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Spreadsheet vs. Database

by Mark Panger

For purposes of this article what I really mean by the term database is a donor management system that you purchase or lease.

Would I use Excel to manage my donor database? Nope. With over 15,000 hours of spreadsheeting spanning 30+ years I’ve learned what NOT to do.

Excel is a great tool for analyzing data. It’s even great for keeping long lists. It breaks down quickly when managing relationships or each volunteer’s preferred time and days to volunteer. What about all the notes regarding phone calls or meetings? It gets messy quickly.

We use Excel because it’s easy. Open a new Excel document, add some column headings and away you go. You run into problems quickly when you want to track multiple log notes for each donor. Also, when you want others to have access to the spreadsheet without messing it up. There’s just not a lot of control over the use of the spreadsheet once it’s out of your hands.

Below I have made a list of the things Excel does vs what a database does. Ironically, I created this list using Excel.

Side-by-side view



Database (or rather Donor Management System)


Write formulas that calculate exactly what I want.

Maybe possible, but certainly not easy.


Color any cell any color I want. Useful for color coding and highlighting.

Generally, not even possible.

Data input

Put data anywhere you like

Databases complain if you attempt this.

Data input

Excel doesn't care what you put in a cell. For some that's good, but generally tighter control is better.

Database maintains control and structure of the data being entered. Things like telephone numbers are all entered with a consistent format.


Whip up a custom graph.

Graphs are usually preset by the application.

Summary Data

Quickly tally my data through a pivot table (assuming I know how to create a pivot table).

Most donor management systems do not have this ability (Trail Blazer does).

Other kinds of data

Assuming you are using one tab for the donor names and addresses and separate tab for the donations, you are limited to 1,048,575 rows (excluding the header). This is a lot, but you still have to 'connect' them to the proper donor.

Maintain a near infinite list of donations associated with each donor.

Other kinds of data

See note above on donations.

Maintain a near infinite list of comments and notes associated with each donor.

Other kinds of data

See note above on donations.

Ok, I could do these one at a time, but the Excel answer would be the same. So I'll just say Maintain a near infinite list of... pledges, events, restricted funds, honor/memorials, addresses, groupings (categories like volunteers, board members, members, etc), phone numbers, email addresses, etc.


This gets pretty difficult to do.

Track all the relationship types from one donor to another. It's very easy to say Mary Smith is related to 10 or 20 other people in the database and define exactly what those relationships are.


Those with same address are considered to be of the same household. However you have to look at the combination of the street, apt, city, state and zip to determine if it's the same address. I'll put the checkmark on Excel for this one.

It's just easier to do in a database.

Thank you's

Generating thank you letters is somewhat difficult without using a mail merge feature in a word processor.

Generating Thank You letters is very easy to do.


Sending emails is very difficult to do.

Sending mass emails is very easy to do. Personalize them too!

Email Unsubscribes

Can't even do this at all here.

The database keeps track automatically of those who unsubscribe from your email list.


Only one person at a time in the spreadsheet (unless you are using something like Google Docs spreadsheets).

Multiple users can access the database all at once.

Number of records

Excel is limited (albeit a big limit) to 1,048,575 donor names.

Limited by disk space. You can always buy more of that.


At this point the list continues on and on about how a database can do much more than an Excel spreadsheet. Hopefully you've got the idea.

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