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Software roundupDozens of applications that enable nonprofits to track constituents and perform routine fundraising chores are available. Solutions can be as simple as a combination of an off-the-shelf email program and Microsoft Excel, or as complex as large-scale, customizable programs that can help you manage the details of thousands of relationships.

Over the past few years, the most visible, and probably the most significant, new trend in constituent management software is that there are now many Web-based applications. These provide many advantage over locally-hosted applications, but aren't the answer for everyone.

Think Before Investing
The decision to stick with, upgrade, or switch to a new constituent management package is an important one, both in terms of money that your nonprofit spends (to start up and maintain), and in terms of time (to learn and use). Yet, says Marion Conway, a New Jersey-based nonprofit consultant, many of the organizations she has worked with don't think about such software purchases in a rational way.

"Small nonprofits, when it comes to technology, don't always use the same basic tenets of making a purchase as they do with something else," says Conway. "A nonprofit's executive director, when he buys a car, probably thinks, 'What am I going to use it for? What's appropriate?' But when it comes to technology, they don't always think in terms of 'What is most appropriate for us?'"

Conway admits to being "very prejudiced toward Web-based solutions," especially for small and medium-sized nonprofits. These applications, sometimes called SaaS (software as a service), make sense for these organizations, argues Conway, for many reasons:

  • Security. "If you have all your data on a Web-based hub, your data is secured and backed up, and if your building burns down or you can't get in for some reason, you still have full access to your data."
  • Multiple users and multiple points of access. Any place you can access the Web, you can access your constituent management software and information. In addition, if your organization uses a lot of volunteers and/or has high turnover, it's easy to active and deactivate passwords.
  • Ease of use. Web-based applications tend to be simpler to get up to speed with, and are both by design and necessity often less complex than big, expensive applications. "In many cases it's easier to do *more* with an inexpensive, Web-based system than a more expensive, locally-hosted application. For example, one nonprofit that I worked with had Raiser's Edge, and the development manager couldn't even figure out how to print mailing labels with it. This was a $3 million organization with a mailing list of less than 500 people. It was a total waste of money."
  • Cost. Conway says that some nonprofits feel obligated, when they get grant money, to purchase a solution, and for this reason won't consider SaaS applications, which charge monthly or yearly subscription fees. She thinks that they're not considering the cost of ownership. "If you're buying something like Raiser's Edge, you're going to have to pay an annual fee for maintenance, and you're going to have to pay for upgrades and you're going to have to pay for training. These are not one-time costs." In general, Web-based applications have lower start-up costs than off-the-shelf applications, and have an added cost advantage in that they're continually upgraded behind the scenes, eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming on-site upgrades.
  • Compatibility. Most organizations operate with a hodgepodge of hardware systems, and they're often outdated. Is your constituent management software going to require system or network upgrades? If you have both Macs and Windows-based machines, will it work on both operating systems?
  • Data portability. How difficult is it to move your database information to a new application? Most desktop and Web-based applications will import and export data in Microsoft Excel format. "In most cases it's very manageable," says Conway. "I have heard people who use eTapestry say that the service works with you and makes it as painless as possible." And most vendors, Conway adds, "are interested in getting you up and running (with their software) and keeping you happy."
Other Factors
The above list of factors that suggest Web-based solutions could also serve as a good checklist for the purchase of any constituent database package, regardless of whether it's hosted remotely or in-house. But there are some other considerations before you make a purchase.

For example, organizations often need to consider exactly how much they can spend on constituent data management. Some experts suggest that you should plan to spend between 0.25 and 0.50 percent of your yearly budget on the setup, which would include training, upgrades, and maintenance.

Others suggest that because the ways in which most organizations come into contact with constituents has multiplied in recent years, more sophisticated software that helps

Another option to consider is open source software.
MPower Open, for example, is customizable, enabling both nonprofits and third-party vendors to develop new functions for the software package. This is an advantage, wrote MPower's Chief Technology Officer Leo D'Angelo in Sept. 2008, because "open source software moves at a greater velocity than close source. That means customers will get changes more rapidly in an open source world."

There are dozens of applications designed to assist nonprofits in constituent management and fundraising -- too many to cover in a short overview article. Among the big players are:

A few years ago nonprofit consultant Robert Weiner compiled an excellent list of inexpensive (under $500) donor databases. Though a bit outdated, it is a good starting point from which to examine alternatives to your current setup. *CONSTITUENT MANAGEMENT 2.0? *During the past two years, Nonprofit Technology News has covered what have proved to be major, and probably long-lasting, shifts in the relationships between nonprofits and their constituents. Web 2.0 innovations -- most notably social networking sites and the rise of SaaS -- have changed the ways people give of themselves, and donate to, nonprofits. The same innovations have likely directly impacted the way your organization communicates with long-term constituents and solicits new donors and volunteers. A fresh look at constituent management and fundraising software could make a big difference for your nonprofit in these tough economic times, both in terms of savings and opportunities to examine how, and when, you engage with the public.


Last modified on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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