Selecting a Donor Management System – Eight Questions to Consider

Idealware's research team is hard at work on an update to our popular report comparing and reviewing donor management systems, which is scheduled for release in the next couple of weeks. To whet your appetite, we wanted to share a guest post from Larry Perlstein, a technology specialist who has worked for a number of consulting firms and has an enviable amount of eperience working with nonprofits, about choosing donor management systems. After you've read it, bookmark it and refer back to it after you've had a chance to digest our report.

Recently, I held a roundtable for nonprofit organizations embarking on selecting a donor management system. I asked the participants the following eight questions, which proved useful in helping them refine their objectives and focus their activities:

  1. How do YOU define Donor Management System? Does it include ticketing, customer relationship management, email marketing, membership management, and more? Many vendors are moving from an entry point of single functionality to a broad set of integrated applications. It’s important to understand what functionality you are in need of and what are your priorities to avoid buying some more complicated (and more expensive) than necessary. Of course, it’s also important to be cognitive of where you are headed so that you can grow into the system.
  2. When do you know you need a Donor Management System? Have you outgrown your Excel spreadsheet? Are you beginning a major fundraising campaign? Knowing when you need to implement a Donor Management System is important … first, it’s not wise to acquire once before you are ready as your organization may not have the capacity or the ability to organize and enter the required information. Starting too early can lead to fits and starts, which is fatiguing. Starting too late, however, can require an excessive amount of manual activity as data is updated to the requirements of the new system.
  3. Should you install the system on-premise, use a Software-as-a-Service-based system, or install it in the cloud? Now may be a good time to re-evaluate your current IT installation and look for alternatives to on-premise installs. You might be able to get rid of that old server and select a vendor who offers the application as a service accessible from any web browser. Or you could find a traditional vendor who can install the application using a cloud provider. The reduced costs, improved flexibility, ease of maintenance, and greater security make either option worthy of examination.
  4. Should you install an all-in-one integrated system or mix and match different pieces? Have you been building your own best-of-breed application suite over the years only to find that they pieces don’t all fit together? An integrated suite offers many advantages, including consistent look and feel, single point of control workflow, data consistency, and ease of upgrades. It can, however, not provide all of the best-of-breed functionality you’re looking for … but is that what you really need? An integrated suite satisfying 80 percent of your requirements is likely sufficient to satisfy your needs while significantly reducing complexity.
  5. Are you taking the proper precautions with respect to customer data security and backup? Are you walking around with your donor list in Excel on your unsecured laptop? First things first … data needs to be securely backed up and there are no excuses for not doing so with the plethora of hard drives available and the prevalence of secure online backup systems. Secondly, unsecured data puts your organization at risk. Data security concerns and liability are increasingly problematic and require strong system controls that are often beyond the scope of small businesses, so look to the cloud for the best solutions.
  6. Have you evaluated the viability of your vendor, and do you have a migration plan if they fail? Sure you made certain your vendor was viable when you bought the package six years ago, but have you checked lately? Checking in with your vendor every year to ensure their financial stability is sound is a best practice, and should augment controls built into your contract that give you rights to the software code, if applicable, and data export capabilities. Some warning signs of vendor viability issues are excessive turnover of the developers, infrequent software updates, new and increasing fees for services, and rumors of acquisition.
  7. Do you use services such as CommunityCorps to find technical professional volunteer help? Have a project that you just don’t have the resources to complete? There are volunteer professionals waiting to help you and available through organizations such as CommunityCorps. Simply post the details of the project on their website and volunteers can indicate their interest in helping you.
  8. Do you use resources such as TechSoup and Idealware to help you acquire software, hardware and services specifically for nonprofits? It may go without saying that you are using these resources (and others) if you are reading this blog. However, it’s worth reiterating the value of selecting solutions specifically geared both functionally and financially toward nonprofits. Nonprofit organizations both small and large have a vast array of solutions to choose from at varying price points, from the very simple to the most complex, and from the single function to the tightly integrated. See the list below for a representative list of Donor Management Systems.

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