This documentation relates to CiviCRM version 2.2. It's not maintained anymore.
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Context & Overview - Profiles

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Context - Uses for PROFILES

Database users often need to view subsets of data. If your data entry people are required to press the "TAB" key 28 times past data fields they don't use for every record entered, you can create a PROFILE that shows them only the fields they need to see.

EXAMPLE:

You have a constituent's data record that is full of information about demographics, program history, donation history and volunteer history. With Profiles, you can provide a way for constituents to update their own demographic information through your website. You could also provide a directory of people or organizations that can be searched online. What if you could provide your constituents with a customized screen that shows only the data you want them to see?

You can with PROFILES.

Overview - How PROFILES work

The term "profile" is often used to describe information about a specific person, place or thing. 
In CiviCRM:

PROFILES provide a way to create customized combinations of data fields

PROFILES are used to view specific subsets of data

PROFILES aid in the entry, viewing and searching of data

PROFILES provide a powerful set of tools for you to collect information from constituents and selectively share contact information.

Using STANDARD or CUSTOM DATA FIELDS, you build PROFILES to meet specific data entry, viewing and searching needs.You take data fields and arrange them how you need them, depending on your business process.

For example, you can create a PROFILE that lists only the fields you use to enter data about new constituents. Rather than having to navigate through an entire blank record that shows every field, you create a PROFILE with only those fields you need to enter. This supports effective work processes by customizing the data entry screen to your needs.

PROFILES are used to meet your Data Entry, Data Viewing or Data Searching needs.

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