…when it is a spreadsheet!
This question has gained some attention in recent weeks and it occurred to me that I often see clients who are confused about the difference between a spreadsheet and a database. Often I am told about a database that turns out to be a spreadsheet. Time to clear up the confusion…
I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a big fan of spreadsheets! Boring I know but I can lose many happy hours setting up a budget or calculating spend, income, time etc. But I also know their limits – sometimes a spreadsheet is just not up to the job.
I’m no expert but here are a few situations where I choose to use either a spreadsheet or a database:
Managing my own accounts: database. Personally I use FreeAgent which records both my income and expenditure, allows me to file receipts, produces invoices and links to my bank account.
Preparing budgets: spreadsheet. A spreadsheet does everything I want it to for a budget and it makes it easy to modify the budget to fit the amount of money available (e.g. change quantities, timing, salaries etc).
Planning and monitoring project outputs/targets: spreadsheet. It’s simple, easy to share and straightforward to update.
Managing contacts and communications: database. As soon as you have a list of contacts (clients, members etc) who you want to communicate with regularly, a CRM database can make life much simpler.
Monitoring funding success: spreadsheet. I have a simple spreadsheet that records all the bids I have submitted and their success. I have similar versions for each client. I have no doubt that a database could probably do this job better. A ‘one stop shop’ would allow me to monitor my own success rate, prepare reports for clients, track relationships with individual funders, flag up when reports are due and more. Perhaps this is something I need to explore.
Put simply, when the information is simple and it can all fit into a 2D table, then a spreadsheet works. Most likely this is going to be budgets or simple logs of information. If you can draw it in a table, you can put it in a spreadsheet. Lots of tables can be created in layers and here several sheets are useful. But, essentially, this is still quite a simple arrangement (think pages of a book). A spreadsheet just gives me the confidence that all the calculations are correct and will auto-calculate when I change things.
When the information is more complex and involves lots of relationships between the data then a more versatile system is needed. For example, my accounts software keeps a record in income and expenditure but it also knows when my invoices are overdue and automatically sends a reminder, it tracks the hours I have spent working on each project in order to create invoices and allows me to log my expenses with receipts attached to each record. Similarly, a membership database will manage all communications, renewals, appeals, expiries etc or a funding database has huge potential to bring my current different systems together (see above).
A spreadsheet is simple to set up but a database is much more complicated and can seem really daunting. But, there is no need to worry because there are plenty of ready-made databases available. I have never designed a database myself. I always subscribe to a ready-made one or commission something unique if there really is nothing out there that does the job.