Managing constituents

Ohio nonprofit provides web-based database for nonprofits.

By Todd Cohen

What a difference 20 years makes.

In 1984, at the dawn of the personal computer and nearly a decade before the internet, nonprofits found it tough to get computers and software geared to their work.

“Access was pitiful,” says Dale Abrams, executive director of CIVIC, a nonprofit software provider at civiconline.org in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. “Most nonprofits were struggling even to afford a PC.”

Today, CIVIC provides a web-based database for more than 100 nonprofits in central Ohio, has started to work with statewide and Washington, D.C.-based groups, and is considering rolling out its product to state chapters of national organizations.

Twenty years ago, when he was working in the information-technology department of National City Bank in Columbus, he said, local nonprofits were flooding the Columbus Foundation and Columbus-based CompuServe with requests for funds for computer hardware and for database software to manage constituents.

To make the most productive use of the investment needed to meet nonprofits’ demand for technology, the foundation and computer time-sharing service teamed up to launched Columbus Information Via Computer, or CIVIC.

“The community decided to invest in a central resource that would develop software for all organizations in the community that they could share, instead of each organization having to go and develop it on their own,” says Abrams, who joined the nonprofit as its first executive six months after it was launched in 1984.

The foundation invested $150,000 in the startup, and CompuServe contributed equipment and a full-time employee.

The third partner in launching the new nonprofit, and its first customer, was The Center of Science and Industry, a science and technology museum for children.

The museum, which provided office space for CIVIC, wanted software to help it keep track of donors, volunteers, members, clients and vendors.

For its first product, CIVIC created a computer time-sharing business model, with clients using a modem and personal computer to dial into CompuServe’s mainframe computer.

“At the time, there were really no such things as internet sites, there were no servers,” Abrams says. “How you got access to technology when you couldn’t afford the ‘big iron’ [mainframe computers] was that you shared.”
Today, instead of giving clients phone access to mainframe computers, CIVIC provides access to its database software over the internet.

While the basic product remains the same, CIVIC can tailor it to individual clients’ particular needs, Abrams says.

The initial idea for CIVIC was to create a single fundraising system that would be “flexible, shareable and customizable,” he says. “Every installation of our product is essentially customized for each client.”

What’s more, he says, each tool CIVIC builds for individual clients is available to others.

One client, for example, wanted a module to track its clients’ Medicaid billing, while another wanted to track its clients’ continuing education.

CIVIC customized its generic module to handle those clients’ needs, and those customized modules now are available to other customers serving similar constituencies.

The cost of CIVIC’s software ranges from $50 a month to $1,000 or more, although few clients pay that much, Abrams says.

Adding one to two customers a month, CIVIC after its first five years had about 50 customers for its constituent-management software.

In 2000, CIVIC launched its internet-based product and began converting existing customers to that new software.

And in 2002 and 2003, CIVIC began taking on clients outside central Ohio.

CIVIC, for example, works with statewide organizations, such as Columbus-based Prevent Blindness Ohio, which serves all 88 counties in the state with chapters in Canton, Cleveland and Dayton, all of which have access to the organization’s main database.

Another client is the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which owns and manages theaters in Columbus and in New Haven, Conn., all of which have access to the organization’s main database.

And CIVIC recently signed its first client in Washington, D.C., the Blue Ridge Speech and Hearing Center.

Yet another client is the Ohio chapter of a professional association with chapters in most states, and CIVIC now is talking with the group’s national organization about rolling out its product to all the state chapters, Abrams says.

With an annual budget of less than $200,000 and a staff of two full-time employees, plus a part-time trainer and two part-time developers, CIVIC generates all of its revenue through income from clients.

The group continues to receive in-kind support from America Online, which acquired CompuServe in 1997. CIVIC runs its systems on AOL servers, receives some AOL underwriting, and occupies offices on AOL’s suburban Columbus campus.

A current focus, Abrams says, is to expand the functionality of CIVIC’s software to better handle special events.

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