Editor’s note: All this month we’re publishing tech tips for nonprofits. Keep a look out for a new tip each day and let us know what you think in the comments. -Dan 

If your organization is trying to choose between several different software packages, you should ask the vendors to demo them before you plunk down your money. But don’t get trapped by the sales pitch—most demos highlight the tools’ strengths while glossing over weaknesses. With a little diligence and advance preparation, you can cut through the smoke and mirrors. Here’s how:

  1. Skip the PowerPoint. They’re most often marketing pitches about the vendors, and won’t tell you much about the software.
  2. Prepare a list of questions to ask all vendors, and include the features you want to see in action. This helps you to compare apples to apples, and increases your chances of seeing what you want instead of just what the vendors want to show you.
  3. Ask one question at a time. Lump them together and you run the risk of having smooth-talking salespeople skip the ones they don’t want to answer and cherry-pick those that cast their products in the best light.
  4. Provide a real-world scenario from your own organization’s experience for vendors to follow—for example, if you’re looking at donor management systems, ask the vendor to show you the process for entering a gift, creating a new donor, creating a mailing list, and generating a report. Be specific.
  5. Don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles. Focus on the features and functions you need most.
  6. Stick to your budget. Get quotes on what it will cost to get the system up and running—the sticker price is often just a starting point.

Don’t be afraid to interrupt a demo that’s gone off track. Take control of your demos and you’ll take control of your purchasing decision, making sure you get the right system for your organization’s needs and budget.