9 of the report discusses data integration:

Data Integration

Many of the data integration challenges cited by organizations could be alleviated by a concerted effort by vendors to provide better access to APIs for their tools. Rather than every organization independently developing processes to manually import, export, and merge data, increasing the availability and quality of vendor APIs will help minimize lost resources on data integration.

An increased availability of scripts or programs to automate the transfer of data would also help address organizational difficulty with data integration. For example, vendors could provide a tool that pulls data to the VAN from theDatabank and back with minimal user involvement.

My experience with these APIs is pretty poor. FirstLogic used WDSL and SOAP. Catalist returned comma- or tab-separated text. Blue State Digital’s fundraising tools didn’t even have APIs to get, say, lists of donors.

So how should an API work? Kellan Elliott-McCrea, who works on flickr, explains what an API should do for you:

Political and nonprofit vendors: do this: complete APIs. REST. XML. JSON. Performant. Bulk data.

With Flickr you can get out, via the API, every single piece of information you put into the system. Every photo, in every size, plus the completely untouched original. (which we store for you indefinitely, whether or not you pay us) Every tag, every comment, every note, every people tag, every fave. Also your stats, view counts, and referers. […] Flickr actually goes a bit farther, not only can you get your data out, but it gets enriched as it passes through the system. […] This isn’t the exhaustive list, just a few of the things Flickr does to respect, and collaborate with the people who share their time and data with us.


Excel is almost always the wrong tool for the job. Whenever someone tells me they want something in Excel, I immediately start discounting other things they’re saying.

So what do nonprofits do wrong? Using Excel as a database:

  • 32% use Excel for voter registration data (p. 10)
  • 29% use Excel to track membership (p. 13)
  • 27% use Excel to track volunteers (p. 13)
  • 26% use Excel to track donors (p. 13)
  • 26% use Excel to manage their mailing list (p. 14)

Excel is not a database. If you’re using Excel, you’re doing it wrong.

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