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Nonprofit software selection — ask the right questions up front

Investing in new hardware and software can be a heady experience. The first questions that come to mind might be:

  • What's new?
  • What's cool?
  • What do donors, clients and board members want us to get?

However, the answers to any of these questions can bust your technology budget. Focus on the following questions instead.

What do we have?

Begin with an inventory of your current technology. For software, list the apps that are central to your current workflows, along with their version numbers.

For laptop and desktop computers, document the following specs:

  • Operating system (OS) — Windows, Mac, or iOS or Android for mobile devices
  • Central processing unit (CPU, or "processor") with speeds measured in gigahertz (GHz)
  • Random access memory (RAM, or "memory") measured in gigabytes (GB)
  • Hard-disk storage (or simply "storage") also measured in GB
  • Hard drive — disk drive (older technology) or solid state or flash-based (newer and more reliable)
  • Optical drives ("removable media") for reading and writing data to CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs
  • Graphics processing unit (GPU, or "graphics card") — integrated or dedicated (best for tasks that require more RAM, storage and speed)
  • Ports for connecting computers to printers, external hard drives, external speakers, and monitors

Also document how your hardware and software are currently being used. Staff members who rely on technology for basic tasks such as Internet browsing, email, word processing and spreadsheets don't need roomy RAM, massive storage or blazing speeds. Save that power for people who work with images, audio, video and other digitally-demanding products.

What do we want?

Now shift your focus from features to benefits. What new outcomes would bring your organization into closer alignment with its mission and vision? Examples might include:

  • Staying in closer contact with stakeholders
  • Reaching more potential donors online
  • Helping team members collaborate more efficiently
  • Reducing the time needed to create grant applications and reports
  • Capturing information stored on separate devices and sharing it across the organization

Sometimes technology is key to delivering such benefits. For example, customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you track key information about clients and donors. Collaboration software can help project teams share information with fewer meetings.

At other times, new technology isn't the answer. Video conferencing, for instance, won't resolve long-standing conflict between board members and management.

Instead of turning to new technology as the default option, ask: How else could we solve this problem?

Do we have the capacity for new technology?

Don't assume that any hardware or software you purchase will immediately be used. Before spending money, build buy-in for new technology by:

  • Convincing people that it's needed
  • Rewriting job descriptions for people whose work is affected by new technology
  • Training people to use the technology
  • Persuading those people to advocate for it

Compensation can be a factor, too. Consider the staff member who becomes your internal guru on CRM software — and then quits for a higher-paying corporate job. Whenever possible, offer incentives to people who expand their skill set. Keep them with your organization.

What costs can we expect beyond the sticker price?

People in corporate IT talk about total cost of ownership (TCO). This term refers to the hidden expenses that come with new technology.

TCO goes well beyond sticker price. It includes the indirect costs of training, maintenance, troubleshooting and downtime for staff members who deal with technology breakdowns. One common guideline is this: For every $100 you budget for technology, plan to spend $30 on the original purchase and $70 for indirect costs.

What are our options?

When you determine that it's time to invest in new technology, you face the problem of option overload. There are probably many hardware and software configurations to meet your goals.

Now it's time for research:

  • Check out product reviews and buying guides. Turn to publications such as Consumer Reports, CNET, PC Magazine and Macworld.
  • Talk it up. Talk to peers and other organizations already using the technology you're considering, either in person or online.
  • Get social. Turn to online technology communities geared to nonprofits, such as TechSoup and the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).

Also talk to vendors who have a history of working with nonprofits or, better yet, offer demo packages you can use on a trial basis. Establishing long-term relationships with vendors can help you squeeze more value from every technology investment.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



TechSoup: How to measure the value of an IT investment by Peter Campbell (2016)

Head Start: How technology is funded: The basics by Eugene Chan (2015)

TechSoup Asia: Six ways nonprofits can leverage technology investments by Eugene Chan

NTEN: Making smarter decisions when selecting technology by Jeff Forster (2014)

Idealware: Measuring return on investment for technology by Karen Graham (2015)



Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits