Form follows function in selecting software

Todd Cohen

A nonprofit client, after turning to NPower Charlotte Region for advice on managing its donors and fundraising, quickly asked the nonprofit consultant which fundraising software it should use.

NPower, however, advised the nonprofit to first think about its prospective donors and its fundraising process.

Nonprofits often believe that “if we pick the right tool, all the problems will go away,” says Chris Meade, chief operating officers for NPower Charlotte Region, a North Carolina-based affiliate of the New York City-based network of nonprofit tech consultants. “But if we don’t deal with people and process, the problems will remain.”

The selection of fundraising software, he says, represents only a supporting step toward a larger and more important goal that also requires assessing how the nonprofit raises money and identifying the people involved in its fundraising.

“The process for doing that is the same as for any business-process improvement,” Meade says, “Plan what you’re going to do. Assess where you are today. Identify the opportunities for what you could change and want to change. And implement those.”

Fundraising software “turns data into information,” he says. “It’s not just about tracking more fields about constituents. It’s about what are you going to do about all that data, particularly in the aggregate.”

With over 100 fundraising software packages on the market, Meade says, nonprofits can transform their perceived need for software into an opportunity to assess and improve their overall fundraising operation.

People and process

Dow Bauknight, executive director of NPower Charlotte Region, says the first step in reengineering the fundraising process is for the nonprofit to identify the expected sources of contributed income.

“Who exactly is the audience you’re going to appeal to,” he says.

The type of donor and the number of donors, in turn, will help determine the type of technology the nonprofit needs.

If it plans to solicit support from six corporations that will account for 80 percent of its contributed income, for example, the nonprofit would need a “good contact-management system that gives a good who’s who in the organization and allows you to track conversations you’ve had with them,” along with documents used in communicating with the company, Bauknight says.

But if the nonprofit plans to raise a lot of money from a larger base of individual donors, it more likely would need software to sort, segment and track relationships with the donors, along with their giving histories.

“As the number of requests increases,” Bauknight says, “so does the sophistication” required of the software.

Also key to the planning process, he says, is identifying the people inside and outside the organization who are involved in fundraising, and understanding exactly what they do.

What are the respective roles, for example, of the executive director, development director, board members and volunteer leaders?

The nonprofit should identify staff, volunteers and others, such as employees of corporations responsible for managing workplace-giving campaigns, who will need real-time access to the nonprofit’s fundraising data.

“There are opportunities to improve the donor-management processes before you get to the tool,” Meade says. “Do we have the right people to reach those groups, and is the process, even without the automation of technology, as efficient and clear as it can be?”

If not, “you can make some easy tweaks to the process, and some not-so-easy tweaks of replacing people, before you put a new tool in place,” he says. “A new tool in the hands of the wrong people isn’t going to change anything.”

Nonprofits also should be careful not to focus on a particular software package simply because they know another organization that uses that product.

Different organizations use different strategies to raise money and have different needs for fundraising software, Meade says.

Having identified issues involving the people and processes involved in its fundraising, he says, a nonprofit then can look at the opportunities technology offers for reaching more donors, generating more revenue, reducing costs and making the fundraising operation more efficient.

Selecting software

While the range of fundraising software products and prices can seem overwhelming, breaking down the selection process into a sequence of logical steps can make the job manageable and productive, Meade says.

The first step, he says, is to organize a team to look at software packages; define the requirements for analyzing the software, such as past performance or specific features; and establish a consistent method for evaluating it, including giving relative weight to various criteria, such as price and performance.

“If you don’t do that, organizations make decisions almost exclusively on costs,” Meade says.

Next, the team should talk to software vendors; conduct pilot tests and demonstrations; develop a “comparison matrix” that lets the team check off whether each package meets its requirements; obtain pricing proposals; estimate the cost and effort that will be required to install the software and begin using it; develop a business case for each vendor to present to the nonprofit’s leadership; and, if needed, refine the selection criteria and return to the top vendors for additional demonstrations and discussions.

Finally, once it has decided on a vendor and software package, the team should have a plan to secure the executive and board approvals needed to pay for the technology, and for installing it and training the staff and others who will use it.

Bauknight says securing the approval of senior staff and the board can be easier if they are involved in the selection process from the beginning, resulting in their advocacy when the final decisions are made.

“Get people committed,” he says. “And report your progress to someone who will hold you accountable. Otherwise it will never get finished.”

Leadership from the top is critical, he says.

“The key to success is to treat it like a real project,” he says. “The responsible board chair and responsible executive director will frame this like it’s a real undertaking.”

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