As nonprofits grow, they quickly realize that Excel spreadsheets and basic, nonprofit-nonspecific software solutions simply don’t cut it. Instead of focusing on strategy and fundraising, nonprofit staff spend valuable time on administrative tasks or, worse, resolving problems caused by disorganization.
Nonprofit software is the solution for nonprofits eyeing their productivity and thinking, “We could do better.” Through a wide array of features designed specifically for the tasks nonprofits tackle, nonprofit software keeps your team organized, on the same page, and moving quickly.
But of course, before you an implement an amazing new solution, you have to find one.
When buying nonprofit software, make sure you’re investing in the best solution for your nonprofit by asking these essential questions:
- What type of software do you need?
- What options are available for your budget?
- How can you integrate with current systems and data?
- What training and support are available?
- What do current and former customers think?
If you’re ready to make your nonprofit’s operations more efficient, read on!
1. What type of software do you need?
The most fundamental consideration is, of course, the kind of software your nonprofit needs. It might seem like an easy question to answer, but the more you learn about the range of nonprofit solutions that exist, the harder it is to narrow down what you need.
Some of the major categories of nonprofit software are:
- Donor management software
- Fundraising software
- Event software
- Marketing software
- Prospect research software
- Accounting software
- Advocacy software
Chances are, you can look at this list and tell which basic type or types of solutions you need.
But these categories can be broken down even further. For example, you could purchase an individual fundraising software solution that supports only online donations, matching gifts, peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, or crowdfunding.
There are a few key benefits to looking at more specific solutions, and cost isn’t the least of them. It’s also a better investment for smaller nonprofits or nonprofits with very specific operational models to just purchase the features they need. Why buy fundraising software that can facilitate crowdfunding when you don’t anticipate ever using it?
On the other hand, if you know your nonprofit needs a wide range of software functionality, you can invest in a software solution that encompasses more than one of these categories.
The nonprofits that get the most benefit of an integrated software solution are large, complex organizations with multiple departments that all need to share access to the same database.
For instance, the membership management team might need access to the event team’s attendance records to calculate the percentage of members who took advantage of their exclusive early registration access. These types of cross-departmental analyses are possible thanks to heavy-duty software.
If you still need more information about the solutions that are available, take a look through Double the Donation’s roundup of the best nonprofit software!
Takeaway: Decide whether your organization needs a point solution or integrated software.
2. What options are available for your budget?
While nonprofit software is definitely worth investing in—and those integrated solutions sound exciting—there’s no need to spend more than you can afford on a solution that offers features you won’t use.
Here are a few factors that can contribute to a higher software price tag:
- Capacity. Whether it’s the number of donor profiles you can store in your CRM, campaigns you can organize in your fundraising software, or events you can host with your event management solution, many software companies set pricing levels based on monthly, yearly, or absolute capacity. The more, the pricier.
- Customization. Not every software solution will meet your nonprofit’s needs right out of the box. Customizable solutions are great, but they tend to be more expensive than pre-programmed settings, especially once you consider the expense of hiring a developer or a consultant to help with the configuration.
- Add-ons. It’s smart to have the option of a basic platform that you can add new features to as you find you need them. But depending on how many add-ons you end up purchasing, going with an all-inclusive solution in the first place might have been a better plan.
There’s no formula for finding the right balance of features and cost, and every provider will offer a different combination of features for a variety of prices. You’ll need to do some research before bringing a budget proposal to your board.
The best way to strike that features vs. cost balance is to plan for realistic growth. You should have a good idea of what areas of your nonprofit are expanding at a quicker rate than others. It’s worth investing a little more right now on a solution that can grow with you than going for a less expensive solution that you will have to replace later on.
Takeaway: Be aware of the factors that can make software more expensive.
3. How can you integrate with current systems and data?
Once you know what type of software and what level of solution you’re looking at, it’s time to find which provider will work best with the systems you already have in place.
New software needs to fit into your operations, especially if you’re adding a solution instead of replacing one altogether. Software solutions that are sold by the same provider or are built natively in the same platform will be easier to integrate than two completely different software.
If you currently use many different point solutions for different areas of your nonprofit and you’re already encountering synchronization issues, it might be time to invest in one multi-purpose software provider to streamline the whole organization at once.
It’s not just your existing software you should think about, though—look at your existing data, as well.
Your donor profiles, event attendance statistics, financial records, and other data are among your most important assets. Before choosing a new solution to manage your data, make sure that your provider or a member of your team can successfully migrate it to your new software.
Data migration is a finnickey process that, if done incorrectly, is disastrous at worst and time-intensive at best. To set your team up for success, consider these points before starting:
- Which member of your team will serve as the point person for data migration on your nonprofit’s end?
- Will you enlist the help of an IT consultant?
- How will you clean your data before it’s transferred to your shiny new software?
- Have you set up a backup before migration begins? Do you know how to restore it if something goes awry?
- Do you have a realistic timeline, and will you be able or need to use your data in the meantime?
When querying providers about these points, it will be helpful for both your staff and theirs if you put together a request for proposals (RFP).
The top providers will appreciate knowing exactly what you already have and the level of assistance you’ll need to accomplish full integration, which brings us to our next key question!
Takeaway: Be sure to ask about data migration and integration before you choose a provider.
4. What training and support are available?
Learning new software is difficult, so your team needs help with the nuances of complex solutions. When searching for a nonprofit software solution, always ask providers what kind of training and support are available to help your staff master their new software.
Look for these common support avenues when deciding which software provider to go with:
- Live customer support: Does the provider have experts available by phone or instant messenger? When are they available?
- Official videos or manuals: Has the provider written or filmed content to help customers solve problems on their own? Are these materials publicly accessible?
- Customer support forums: Do other customers post questions on public or private support forums, and do other customers or the provider’s staff answer those questions in a timely, comprehensive manner?
Some software providers will send a technician to train your staff onsite as part of your implementation period. This onsite training is an incredibly valuable first foray into the new software because your staff’s best resource is actually in the room to immediately answer questions.
The quality of the training and support available will have a huge impact on your new software’s long-term success, so prioritize these questions when searching for providers.
Takeaway: Ask what resources your provider makes available for your success.
5. What do current and former customers think?
Every company highlights their best qualities on their website for potential customers to see. And why wouldn’t they? But you can’t make an informed decision about a software purchase with just the positive side of the story.
When it comes to an investment in the future of your organization, you want to make sure you’re getting exactly what you sign up for.
Get the external feedback you need from:
Case studies and portfolios
Of course, the tone of these pieces will reflect positively on the provider, but there’s another benefit to asking. The engagements they choose to highlight will tell you which services the company is most experienced with. Even if the service you’re considering purchasing is listed on the provider’s website, if it’s not mentioned in a case study or portfolio piece, they might not have much experience (or much success) in that area.
Forums and review websites
A great place to find software reviews is on blogs, forums, or professional software review websites. Keep in mind, though, that people on either extreme tend to be the ones that post about their experience. You’ll likely see the customers who were most happy and most dissatisfied about the provider, but not a lot in between.
The best resource for honest feedback about software providers personal conversations with other nonprofits. Ask your professional connections in nonprofits similar in size and mission to yours what their experience has been like, especially if they’ve been with the same provider for a long time or had a particularly short engagement.
It’s easy to get lost in the shiny features, and software providers like to show off the elements of their product they’re proudest of. But make sure you get a well-rounded picture of the software and the provider from other sources.
Takeaway: Don’t just rely on the provider to tell you their product’s strengths and weaknesses.
Though any big change in your operations will bring some stress along with it, the hunt for new software doesn’t have to be as daunting as you might expect. Asking these questions from the very beginning of your search will help you narrow the field quickly to find the perfect solution for your nonprofit.
Dan Quirk is the Marketing Manager at Salsa Labs, the premier fundraising software company for growth-focused nonprofits. Dan's marketing focus on content creation, conversion optimization and modern marketing technology helps him coach nonprofit development teams on digital fundraising best practices.