Not Your Father’s System Selection

System Selection

Nonprofit organizations have been selecting fundraising technology solutions since we initially progressed beyond notecards to DOS-based basic systems in the ‘80s.  With the emergence of Windows based products, the process of selecting software solutions has, for the most part, remained the same.   The past decade has seen dramatic advances in CRM technology, proliferation of cloud computing, adoption of new fundraising strategies, including online giving and peer-to-peer fundraising, changes to how constituents interact with charities and how nonprofits operate their businesses.  Yet, given all of these changes, when we look at how most selections are run, they still look a lot like how they have since DOS ruled the world.  Selecting your next CRM system requires information collection and selection methodology that accounts for all of the modern-day technologies and processes you need to factor in to stay ahead of the curve.  Nonprofit organizations are no longer simply looking for a point solution that works for one department totally siloed from the rest of the business.  Now, organizations are looking to collaborate, have a full view of their constituency and engage with their donors in dynamic ways.

Making a solution choice has often been organized into three stages, and we have witnessed radical changes in each of them:

  1. Exploring your organization’s needs
  2. Evaluating solutions
  3. Starting implementation

1. Exploring an organization’s needs

The first step in solution selection has always been some method of identifying and documenting the organization’s needs. There is immense value in spending time and energy on needs before shopping. It ensures you don’t overlook a key current function by assuming every system has it and ensures you don’t get distracted and prioritize a flashy function your organization may be unable to use. Additionally, the time spent analyzing needs has typically been important for engaging key stakeholders and setting a base for implementation success measures.

For decades, the approach was to have each department create a master list of detailed software functions that looked like “gifts can be split by fund,” “proposals can be credited to a solicitor,” and other needs specific to nonprofit development and fundraising needs. The result was often a spreadsheet with hundreds of items listed, so a software vendor can check a box yes/no, or “with customization.”

This approach made sense with the software functionality of past donor systems. The paradigm of investigation was “yes/no” or “with customization,” and the systems were focused on a back-office experience.

Today, we see organizations starting their selection process by developing or refining the organization’s CRM Vision. The CRM Vision articulates an organization’s overall goals for managing relationships with constituents across an organization, including donors. It describes the strategy that connects the constituent relationship with the organization and provides guideposts for selection and implementation.

By developing a CRM Vision, instead of a laundry list of functions, organizations have the opportunity to map the constituent experience and identify the needs of organization staff that will be using the system implemented. Better understanding constituencies allows an organization to identify and include criteria for a new system that will enable the organization to develop more impactful relationships with constituents. And knowing what staff members require ensures that key functionalities are not missed in the selection process.

2. Evaluating solutions

At its most basic, the process of evaluating solutions has always been about matching solutions to your organization’s needs. When done properly, the evaluation process helps build consensus and buy-in at the organization. Staff members learn what works well, what might be clunky, and what to be prepared for when they implement the top choice solution.

The legacy way for engaging with and evaluating vendors included issuing a highly legalistic RFP, insisting all vendor questions be shared with all other vendors, then having vendors complete that lengthy functionality checklist (yes/no, with customization). Organizations would score proposals and invite vendors to scripted and detailed demonstrations. Historically, systems being considered didn’t offer a great deal of flexibility, so the functionality checklist gave a nonprofit the information it needed in a simple way to decide.

In the last several years, systems in the marketplace are a lot more flexible and can be customized to fit just about any organization’s needs. The checklist is now filled with “this could be done with customization,” making decisions much more difficult.

We now see organizations engaging in conversations with vendor experts. From there, they assemble a possible collection of potential partners. The conversation is more collaborative and focused around key needs of organizational staff and constituent interactions.

In the past decade there has been a tremendous amount of innovation in fundraising strategies. Organizations are moving from online marketing to robust and creative engagement through social media channels, peer-to-peer solutions, live streaming, virtual events, and more. They’re no longer simply replacing their old technology with something that does the same things better. Instead, organizations are looking to support emerging engagement and fundraising strategies, communicate through fast-changing digital channels, and better report on impact and outcomes.  The decision of what tools to implement, for what needs, and for which users, is far more complex than it was years ago. It takes a certain level of sophistication and diligence to make these decisions thoughtfully and intentionally, rather than just purchasing the shiniest new system in the marketplace.

3. Starting implementation

The last step is the implementation. Previously, the process would involve taking the implementation estimates from the one vendor, signing a services contract and getting underway. As the implementation unfolded, there were often change orders as more detail was discovered and understood between the vendor and the organization.

What we see now is a deliberate planning process with multiple partners developing a phased approach to launching various elements of a CRM ecosystem. Implementations are more directly correlated to the CRM Vision that organizations define from the very start of projects.

The Ever-evolving Selection Process

The way organizations engage with their constituents is more intricate, complex and more robust than ever before. Point solutions have constantly-changing features and functionality that stay at the forefront of those engagement details. A “selection process” is now about designing a full comprehensive ecosystem and making sure you update and change engagement methods and point solutions as needed.

If your organization wants to engage with your constituents, donors, volunteers and partners in meaningful ways, don’t fall victim to an outdated process of selecting tools and technology. Take the time and the energy to think strategically and intentionally about which solutions will help you meet your constituents where they are, in meaningful and authentic ways.

About the Author

Jeffrey Appell
Jeffrey began working with nonprofits in 1997. Starting out as an intern at the San Francisco chapter of the Anti-Defamation League he went on to be a Development Associate at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and then at... Read More
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