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We have been using Access since 2003 for - a complex client database ( the heart of our social work business) , a funding/grants system.
I have used Filemaker and other DB shells but my need now is for rapid application development probably onto a SQL database. I would prefer a web based front end.
My main issue is things change, we grow , take on new development etc but it can be very expensive pulling in outside coders to do the work to modify ,add to existing databases or create new solutions. In my experiance creating the data structure is not such a big task and one I am more than willing to bring in outside help on - its making the database usable thats the issue , the issue is , the user interface, business logic, interfacing with printers,web,email, calendars and bullet proofing it .
Are there good rapid application develop tools that can help in this area ?
Richard Aston CEO Big Buddy www.bigbuddy.org.nz
From the perspective of someone who has been intimately involved (Board Member, Volunteer Coordinator, Consultant, Tech Trainer, db developer) with many smaller non-profits as well as being a database developer and web and tech developer/consultant professionally, I think that MaureenBoyle and Blackberg have both put forth advice that is absolutely critical to smoothing a path to success.
Your success probabilities and return on investment will skyrocket if your planning, needs and outcome identification, workflow mapping and design blueprint are rock solid at the beginning. I have been designing and developing Access databases and data driven websites for 15 years now and the hardest concept for most people to grasp is that the success of the program has to start with defining exactly what it is you want out of the program before you ever start building it, NOT what you want to put into it. If the initial design does not take the full picture into account and all of the exceptions to the rules that seem to be par for the course, you will not have smooth sailing along your course.
Many of the non-profits I have been involved in are actually pretty complicated little organizations. Unless you really do have folks on board who are experts at this, do yourselves a huge favor and bring someone who really knows database systems in to help you chart a path for the pros and cons of different options based upon what YOUR organization does and (as Maureen points out) will be doing in the upcoming years. If you do your jobs well, you will grow.
As Blackberg points out, database programs are shells. Kind of like supplying you a easel, canvas and paint. If you did that to me I would make a very messy job of slopping paint on canvas but in the right hands a priceless piece of art would appear. There is a real art to making a software program easy and effortless for the users and organization to use and be confident that they can rely on. It can be very complicated to make it very simple for the end users. Your staff probably have great talents and skills but I doubt if they are experts in what you need here.
Access, MySQL, Base, SQL, Alpha 5 are all wonderful programs that can do amazing things in the right hands but are programs where untrained folks tend to create disastrous monsters that eat up an organizations time and resources vs. making life easy. Whoever develops something successfully for you will pester you to death with detailed questions about all of the arcane ins and outs of your operation. They need to develop in detail the big picture and create a clearly thought out plan before they ever start writing code.
If you are considering 'canned' solutions such as many of the web based solutions the key is to make sure that the product is going to be flexible enough and truly fitting for your purposes. If it only covers 40% of what you do, how do you cover or integrate the rest? Many of the are fairly specific in their purposes. Bring in someone who is adept at walking you through this exploratory process. A huge advantage here is if it does fit you can rest assured that the programs were probably developed by professionals and will be maintained by the same. A huge disadvantage is they are what they are and can only be modified within the framework provided. Will you need a combination of solutions? Will they work together?
There are pre-packaged solutions can also be lumped in the Access, Alpha group too if they are programs that someone has developed for a specific purpose close to what you need. Some are very good and affordable. There are some of these that may allow an experienced programmer modify them a bit to tailor more closely to your model, but many will not.
The key here is that you should set sail based on the guidance of an experienced navigator who has experience to help you figure out where you are trying to go, how to create the charts you will need and how to get there most efficiently. Columbus had a great trip, but he never did get where he intended to go.
Gary Miller Computer Services
How do you feel about Alpha 5 as a database for a small non profit with a staff of 3. I do not know much about databases but I am planning on downloading it and using it to keep track of our mentees and mentors.