Selecting the Right Software Solution for Your Nonprofit

Wendy Levine
October 3, 2019

Selecting the right software solution for your nonprofit

Whether your nonprofit is looking for a new CRM system, an event tool, or a complete digital marketing and donor management platform - an organized software selection project will ensure that you find the right solution for your organization.

A good selection project consists of the following:

1. Project team and executive sponsor

Selecting a new software system can be a huge decision. Take the time to consider what and who will be impacted by the change, and then put together a team that has the time and knowledge to assist with the selection process. Depending on the size of the project and the size of your organization, a project team may range anywhere from 2 members to 10.

When putting your project team together, consider the following:

  • Who will be directly affected by the new system?
  • Who will have the most valuable input? Don’t overlook lower-level employees who have been with the organization for a long time and may have a very different perspective from leadership.
  • Who are the biggest users of the current system? Whether software or a manual system is being replaced - you will need to make sure that you aren’t losing needed functionality.
  • Who will be the biggest consumers of information coming out of this system? Your ED will need operational reports, the board will want high-level intelligence, and others will need specific information to do their jobs effectively.

Be sure to also identify an “executive sponsor.” For many organizations, this will be the Executive Director, but for others it may be a board member or other member of the management team. The Role of the executive sponsor is to provide guidance and direction on the goals of the project, address budget adjustments, and help to resolve any disagreements within the team on requirements or focus. The executive sponsor steers the project team, but does not run the team directly or participate in most of the daily activity of the team. The executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the project is on-track and focused on what is important for the organization.

2. Project plan and timeline

Project plans and timelines can be simple or complex, depending on the size and scope of your project. All project plans should contain, at a minimum:

    • Key milestones
    • Roles and responsibilities for team members
    • Project goals

Insist on a written project plan. The best way to ensure that a project doesn’t meet expectations is to not have expectations!

3. Requirements document

If you have worked on a software selection project before, you many have seen large spreadsheets listing hundreds of requirements. Keep in mind that when it comes to requirements documents and RFP’s (requests for proposals) or RFI’s (requests for information) - more is not always better. Focus on the following types of items in your requirements document:

  • Major functional areas: Ask vendors if they have the ability to manage fundraising activity, events, advocacy campaigns, and any other major area of functionality that you are looking to handle with the new system. In some cases, additional applications may be needed - don’t overlook these costs.
  • Unique features: Do you hold a particularly large gala every year? Is your cause focused on regulatory changes - and you need your supporters actively commenting on pending federal regulations? Is there unique information you want to gather about your donors?
  • Specific features: You simply cannot list every feature that you will possibly need in a new system - but you should come up with a list of key requirements in each of the major functional areas. Focus on functionality that is truly meaningful to your organization, such as “The ability to manage family relationships among donors.” Stay away from super-specific items that you could work around if needed, such as the size or names of individual fields in the system. Be careful not to spend too much time on features that you like or don’t like in your current system. It is surprisingly common to end up with a requirements list that looks very similar to the current system! Focus on WHAT you need to accomplish with the system, not so much on HOW you want to do it. You may find ways of handling processes and issues in new systems that you hadn’t thought of.

Check out the Nonprofit Database Checklist that our friends at Mockingbird Analytics put together.  (Mockingbird Analytics provides infrastructure and development services to nonprofits looking to scale their work - learn more about the services they provide)

4. Budget

You should put in place a preliminary budget before evaluating solutions in any detail, otherwise you risk spending time with vendors whose solutions are just not feasible for your organization.  If you do not have someone on your team with the experience to do this -  talk to other nonprofits about what they have spent on systems, or bring in a consultant to assist. Be sure to include costs associated with the system implementation. Many software systems include the cost of the training and support needed to put the system in place, but be sure to ask.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Review sites, such as Capterra and Software Advice, often provide a good place to start when looking for software. However, keep in mind that these are paid sites on which the vendors who pay more appear higher on the lists that you will see.
  2. Do the hard work up front to ensure a smooth process and a good outcome. Ensuring that you have gathered the right requirements and have truly thought through the budget that will be needed is critical to a successful selection project. It is the job of the executive sponsor to make sure that team members have the time they need to spend on the project and that the entire organization understands the importance of the project.
  3. Be honest with yourself and with your vendors. Be realistic about your requirements and your budget - and be up front with your vendors. Software vendors will tell you if they are not a good fit for your requirements or your budget - they don’t want to waste their time any more than you want to waste yours!
  4. Be sure that you are comparing “apples to apples.” If you are comparing digital marketing systems, but one has a peer-to-peer campaign tool and one does not - make sure you are adding in the cost that will be required to get that functionality if you need it. In the nonprofit space - consider the following areas of functionality:
    • CRM / Donor Management
    • Digital Marketing and Donor Engagement - Automated email, fundraising forms, landing pages, etc.
    • Event management - Peer-to-peer campaign management, online event pages, and ticketing
    • Advocacy - Legislative outreach and regulatory commenting
    • Fundraising - Donation management, online fundraising forms, and tracking of donor history and offline donations
    • Integration - Can data in the system be easily exported into usable formats? Does the system have an open API if integration to other systems is needed?
    • Grant management
    • Volunteer management

Should I work with a consultant?

Many organizations, even small ones, work with a consultant to assist them in selecting a software system. While there is a cost involved in hiring a consultant, many nonprofits find that the consultant saves them time and money in the long run. The right consultant can quickly get you to a short list of vendors that have the functionality you are looking for, can then help you select the right package, and will often even assist with the implementation. Putting the time and effort into finding the right package and implementing it correctly saves the cost of trying to use the wrong system or one that is not setup correctly for your organization.

What to look for in a consultant?

  • Technology agnostic
    You absolutely want a consultant that has relationships with software vendors and knows their capabilities. You do NOT want a consultant that has ONE relationship with ONE software vendor.
  • Nonprofit experts
    We all know that the requirements of a nonprofit are extremely different from the requirements of a for-profit company. Be sure to work with someone who focuses exclusively, or at least primarily, on nonprofits.
  • Don’t be afraid to work with a consultant remotely
    While it is nice to find someone that you can meet with face-to-face, you may find that the best consultant for your organization is not local. These types of consultants are usually very good at managing projects online.
  • References
    Don’t just insist that the consultant provide you references - call them! Ask about how the consultant communicates, meets deadlines, and works with different members of the team.
Send me a list of nonprofit software consultants

Steps in the software selection process:

  1. Requirements
    Compile your requirements list. If you will be working with a selection consultant, they will manage this process for you.
  2. Initial Vendor List
    Come up with an initial vendor list - usually from online research and recommendations. If you are working with a selection consultant, it is likely that you will skip this step and start with your short-list (#4 below).
  3. Research
    Research your initial vendor list and rule out any vendors that are missing major pieces of functionality, are out of your price range, or don’t meet other significant requirements.
  4. Vendor Short List
    Your short list really shouldn’t be more than 3 or 4 vendors. Any more, and managing the process becomes unwieldy. Your team only has so much time to sit through software demos!
  5. Demos
    Most vendors will schedule on-line demos for your team - but if the company is local, in-person demos can be more informative (though usually more time-consuming). The trick with demos is to find a good compromise between what the vendor wants to show you and what you want to see. Be sure to control the demo process so that your team isn’t wasting time on functionality that isn’t applicable to your organization. Ask for an agenda up-front and don’t be afraid to ask questions, interrupt, and re-direct the demo when necessary. That said (and yes, I’m a little biased here), any good software vendor has spent time thinking about how they show their software and they will tailor the presentation to fit your requirements. Give them a chance to run through their piece as much as possible - you may find that they are showing you features or discussing issues that you hadn’t thought of. You will also be seeing what they think are the best features in their system, so be sure to compare those with your priority list.
  6. Budget review and negotiations
    Review the quote the vendor is giving you and ask about anything you may need that isn’t included. Are there fees for a required payment processor, additional charges if you add users later, or costs for integrations that you may need? This is a step that a good selection consultant will be heavily involved with. With smaller software vendors especially, there may not be much you can negotiate when it comes to software cost - but keep in mind that the biggest discounts are usually available at the end of a quarter or the end of a year.
  7. Implementation plan
    With any sized project - an implementation plan is critical. This topic deserves its own article, but keep the following in mind:
    • The software vendor and/or selection consultant should be able to give you a great amount of direction here.
    • Do not underestimate the amount of work it may take to prepare your existing data before it is imported into the new system. Take this opportunity to clean up and standardize your data before it goes into the new system.
    • Give your team specific tasks and deadlines.
    • Focus on what will have the most impact to your organization first.

Don’t forget to celebrate your “go-live” day! Reward your team and share the news with your supporters on your website and social media channels.

Topics: Nonprofit Marketing
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