Comparing Lower-Cost Online Integrated Application
Online integrated applications allow nonprofits to manage a number of different aspects of their constituent information and Web presence all together in one package. Eric Leland took a close look at eight packages to compare their functionality in a variety of areas.
In the last few years, there has been an explosion of applications that allow nonprofits to manage a number of different aspects of their constituent information and Web presence all together in one online package. These integrated applications can provide functionality to manage member, donor, or other constituent data; online payment capabilities; the ability to send blast emails; event-registration features; tools to allow an organization to manage the text and images on their Web site; and more.
Even better, because all of these functionalities are wrapped up together into one package, there's no need to synch up the data between different components. For instance, all of an organization's online donors are stored automatically in the donor-database side, and are easily available for emailing.
These online integrated packages can provide a compelling alternative to locally installed applications and custom software — especially for organizations that haven't already made a sizable investment in constituent software and have a fairly common set of needs.
Which lower-cost online integrated packages might work well for you? We reviewed eight packages to compare their functionality in a variety of areas. What core features does each package offer? Are they easy to use out of the box, or is "some assembly required"? How well do these tools balance integrated features with usability? Is the whole indeed better than the sum of its parts?
Eight Integrated Packages
We also wanted to focus on the applications that are available to smaller nonprofits. As such, we limited this review to only those packages that were available (in some form) for under $200 a month, not including transaction fees for online payments.
With these criteria defined, we choose eight packages to review: CitySoft, Democracy in Action, eTapestry, GivenGain, MemberClicks, Network for Good's Donor Management Suite, Wild Apricot, and Z2 Neon. We didn't rigorously scan the market to define this list, so there may be more packages that meet the criteria we defined. These eight packages are all relatively stable, solid choices that we feel comfortable recommending.
The information below is up-to-date as of November 2007. This is a rapidly changing area, so check any critical information yourself before you rely on it.
A Quick Look at the Packages
Before we start doing detailed comparisons of these packages, let's take a quick look at some of the basics for each. The list below is in approximate order from the smallest and easiest to set up to the most powerful and complex.
(In understanding the prices below, note that each of these packages charge an additional fee for accepting online payments — typically somewhere between 2.5 to 5 percent of each payment).
Wild Apricot (wildapricot.com).
Wild Apricot is a compelling, intuitive system focused on membership, events, and site-management functionality for smaller membership-based organizations. The core of the system is functionality for controlling Web pages, and for quickly integrating in membership and event-signup forms. The platform is highly specialized in some areas and very basic in others. Wild Apricot offers a bare-bones, ad-supported free version providing Web and membership integration for up to 50 members, and then monthly fees scaling up from there from $25 a month up to $200 a month.
A full-featured online donor database targeted to small and mid-sized nonprofits, eTapestry also provides reasonable support for online payments and blast emailing. Although recently acquired by Blackbaud, the company announced that eTapestry will continue to be supported as a separate platform. eTapestry's complex pricing is based on the number of system users and the number of constituents you store: for instance, one user and up to 500 constituent records is free; 1,000 to 5,000 constituents and two users is $162 a month. Check pricing carefully: costs increase fairly rapidly as more constituents are added, and many features, such as customer support, involve additional costs.
MemberClicks offers fairly easy-to-use features focused on managing individual members; basic online payments for membership payments, events, or donations; and tools to integrate these into Web sites. It can be a good bet for smaller organizations that are seeking an easy way to take payments from members and provide online restricted areas to their members. Customer support is very helpful. Getting started with MemberClicks costs $60 a month for up to 300 member records, with extra monthly fees associated with having more members, including payment processing or advanced Web management.
Democracy in Action (democracyinaction.org).
A suite targeted at advocacy groups, DIA offers an integrated set of tools including constituent management, sophisticated email outreach, and groups and event management, with tight integration to the Web. The system organizes information using a dashboard approach for every section, enabling users to see at a glance what is going on with constituents, emails, chapters, or events before diving into detailed information. As with any more complex system, organizations should factor in technical help and time for implementation. Democracy in Action starts at $100 a month for 3,000 constituents, with additional costs for some additional features or for more constituents.
Network for Good's Donor Management Suite (groundspring.org/services/dms.cfm).
In a very new offering, Network for Good has integrated their custom donation page functionality with a version of Salesforce.com (a full-featured and popular hosted constituent-relationship management framework) that has been customized with donor-management features, and with the Vertical Response email marketing tool. While not for the faint of heart, this platform can be highly flexible and scales well to meet many unique requirements given an healthy investment of time and money. The software itself costs $100 a month with a $300 one-time setup fee.
CitySoft Community Enterprise (citysoft.com).
CitySoft's Community Enterprise product has sophisticated features for advanced Web-site content, constituent, and event management, including tools for chapter site management particularly relevant for associations. This sophistication often leads to complexity, and many nonprofits will need to budget substantial time and money for implementation. Nonprofits with annual budgets of $500,000 or less can receive a free version of the CitySoft code through TechSoup, and host it with CitySoft for $75 a month. For larger nonprofits, the hosted version of the software is $250 to $500 a month.
Customization Power vs. Ease of Setup
With that overview, let's dive into the detailed comparisons.
Any hosted application must define a balance between customization power and the ease of getting started. These two aspects are often at odds with one another. A package focused on users without much technical expertise might provide a standard set of "out-of-the-box" features that are easy to get started with — but often, these types of packages have only limited flexibility to meet an organization's custom needs.
On the other hand, some packages provide a flexible framework that can be more powerfully customized — this power, however, typically means that an organization will need more time and expertise up-front in order to get started. These types of packages also tend to be more feature-rich, and often more expensive.
Wild Apricot, ETapestry, and GivenGain are very much "out-of-the-box" solutions. They provide a defined set of features that cover a number of common needs, without the need for technical skills or substantial setup. Wild Apricot, in particular, stands out as one of the easiest to use without any prior knowledge of the system. These packages provide a set of functionality that works "as-is," but organizations may run into limitations as they try to address more unusual needs.
MemberClicks and Z2 Neon take a middle road. They offer substantial pre-built functionality, with the ability to add and modify a number of fields. Organizations will require some technical expertise to get started, but may be able to support more unusual processes if required.
Network for Good's Suite, Democracy in Action, and CitySoft are more akin to a box of Legos. They provide the building blocks you can use to form a complete application, as well as methods to add on additional blocks as needed. Each system allows you (or your expert consultant) to integrate outside applications, your Web site, and more. Network for Good's Suite offers a particularly sizable number of "Legos." As it is built on top of Saleforce.com, customers can take advantage of a large community of Salesforce developers who are contributing custom applications back to other customers through the Salesforce "Apps Exchange." For all three tools, however, the cost of this flexibility is a more complex system to understand and use. Organizations with more than basic needs will require technology expertise to define their requirements, learn the systems' terminology, understand how their processes map to the myriad of available and configurable features, and put in the days, weeks, or months needed to get up and running.
Even tools with more limited flexibility may offer just the right functionality to meet your requirements, without the complexity of a more powerful tool. Consider your own needs and take a detailed look at the packages you're considering to think through what will work best for you.
The Essentials: Tracking Your Constituent Information
All of these packages allow you to manage basic constituent information, such as name, contact information, and relationship to your organization. Each also supports more complex constituent information, but their specialties differ from package to package.
eTapestry is strongly focused on donor management. eTapestry labels constituents as "accounts," and has support for pledges, donor-loyalty tracking, house-holding, integration with Guidestar Grants Explorer, payments and related campaigns, HEP-matching gift database, and more. Support for other types of constituents — for instance, members or volunteers — is limited.
Z2 Neon also offers substantial donor-management features, with basic functionality to track grants that the organization has applied for, as well as pledge-tracking, house-holding, and more. It has a somewhat broader focus than eTapestry, and allows organizations to track some information about a wider range of constituents through custom fields, user-defined constituent groups, and more.
GivenGain, MemberClicks, and Wild Apricot emphasize individual membership management through support for membership levels, dues payments, expiration dates, and more. They provide strong integration with a Web site — members can sign up or renew online, or log in to "members only" sections. GivenGain in particular has a very robust group and house-holding feature allowing multiple hierarchies of groups and distinctions between individual households and organizational groups that can be configured to further build out membership tracking. However, none of these tools has substantial support for managing members that are organizations themselves, as is common with "association management" applications, and their support for managing donors, volunteers, or other types of constituents is limited. For instance, in Wild Apricot, it is difficult to add an offline donation manually.
Democracy in Action has a broad rather than specialized focus. The system focuses on the people first, then how they are related to your organization, and then what actions they have taken (for example donated, signed up for an event, and so on). While it does not have as sophisticated built-in functionality for tracking donors or members as the systems above, it is quite flexible and can be tailored to meet many custom constituent-tracking needs, with an investment of expertise and setup time.
As mentioned above, the Network for Good Suite and CitySoft offer a framework for meeting custom needs as much as out-of-the-box tools. They both focus on tracking all relationships between your organization and a constituent. The Network for Good Suite has only a basic set of built-in donor-management functionality, but as it is built on top of the Salesforce.com platform, organizations that are willing to invest can add many other types of functionalities. CitySoft has fairly extensive built-in donor-management and membership-management tools, including pledge tracking, house-holding, grants management, membership levels, dues payments, and some minimal support of organizational memberships. Again, those organizations that are ready to invest can expand these functionalities even more to meet custom needs.
Online Payments Donations and Membership Payments
Many organizations rely on online payments — donations, for instance, or payment of membership dues or event registrations. Functionality that integrates these online payments with your constituent database can save a lot of manual re-entry or data synching.
All the systems we reviewed support integrated online payment systems. Some, such as GivenGain and the Network for Good Suite, process all the payments and compensate the nonprofits on a regular basis — this makes the payment system easy to set up, but delays payments by a few weeks, and means that their names will show up on your constituent's credit card. Others will integrate directly into your bank account, which allows you more flexibility, but can require more time and money to set up.
All eight packages allow you to either integrate payment pages into your current Web site look and feel, or simply host these pages for you with the required look and feel. All allow donors to make a single donation or membership payment. Some, like Wild Apricot and MemberClicks, stop there, while others will also automatically process recurring payments. GivenGain provides sophisticated support for a number of different currencies, for both single and recurring payments.
All of the packages allow for additional custom fields to track additional details about a payment, such as the campaign the donation is related to. However, not every system tightly integrates this. For example, the Network for Good Suite is a bit difficult to use when setting up one donation form to support multiple campaigns, as the integration between donation campaigns and donation amounts is incomplete. MemberClicks goes a bit further than most of the rest by providing strong tools for building fully customized donation and member-payment processing forms.
While it's possible to accept membership payments with any of these systems, Wild Apricot, MemberClicks, Z2 Neon, and CitySoft provide considerably smoother functionality out of the box. Platforms such as the Network for Good Suite or eTapestry are more geared toward donations, and are likely to require additional work and time to support dues or membership levels.
Events: Join the Party!
Many nonprofits run events of some kind, and integrated event-registration tools can be a big help in understanding a complete picture of how your constituents are involved with your organization. None of these systems provide robust, top-end event-management functionality, but a number of them may meet your needs for straightforward events with simple pricing structures.
Z2 Neon's event-registration functionality stands out from the pack. Events can be set up as single or multi session, as multipart events with separate payment options, to publish automatically to the Web site, with maximum attendees, tracked based on user-defined categories, and more. Democracy in Action also offers a large array of features in an easy-to-follow six-step process, including maximum attendees and wait list, grouping and tagging, multiple fees, and even latitude and longitude fields for integration with external mapping tools.
Wild Apricot has the cleanest integration of the bunch, making it very easy to see all events, organize them by tags, clone past events to save setup time, and to quickly invite attendees. Wild Apricot, CitySoft, and MemberClicks make it very easy to customize the registration form.
Network for Good's Suite, eTapestry and GivenGain do not offer event-registration functionality beyond basic payment processing. Because Network for Good's Suite is built on top of Salesforce, users willing to undertake additional configuration time and complexity can use some of the Salesforce plug-in applications to do simple event registration.
Communicating with Your Constituents via Email
Email communications can be a very useful and cost-effective way to reach out to a list of your constituents. All of the packages reviewed have the ability to send emails to a list, but they offer differing levels of functionality.
Network for Good's Suite, GivenGain, Democracy in Action, CitySoft, and Z2 Neon all offer robust sets of tools. Users of the Network for Good Suite can use an integrated, excellent external system called VerticalResponse. Using this system, emails can be created using templates, plain text, or HTML, then sent to any group you define. Emails are linked back to the recipient's record and can be tracked in detail, including the number of people who open them and the number that clicked through.
Democracy in Action offers a similar set of features, including powerful abilities to target just the group you want, and the ability to clone previous email blasts. Similarly, GivenGain offers a tool with most of these features, and adds in text messaging and Skype phone calling.
Z2 Neon has some interesting features, including the ability to series of email reminders based on certain conditions you choose, and integration with UPS to mass mail postcards at a discount. CitySoft is reminiscent of the popular email marketing tool Constant Contact, and has a nice feature that allows users to quickly drop a custom donation link into the email.
MemberClicks and Wild Apricot have only limited email blast capacity, without the ability to save templates or to view click-through or open-rate statistics.
Managing Your Web Site: A Public Face
The systems differ substantially in their support for managing your Web-site text, images, and look and feel. Some consider the Web site the core of their system, while others don't support site updates at all. None of these packages offer the functionality that would be provided by even a mid-market content management system, such as Joomla, meaning they're often better suited for simple Web sites, or for managing pieces of a larger Web site.
CitySoft, Democracy in Action, and GivenGain all focus on site content management as a core feature, and offer functionality for fully managing Web sites with an array of templates, forms, and page types to choose from. Democracy in Action makes it the easiest to manage multiple templates for the site look and feel, and offers a variety of interactive pages such as blogs, polls, surveys, tell-a-friend, and more. Both CitySoft and Democracy in Action allow for "chapter" or branch-office site management, creating a framework for association Web management. All of these allow the administrator to integrate email, payment, and registration forms within the site.
Wild Apricot also has strong content-management tools, but they're designed for simple sites that don't need a sophisticated graphic design. The easy-to-use tools offer a compelling way for small organizations to quickly set up a site, with all the email, payment, and registration forms needed. Their tools are tailored toward membership organizations, and allow quick setup of members-only pages and member directories.
Z2 Neon is not quite as integrated, offering a separate login access to an open-source content management system called Open CMS. While it's possible to fully customize the site's graphic design, you must go through Z2 Neon's support team to do so.
MemberClicks offers the ability to create both members-only and public Web pages, including forums and highly configurable signup forms for donations and event registration. They capacity to control the look and feel of these pages is more limited than some of the other packages.
While eTapestry offers consulting services to help you build a custom site for an additional fee, content management tools are not offered as part of its integrated package. The Network for Good Suite does not offer any support for site content management.
Summing It Up
That's a lot of information. To help you compare, we've put together a matrix that summarizes the information above. We've used a "sophisticated" rating to describe functionality that corresponds by what's offered by a mid-market stand-alone tool in the same area — so for some of these areas, none of the packages have "sophisticated" functionality.
Note that the scores in this matrix, as opposed to most of those that Idealware publishes, are not rigorously tied to rating criteria — so consider this to be a high-level guide as opposed to a detailed comparison.
Choosing the Right Package
Which package is right for your organization? The only way to choose is to carefully think through your own needs:
- Is an integrated package right for you at all? The integrated packages described here, particularly the more out-of-the-box ones, will best meet the needs of smaller organizations with a fairly typical set of straightforward needs. These packages tend to have basic or mid-level functionality in a lot of areas, and it may be difficult to support sophisticated needs in specific areas. Tools like Network for Good's Suite, Democracy in Action, and CitySoft will be more flexible, but you may well have to integrate them with other tools to meet more advanced needs. For any of these tools, remember that you'll need to devote time and effort to move your data from whatever software it's currently stored in.
- What are the most critical features for you? Think through the processes, information, and reports the system will need to support, and prioritize your needs. Don't assume that a package with more features will work better for you. Bigger packages might cover more of your future needs, but they're likely to take more time to set up, learn, and use.
- What needs to be integrated? While it's often useful to integrate all constituent data, it's not always practical. Consider if it might make more sense to handle some of the features you've identified using other tools, rather than depending on a single package for absolutely everything.
- What can you afford for the long run? How much can you afford to pay now and over the next three to five years to maintain this system? Do you have the staffing required to meet your critical information-tracking needs?
As is usually true, the software that's great for one organization might be a terrible choice for another. Think through your own needs and take a careful look at several packages to choose one that will work well for you.
Eric Leland has spent the last 13 years working with progressive organizations tackling online and offline technology challenges. As the founder and director of Leland Design, Eric focuses on strategic technology planning, Web site, and database planning and development for progressive health and human services organizations, human rights, and environmental advocacy groups. In addition to Leland Design, Eric served as the director of TechCommons at TechSoup.org, one of the nation's most comprehensive nonprofit technology assistance organizations, and worked with a variety of organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and Witness. Eric is active in nonprofit and technology circles, serving as the co-chair to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network in San Francisco, and as a member of the Graphic Alliance, the Tech Underground, and the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network.
Laura Quinn, Founder and Director of Idealware, also contributed to this article.