Selecting Software on a Shoestring

UPDATED for 2014! If you need an inexpensive software tool that’s not particularly strategic for your organization, traditional software selection techniques can seem awfully complicated. Here’s a simplified six-step process that can help when you just need to make a simple choice quickly.

With so much software available on the market, you can find a solution to nearly every conceivable need. But if you have a simple need, how do you wade through those options to find something that will work for you without spending more on the selection process than on the software itself? What if you need something that’s neither a big investment nor particularly strategic for your organization—maybe just a simple solution to share files, allow website searches, or track time. In such circumstances, traditional selection techniques can seem awfully complicated and time-consuming. Few technology professionals would use extensive selection processes to pick a small software utility—but you rarely hear about alternatives.

Here’s a simplified six-step process that can help when you just need to make a simple choice quickly.

When Should You Use a Simplified Process?

Before deciding to use a stripped-down selection process, ask yourself a few questions to make sure it makes sense for the circumstances:

  • Do you plan to spend an organizationally significant amount of money on this software?
  • Will this piece of software change the way your organization functions?
  • Is switching to (or away from) this software likely to be expensive or time-consuming?
  • Is this software complex enough to require formal training?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s probably worth investing in a more rigorous software selection process. Trying to take a shortcut to a choice in these situations is risky, and you’re likely to save more time and money in the long run by choosing carefully upfront.

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an inexpensive software utility, you could easily spend more time evaluating tools than you could ever make up with the gains by using it. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours comparing tools in order to save $100 per year. You’re ready for a streamlined selection process.

1. Quickly define your top needs

Jot down the top three to five things you need the software tool to do, giving priority to the functions you can’t live without. Think through how the application will exist in your current environment—will it need to share data, or be compatible with particular formats? What do you need to ensure you can support and use the application effectively? Try to consider not only your current needs, but also how your needs might change in the future. 

2. Check if you can do it with the software you already have

Before going on the hunt, do a quick check to see if you already have the functionality you’re looking for within your email application, office suite or content management system. Modern software is versatile and feature-rich, and few of us actually use or take extensive note of all the features available to us. If what you need to get done can be accomplished with something that’s already installed, you’ll save time, money, and the frustration of having to learn a whole new application.

3. Get a sense of what other people are using for similar needs

It’s difficult to make a good choice in a vacuum. It’s also counterproductive to reinvent the wheel. What’s worked for other people with needs similar to yours? Talk to colleagues at similar organizations, or post to a discussion list seeking input. Look for case studies online. Check information at Idealware, TechSoup, or the Nonprofit Matrix for options. See what software is offered through TechSoup's donation program. Browse the toolkits at Social Source Commons or seek out your state association for information about online discussion groups relevant to your specific needs to get a look at what other tools nonprofits are using.

If you can, have actual conversations with a few people to understand what tools they’re using, how they like them and what criteria they used to choose them. Understanding the things they found to be critical may help you discover criteria you didn’t even know you had. While it’s tempting to just go with a recommendation of a friend, try to get more than one or two perspectives. It’s hard to know whether others’ experiences will apply to your needs, or if their experiences are way outside the norm.

4. Pick a package that sounds promising

Based on your conversations, pick a package that sounds like it might work for you—perhaps one a similar organization is using and likes. Get access to a demo. Many online software packages offer free trial versions from their Web site, or ask the vendor to organize a trial account or detailed demo. 

5. Run the package through some scenarios

If you’re trying to quickly choose a tool, don’t get buried in feature lists and comparisons. Instead, imagine actually using the software for the needs you identified. What would you want it to do? What are other users likely to use it for? How easily, and how well, would the package you’re considering help you meet your needs? If you have access to a demo version, spend some time hands-on, running through some scenarios. At a minimum, ask the vendor to demonstrate some of your real-life tasks. 

6. Decide if the package is good enough

This is the difficult step. If the package you’re considering meets your top needs, and your mental simulations or demos confirm it should work, you’re done. Buy the software package, and walk away. 

This can be scary. It may feel like you should look at a number of alternatives, but that’s what takes so much time. Remind yourself that you’re not looking for the very best package for your needs—just one that will satisfy them. Better to save your time to more carefully weigh the packages that will transform your organization.

Wrapping Up

Chances are there’s more than one way to do that, just like there’s more than one software solution to meet your needs. But if your needs are not complex, your selection process shouldn’t be either. Use the steps we outlined to quickly find the software package that’s right for you… or at least, one that’s good enough to get you where you’re going. 

Many thanks to nonprofit technology professionals Peter Campbell and Paul Hagen for their recommendations, advice, and other help on the original version of this article.