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A Nonprofit's Introduction to FileMaker

What FileMaker is, what it does, and how your organization can get it

Group of people working on Apple computers at a hackathon
Bob Nowacki - June 16, 2016
In this article, you'll learn how the FileMaker platform can help you organize crucial information.

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If your organization relies on spreadsheets, paper forms, or multiple applications to get your work done, you might consider using a FileMaker database solution instead. A FileMaker solution can bring disparate information together in one place and make it easy to add to, change, and query the data.

What Is a FileMaker Solution?

At its simplest, a FileMaker solution is made up of a database and a user interface. A database is a collection of information that is organized into files called tables. A user interface lets users view and interact with the information in the database.

FileMaker solutions also allow for calculations, scripting, reporting, security, and integration with spreadsheets and other database systems.

Solutions can be big, up to 8 TB. Text fields can store up to 2 GB of text, and container fields can store up to 4 GB of binary data like images, audio, video, and PDF files.

Relational Databases

An Excel spreadsheet is a kind of database called a flat-file database. It organizes its information into a single table. FileMaker uses relational databases. With a relational database, you store data in several tables and then define relationships between them. For example, you could store donor information in one table and donation information in another. That way you would only have to enter a donor's information once, whereas in a spreadsheet you would have to enter it for each donation. A relational database prevents duplicate information and is less prone to error than a flat file.

A chart of table relationships as defined in a FileMaker solution
Chart of table relationships as defined in a FileMaker solution

User Interfaces

FileMaker Pro offers tools to simplify designing user interfaces. Often it's as simple as dragging the fields you want to show onto a layout. You can create different layouts to show the same data in different ways. For example, you could browse donor records one at a time or view them all in one long list.

The software also contains dozens of built-in themes that use different colors, shapes, and typefaces. Some themes are designed for iOS devices and feature large, tap-friendly zones.

Sample theme that uses a grey color palette Sample theme that uses a brown and red color palette
Same data, different themes

Get Started Quickly with Starter Solutions

FileMaker Pro comes with 16 predefined solutions, called Starter Solutions. The data structures are all set up, and the layouts (components of the user interface) are all designed.

There is also a marketplace of solutions that others have built for specific purposes and sell licenses for.

Build Your Own Custom Solutions

You can build a custom FileMaker solution from scratch to suit your particular needs. FileMaker Pro makes this fairly easy because you don't have to know SQL, the underlying programming language of most database systems. You still have to know your way around data structures, though, and understand how to relate tables to one another. You can learn this from the training included with FileMaker Pro and from other sources.

How Nonprofits Can Use FileMaker Solutions

This list of Starter Solutions might give you an idea of ways your organization could find FileMaker helpful.

  • Assets
  • Contacts
  • Content Management
  • Estimates
  • Event Management
  • Expense Reports
  • Inventory
  • Invoices
  • Meetings
  • Personnel Records
  • Product Catalog
  • Projects
  • Research Notes
  • Resource Scheduling
  • Tasks
  • Time Billing

This list is subject to change but was current as of publication of this article.

You can also look at the nonprofit customer stories on the FileMaker website. And see this story from the TechSoup blog about how an eye bank puts FileMaker to use.

Components of the FileMaker Platform

The following components make up the FileMaker Platform. FileMaker offers the first two of them, FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Server, at a discount through TechSoup.

FileMaker Pro is a desktop application for designing and building custom solutions and using them once they are built. It runs on both Mac and Windows.

FileMaker Server hosts FileMaker solutions. It can also perform tasks like backing up automatically and logging statistics on usage and performance. You need the server if you have more than five people who will be connecting to a solution with FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Go.

FileMaker Pro Advanced adds features to FileMaker Pro, including tools for script debugging, customizing the product, and documenting a solution's internal structure.

FileMaker Go gives you access to FileMaker solutions on iOS devices. This capability is especially valuable for collecting data in the field, taking the place of clipboards and paper. You can also add photos, audio, video, and signatures. The connection can be made through Wi-Fi or a cellular connection, or the changes can be stored on the device and then synchronized later. FileMaker Go is a free app.

FileMaker WebDirect gives users access to FileMaker solutions in web browsers. FileMaker WebDirect is a feature of FileMaker Server, which must host the solution. The solution must be created in FileMaker Pro, but web users don't need to have it. See this comparison of what can and can't be done with WebDirect.

Get FileMaker Pro for Your Nonprofit

If five or fewer people will be using the solution on a single computer or a peer-to-peer network, you will need a FileMaker Pro license for each user. You can request four discounted FileMaker Pro licenses through TechSoup each fiscal year.

If you need more than four discounted FileMaker Pro licenses in one year, you can request them directly through FileMaker.

Please note that for FileMaker licenses fulfilled through TechSoup:

  • All products include one year of maintenance
  • TechSoup's offer is open to all public libraries
  • TechSoup's server volume licensing does not require a five-license minimum
  • TechSoup's FileMaker products are perpetual (not annual) subscriptions

Do You Need FileMaker Server for Your Nonprofit?

If more than five people will be using a FileMaker solution, you will need to host it on FileMaker Server. You can request one discounted FileMaker Server license through TechSoup each fiscal year.

If you host a solution on FileMaker Server, a FileMaker Pro license allows you to connect to it. However, if you connect to it using FileMaker Go or FileMaker WebDirect, you need to obtain paid connections directly from FileMaker. The server comes with one connection for testing purposes. You buy others in groups of five, up to a maximum of 500. For example, if 12 FileMaker Go and WebDirect users connect to your solution at peak times, you will need to buy 15 concurrent connections.

With version 15, FileMaker introduced "user connections." The previous "concurrent connections" are still offered if needed.

Learning FileMaker

FileMaker's training page lists a number of resources, many free, for learning how to use the platform.

Image 1: Intel Free Press / CC BY-SA
Images 2, 3, and 4: FileMaker

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