Four Principles of Choosing Donor Management Software
What do you need your software to do today to support your organization’s strategies, or for your needs over the next three or four years? What are the common issues other organizations face when selecting such software? Keith Heller takes a look at four things to keep in mind throughout the software selection process.
Because there’s so much to consider when choosing new fundraising software, the process can inspire both excitement and dread. You can learn more about the pros and cons of specific software packages in the articles and reviews archives at Idealware, TechSoup and similar sites, but in this article we’re taking a bigger-picture view—put on your surveyor’s hat and measure the range of needs faced by your development operations staff. What do you need your software to do today to support your organization’s strategies? What can it do to support you as your strategies change over the next three or four years? What are the common issues other organizations face when selecting such software, and how can you learn from them? Let’s take a look at four things to keep in mind throughout the software selection process.
Follow the Crowd
Everyone thinks they’re special. Now, we’re not saying you aren’t—but your software needs probably are not. The fact is, most fundraisers are doing the same thing, particularly within industry verticals. If they weren’t, there would be no “off the shelf” systems to support those actions. If you pursue this purchase thinking you’re special, you’re likely to cause more problems for yourself than that designation is worth. The nonprofit community is full of successful fundraising models and practices. Be proud of your affiliation with, and put your trust into, these refined—yet also similar—strategies.
While you’re embracing these similarities, talk to your peers. Find out what they’re doing and what software they use—what do they like or dislike about it? You’ll probably find that their needs don’t differ much from your own. If you can, ask fundraisers from a variety of office positions as well as from different industry verticals to get the broadest perspective on what’s available—and don’t forget to talk to your coworkers, too, since they’re likely to have opinions about your current software and what features could help down the line.
OK, so maybe your needs are a little special. Where your organization does differ from others, ask yourself if it’s necessary—maybe you just have another way of doing the same thing, and can shift your fundraising tactics to match your peers’. The benefits of adopting a new procedure could be easier than bending software to match your idiosyncratic ways. Sometimes organizations attribute fundraising success to tactics when, in fact, more effective methods will yield the same results or better. Of course, there could be a legitimate reason for your fundraising processes—maybe it’s more than just the way you’ve always done things, and that’s OK. Just be honest with yourself as you look at how other people work, and keep an open mind to what practices might work for you and your staff.
If you insist on being special, know that you’re going to be on the cutting edge—and that it’s called that for a reason. You may be the first kid on the block with the latest toy, but you could also be the guinea pig that serves as a horrible warning to others. To protect yourself from the “bleeding” edge of technology, look for software that’s investing in new trends, but not necessarily putting you on that edge. Let others lead, and learn from their experiences. Ultimately, you’ll make a more informed decision, and likely buy a better version of the same software for less money. It’s not as glamorous, but there’s safety in the herd.
Focus on What You (Really) Need
After surveying your peers and getting a sense of how much your needs parallel theirs, or diverge from them, you’ll get a sense of what products are out there and the benefits they provide. Now you need to start thinking about how much software you really need—how many features—and how complex it must be to meet your needs. It’s important to look forward as well as back to accurately assess what your needs will be in the near future. One of the best ways to do that is to look back over the years to see how much your organization has changed, and how. If there’s been a lot of change, ask yourself if it’s an intentional, ongoing investment, or if changes were made to address specific issues. If it’s the latter, were the implemented changes successful? Or do you still have the same problems to address?
Shopping for software is like speed dating—everyone comes dressed to impress and on their best behavior. Don’t let a snazzy demo distract you. People often buy too much software because they are sold too much software. It’s important to make a clear distinction between what the software can do and what you actually need. A list of your organization’s requirements might help you maintain your focus. And remember, demos aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of how the software will operate with your data. Often people buy the dream that comes with the demo, buying more than they need. Be modest in what you select. Cut out the features and functions you don’t need in the first 12-18 months following implementation. Refer to the list of absolute requirements—are those processes clear in the software so you can be successful using them? Focus on the daily user experience, and don’t spend too much on the dream.
The other common way to purchase too much software is buying something with multiple options for fundamental functions—in other words, too many ways to do any one particular task. The danger of this “freedom” is that it allows for common tasks to be done inconsistently across an organization’s user base. This is counter to sound business processes that streamline staff training, database quality and repeatable reporting outputs. Options are nice, but not at the expense of maintaining organizational best practices. It’s like a toddler in a kitchen—you put locks on the cabinets for a reason.
The more sophisticated the software, the more expensive it’s going to be to implement and maintain. Think about what you are going to need short-, mid- and long-term. You’re often better off getting a software package that meets your three-to-five year timeframe from a vendor that historically has grown and led industry trends. If you buy software that significantly exceeds your current strategic needs, it will cost you in maintenance and consulting fees to navigate it. If your vendor has a good research and design process, and you’re not on their bleeding edge, they’ll be releasing features ahead of when you actually need them.
In short, select a piece of software with limits you might bump against in a few years—from a vendor with a reputation for being responsive to clients and industry needs. And remember that features may look great in demos, and are a great source for comparison, but they won’t all make you a better fundraiser. Resist the temptation to buy the fully-loaded Ferrari and consider a well-reviewed minivan with lots of room for storage.
Don't Rely on Customizations
If you consistently hear that the software you want is going to need customization to do what you want it to do, stop and consider what you need—and the limits of the software. Customization is always more time-consuming and expensive than it looks. Ideally, you want something that will work out-of-the-box for your organization. Talk to people who have traveled the customization path and see if it paid off for them and was viable for the long term.
Some customizations are used to accommodate a legacy practice that’s no longer effective or necessary. Remember, there are a lot of ways to do the same thing—your way may not be the best. Is there a logical reason for the software’s design? Yes, probably. Customizations are also sometimes used to implement a future strategy that hasn’t been fully integrated into the fundraising process yet. If you’re looking at a customization for this reason, ask yourself, “When are we really going to need this?” Think again about that bleeding edge and the speed at which new strategies are implemented in your organization. Customization is the deep end of the pool; is there a way you can enter the shallow end first? If you’re going to rely heavily on customization from the start, you can push the limits of the software to its breaking point, leaving you little wiggle room, if any, for future needs. That’s not a good place to start—particularly with a big investment like software.
Play Well with Others
The fundraising industry has evolved such that specialized software is now widely available with the ability to talk to your main donor database. More and more of us are engaged in online outreach, and we expect that process will become more integrated over time. Communication with accounting and the associated electronic integration is becoming standardized. In organizations where the people who benefit from your mission are also potential supporters, it’s worth looking at software that can also support your program efforts—or software that can talk to more than one type of software.
As businesses and nonprofits move closer together in our shared global economy, there’s a growing need for communication between information systems. As a result, a community of developers has evolved that’s dedicated to building communication pathways between systems. Until recently, loyalty to a single vendor was important when selecting software, but that’s no longer the rule. Take in the full range of options before ruling anything out. Whatever systems you need to integrate, someone has probably done it already. What’s more important is that the tools you select are free and open to other users and their software systems. Sticking with a single vendor is no guarantee that integration will be smooth—you’re better off buying the best of breed, because integration tools are getting better all the time.
Software tools that make access to data more open are going to provide you with the most flexibility when coordinating communication between data sources. Open access to data comes from tools you may have heard in the marketplace, like APIs (Application Programming Interface) or Open Source Software. The software programs that provide various end users with the greatest ease in using the tools you use to access your data are those that support communication between systems. And supporting better, more accurate communication is what software is all about.
The last word on selecting software is actually two words: end user. Nothing can trump the impact of user-friendly software. If the software you select is not easy to work with, if processes are cumbersome and the interface is not intuitive, it will make the typically uphill battle of integration nearly insurmountable. People tend to not like change. They also don’t like it when you take away something they have come to rely on, or expect. Replacing mediocre, outdated software with software that’s current but unwieldy is not progress.
Remember the goal of buying new software is not just to enable your strategies, but to enable the efficient execution of those strategies. Remembering the needs of your organization as well as the needs of your staff will help you select not only the right amount of software, but also the right software for your users.
Keith Heller is the founder and Principal of Heller Consulting, a fundraising technology and development operations consulting firm specializing in Raiser's Edge. Since 1996 Heller Consulting has helped over 600 organizations streamline their existing donor management systems or implement new ones. Keith frequently speaks at local, regional and national conferences for nonprofit professionals.