Editor’s note: A few weeks back we led a panel discussion on how to choose a donor management system with Eric Leland, Robert Weiner, and our own Karen Graham. The webinar was so popular and the questions so good that we couldn’t get to everything in the hour. But we didn’t want your questions to go unanswered. Our panelists split up the remaining questions and over the next three weeks we’ll publish their answers.

The first batch of answers come from Eric Leland from FivePaths. Eric is an Idealware Expert Trainer and a longtime consultant who has helped nonprofits do just about everything, from setting up a website to implementing a database system. Enjoy!

Is one solution for us, with barely 4,000 constituents and being cash poor, to go from our Excel spreadsheets to a free service for a year or two and then to one of the bigger ones in the near future, or will this be too much work to do twice!?

The “switching” costs (moving from one system to another) are typically a lot more effort than you predict. Ideally, you remain in a system you chose for a few years chosen to support your longer-term organizational goals, unless changes in your data management needs are significant enough to force an earlier transition.

Is there a potential issue with locking my data into a specific vendor product and not being able to migrate to another system in the future? How easy is it to move to a new product in three years?

Vendors are not eager to lose their customers—they often do not provide easy ways to get all your data out of the system. The key is to explore your migration options BEFORE you settle on a vendor. If you can prove that the vendor offers a way to get all your data out in a standard format (csv or xls for example) that can be absorbed by many other systems, then you are in good shape. Also keep in mind that the cost to move completely into using new system, even when you can easily get all your data out of the old system, is often much more work than you expect when you account for the new system setup, fields and report building, and training.

Outside of the intake of donations, what are the differences between donor software and other CRM software?

Donor software focuses on tracking information about people who are donors and details about their gifts. CRM software tracks people who may be one of many roles to you (donors, volunteers, staff, customers, etc.) and who may have a variety of interactions with you (gift giving, volunteering, employment, services provision, event attendance, etc.). If your focus is primarily donors and their gift giving, you may be well suited for software that specializes in donor management. If your focus is on a larger variety of people you engage, and engagements they have with your organization, a CRM may be a better fit.