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A Nonprofit's Introduction to FileMaker Pro

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

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TechSoup - March 27, 2012
In this article, you'll learn about FileMaker Pro, a database management system (DBMS), and how it might help you organize crucial information.

Does your organization maintain several database systems, each built by a different vendor, consultant, or employee? Do these systems communicate poorly with one another, or not at all? If an active supporter's address changes, does someone have to log on to the member management system, the donor management system, and the volunteer management system to update each one separately? Do you have multiple applications all sharing access to the same data? Are you collecting mountains of data in multiple systems but finding it difficult to extract aggregate, summary information you can use to inform your organization's decisions?

If your present systems are causing frustrations like these, it might be time to consider FileMaker Pro, a database management system (DBMS) that allows you to create your own databases; define all your databases' fields and tables; define the attributes of these entities; and declare the relationships between them; create the default forms and reports that guide data input and data retrieval to and from your database; create secure web interfaces to your databases (to choose a few examples, FileMaker Pro provides templates to help you create event registration forms, surveys, and feedback forms); track key data metrics and communicate about them with colleagues, funders, and other stakeholders using standard and custom reports.

For the most part, database applications are complex, robust, and difficult to develop. Therefore, proprietary DBMSs are often priced beyond the budget of many nonprofits and libraries. Recognizing this, FileMaker, Inc., offers several low-cost options to nonprofits. Aside from the two discounted products in the TechSoup catalog, FileMaker also offers full product donations that nonprofits can apply for through Gifts in Kind International. FileMaker also manages a Nonprofit Volume Licensing Program that offers discounts of 40 percent to nonprofits purchasing five or more software licenses. For an overview of all discount and donation options, see FileMaker's Product Donations page.

What Is a Database Management System?

Since FileMaker Pro is a DBMS, it might be helpful at this point to introduce basic definitions of database and database management systems.

In his book Databases: A Beginner's Guide, database expert Andrew Oppel writes, "A database is a collection of interrelated data items that are managed as a single unit." The presence of relationships between data items allows an organization to sort, retrieve, and manipulate large amounts of data in ways that aren't possible in data stores lacking structured, explicit relationships. Say, for example, you wanted to see a list of all the immigration lawyers from Chicago who donated more than $200 to your organization last year, along with their names and addresses. When it's clear to the computer which data refers to occupation, which numbers describe the total annual donation, and which data specifies location, and how these pieces of information connect to data about an individual or individuals, the computer can perform this search quickly and efficiently, even if it has to examine the records of several thousand donors.

Despite half a century of progress in the theory and practice of creating databases, it's still a complex, difficult process fraught with problems, many of them inherent in the nature of access to shared data.

DBMSs were first developed in the 1960s and 1970s to handle some of these problems. In particular, when multiple users or applications attempt to access the same data at roughly the same time, complications can arise. For example, imagine that you work at a school or college where classrooms are booked through a form that links to a database. At the same moment, you and a colleague both attempt to reserve a room at 10 a.m. on a day two weeks hence. A functioning, well-designed DBMS should handle this situation in such a way that only one of you succeeds. When mishandled, this situation gives you both the impression that you've booked the room, resulting in misunderstanding and conflict when you both show up expecting use of a particular room. Similar data integrity issues arise when power, connectivity, or other problems interrupt an attempt to write to the database, causing incomplete, half-finished data transactions. DBMSs usually have features designed to prevent this type of interruption. Finally, since databases frequently contain sensitive information about employees, donors, and constituents, security and access control are features included in most DBMSs.

A shorter definition from Wikipedia defines DBMS as "a set of computer programs that controls the creation, maintenance, and the use of a database." FileMaker also has a helpful definition of the standard uses and features of a DBMS.

FileMaker Versions

There are two main FileMaker software products, with two versions each, and your choices will depend on the purpose and numbers of anticipated users of the databases you build. These products are FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Pro Advanced, FileMaker Server, and FileMaker Server Advanced. In addition FileMaker Go was recently released to enable users to access their FileMaker Pro databases on iPhone and iPad. If you need a simple, single-user database product for personal or family use, FileMaker also develops Bento, which runs on Mac, iPhone, or iPad. FileMaker also offers FileMaker Go, which allows you to access your FileMaker Pro databases on your iPhone or iPad. For a detailed comparison of all FileMaker's products, consult FileMaker's product comparison chart.

In this article, we'll primarily focus on features found in FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Server, as these are discounted products available to eligible nonprofits and public libraries through TechSoup.

FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Advanced

Desktop database applications such as FileMaker Pro are intended for small groups of collaborators, usually working in the same office. Therefore, FileMaker Pro imposes a limit of nine simultaneous users per database. Also, FileMaker Pro is intended for users with basic to intermediate database skills. FileMaker Pro is suitable for any small or mid-sized member-management, donor-management, or event-management database. FileMaker Pro Advanced imposes the same nine-user limit as the standard version and provides all its tools and capabilities, but it also includes advanced developer functionality not available in the standard version. For example, developers can create a runtime solution, which is a standalone, self-contained database that users can interact with even without a copy of FileMaker installed, making it useful for information kiosks at outreach events or self-service sign-up and registration workstations. Customized menus and custom functions are two other features available only in FileMaker Pro Advanced. If you need a chart comparing the features of FileMaker's two desktop programs, check out FileMaker Pro's product comparison page.

FileMaker Server and FileMaker Server Advanced

For databases with hundreds or thousands of simultaneous users, it's expected that organizations will acquire FileMaker Server or FileMaker Server Advanced in addition to FileMaker Pro (FileMaker Pro is required in order to run FileMaker Server). If your membership-based organization has thousands of members and hundreds of local branches all entering information about new members at the same times each day, acquiring FileMaker Server in addition to FileMaker Pro will suit your needs better than FileMaker Pro alone. The standard version of FileMaker Server 11 allows up to 250 simultaneous client connections, while FileMaker Server Advanced databases are limited only by the underlying hardware and operating system. In addition to handling heavier workloads, FileMaker's server products have features that allow easier integration with other remote applications and databases. Authentication, backup, and encryption features also distinguish FileMaker's two server products from the Pro applications. FileMaker also provides a page comparing the features of FileMaker Server and Server Advanced.

FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Server Features Comparison

Product Network sharing Instant Web Publishing PHP Web Publishing Administration tools
FileMaker Pro Up to 9 users 5 connections No No
FileMaker Pro Advanced Up to 9 users 5 connections No No
FileMaker Server Up to 250 users   Yes Yes
FileMaker Server Advanced Unlimited sharing 100 connections Yes Yes

Network sharing refers to the ability to share databases with local users who have their own copy of FileMaker Pro installed.

Instant Web Publishing is a one-click feature that turns FileMaker Pro into a mini-web server and transforms your forms into interactive web pages.

PHP Web Publishing provides templates, wizards, and an API to assist in the integration of databases with websites built using the PHP scripting language.

Administration tools include technologies such as:

  • SSL encryption, a technology that hides sensitive data from potential snoopers
  • Remote administration
  • Automated backup, which lets you define backup routines for your databases and set them to run on a regular basis

FileMaker Features and Advantages

  • OS Compatibility: Versions of FileMaker products released since 1992 work on Windows and Macintosh operating systems, and the look and feel is much the same on both. For organizations that run both operating systems, this consistency is a selling point. This record of Mac integration and expertise means that individuals and organizations who favor Apple products often prefer FileMaker over competing products. TechSoup's Australian partner Connecting Up Australia has published an article on this topic, Database Options for the Macintosh.
  • Templates: A FileMaker template is a database framework designed for a specific task. For example, an event-management template might have tables already defined for date, location, attendee, primary activity, cost, and other types of data common to almost every event. An organization can start with a template such as this and then customize it with tables, attributes, forms, and reports specific to their situation. Organizations can also design their own templates for internal use or for sharing with organizations facing similar problems. Some developers give their templates away while others charge (usually $100 or less). The FileMaker website contains a list of templates relevant to the needs of nonprofits. Each version of FileMaker Pro has a selection of built-in templates that address commonly encountered business needs such as invoicing and contact management. FileMaker refers to these templates as Starter Solutions.
  • Ease of Use: Databases are gnarly, complicated beasts by nature, and no amount of design expertise can hide all of that complexity. However, relative to other DBMSs, FileMaker Pro has a reputation for being novice-friendly, easy to learn, and easy to work with.
  • Data Import: Database developers can import data from Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, and many other common data storage formats. Organizations frequently start gathering and organizing data in spreadsheets or other "flat files" before they realize that their ad hoc solution isn't robust or scalable enough. Once they adopt a DBMS, it's easier to import the existing file into the new system and convert its data into the appropriate format and thereby avoid re-entering data that already exists in digital form. FileMaker can import and convert Excel (.xls or .xlsx) files, comma-separated value (.csv) files, and several other file formats.
  • Reports and Data Exports: Users can organize, contextualize, and present the information in databases using a variety of reporting tools. Users can save these reports in several file formats (including .xls and .pdf).
  • Web Publishing: Frequently, the main purpose of a database is to interact with donors, clients, information seekers, and others outside one's organization. As often as not, these interactions take place through the web browser. Therefore, when creating an event registration database or another database with a web front end, it can save lots of time if your DBMS creates the web form and other code needed to integrate the database with your website. FileMaker and other modern DBMSs provide this type of quick, easy, secure web publishing. Instant Web Publishing (IWP) is the FileMaker feature that lets users query and update databases through their web browser. Databases built with Pro or Pro Advanced are limited to five simultaneous IWP connections while FileMaker Server Advanced allows up to 100 simultaneous web users.
  • Connecting to Other Databases: Organizations often acquire a confusing mix of databases built with different DBMSs. IT cleanup and simplification may involve integrating these legacy data sources into a single application and database. Partnering with other organizations often involves making use of their data and integrating your database with one or more of their databases. FileMaker provides a feature called External SQL Sources (ESS) that allows two-way data sharing between FileMaker databases and solutions created with other DBMSs. FileMaker's ESS page provides technical details and a list of compatible DBMSs.
  • ebase Integration: ebase is a free constituent relationship management (CRM) application for nonprofits built using FileMaker. The developers of this application have made recent versions available for free download. If you want to install and use ebase, you won't need FileMaker, but if you want to extend and customize ebase to suit your organization's needs, you'll need a recent version of FileMaker.

Getting Started with FileMaker

Users with little database experience can choose from more than 30 templates, called Starter Solutions, to quickly start building databases for managing contacts, events, personnel, billing, and other common tasks. If the Starter Solutions don't meet your needs, look through the list of nonprofit solutions. Most of these templates were developed by third-party vendors and consultants. Some are free, and some are fee-based. Also, Gary Sprung, a freelance web developer, has posted some useful information about FileMaker templates of possible value to nonprofits.

If you're evaluating FileMaker Pro or developing with it, it's probably worthwhile to buy one or more how-to books. Also, VTC offers some of its FileMaker Pro 11 Beginner Tutorials for free, although you have to pay for a membership for unlimited viewing without ads. You can also download a free 30-day trial of FileMaker Pro, which comes with free access to FileMaker Pro videos on VTC.