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Open-source constituent management: The basics

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For technology neophytes, MPower’s chief technology officer Leo D’Angelo explains open-source constituent relationship management software and its benefits.

Leo D'Angelo

Leo D’Angelo

Leo D’Angelo

In the broadest sense, constituent relationship management handles the many different types of relationships that a nonprofit has with its volunteers, employees, donors, potential donors and additional people who support the organization in other ways.

In its simplest form, open source software is software whose source code, or the programming used to create it, is made available to the public. This offers a nonprofit several advantages.

Customizing

Using a closed solution in which the source code of the software is proprietary can be limiting.

If you need functionality that’s not in the software out-of-the-box, you can try to convince the vendor that a particular feature is important not only to you, but to many others as well so it should be included in future versions.

If you can’t convince the vendor, your only options are to develop the functionality you need in-house if you have the talent, which most nonprofits do not, or pay a consultant to do the work. Or the vendor might agree to develop the features for a fee on top of what you are already paying to use the core solution.

With open source, you have more control. The initial approach would be the same, but if the vendor didn’t have the time or motivation to implement a change, the nonprofit itself can write the code required for the change, or hire a consultant to do the programming.

The nonprofit then could submit that new code back to the vendor, who would integrate it into the product and support it. The change, or innovation, would be available to all users of the vendor’s updated offering.

Speed

Open source software moves at a greater velocity than closed source. That means customers will get changes more rapidly in an open source world.

With open source, the user controls the waiting period. It can be brief if an organization is able to move quickly, which could mean months instead of years of development time.

Consider the past eight years of Microsoft’s software development – for all intents and purposes, the company has released only one version of its

Windows operating system. On the other hand, open source veteran, Linux, has released between 32 and 48 versions in the same period.

Integration

An open constituent relationship management system should, at minimum, provide integration to solutions for accounting, reporting and analytics, payment, Web content, and inventory and warehouse management.

Using multiple systems to manage these functions individually and separately, rather than using a single system, increases the complexity of an organization by an order of magnitude. And unnecessary operational complexities cost money.

That means an open source constituent relationship management system can improve a nonprofit’s operational efficiency by providing the capability to offer direct, real-time integration of all information that comes into the organization.

For example, a donor in an organization’s database who needs to change his or her home address can type it in on the nonprofit’s Web page and hit save. That change then will show up immediately in every database in which that donor appears.

In a non-integrated environment, those changes are propagated on a daily or weekly basis, so you may not always have a consistent, accurate view of your donors.

Safety

There have been some concerns about potential data breaches with customer relationship management platforms hosted by a third party.

However, this risk depends on how the hosting is done. In some cases, a nonprofit may literally have its own database with no co-mingling of data. In an instance where there is co-mingling, an organization should confirm that there are stringent security measures in place to ensure that another organization can’t see its data.

Some applications have built-in security measures that allow you to protect a sensitive portion of your client base, like celebrities or undocumented workers. And there are of organizations that will provide a security audit on a paid basis.

Another thing that’s important in selecting a platform is determining whether data is stored in an encrypted fashion.

Choosing a platform

Security is only one factor to consider in choosing an open platform.

You also should make sure there’s an organization behind it providing business-level support during normal business hours and that the support is always immediately available. That requirement alone takes more than half the current open solutions off the table.

Also, the organization behind your platform should provide robust training, both basic and customized. If a nonprofit has customized the application, the training programs provided should be tailored specifically to that product.

Having both solid support and good training available should cut a pretty significant part of the internal technology expertise you otherwise would need to maintain your system.


Leo D’Angelo is chief technology officer for MPower, a provider of open source software for nonprofit constituent relationship management.

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