How to avoid option overload
As nonprofits grow, they tend to shed paper-based files and spreadsheets in favor of more sophisticated software. The payoff is often clear. When technology takes over even a single routine task — such as sending thank you letters to volunteers — you're saving time that can go instead to mission-critical projects.
If your organization is new, however, you might face option overload — thousands of feature-laden applications from hundreds of vendors. Use the following guidelines to make informed choices.
Many complex processes — such as donor tracking and grant management — are unique to nonprofits. Software developers who understand this have responded with specialized products. Most nonprofits use a combination of some of the below, depending on their specific needs:
- Office software: supports creation of documents, spreadsheets and presentations; manages email and calendars
- Accounting software: tracks funding, expenses and transactions based on reporting requirements for nonprofits
- Grant management software: supports management of grants from the discovery and application stages to tracking and reporting after grants are awarded
- Case management software: tracks clients who use your services and monitors their progress toward individual goals
- Volunteer management software: stores contact information for volunteers, schedules their activities and monitors their accomplishments
- Donor database software: maintains contact information for donors, keeps detailed records of their giving and invites them to make repeat donations
- Customer relationship software: tracks interactions with donors, volunteers, clients, customers, suppliers, partners and other stakeholders
- Outcomes tracking software: tracks the results of programs and services to help you make informed decisions about ways to improve them
- Social media management software: supports engagement with donors, volunteers, clients and program participants via online platforms
- Membership management software: tracks membership renewals and event participation
Don't invest in all of these software categories at once. Instead, focus on applications that help you accomplish key tasks for a new nonprofit, such as accounting software and outcomes tracking. Save social media management and other more nuanced types of software for later.
IT research and advisory company Software Advice conducts an annual survey of nonprofit managers to discover their technology needs and solutions. A report based on the 2015 survey offers these guidelines for choosing software to accomplish any process:
- Look for ease of use. This is especially important for new nonprofits that are moving beyond general purpose software. Look for applications with an intuitive interface that your staff will embrace.
- Look for integration with your existing systems. Check import and export features to make sure that your data can easily migrate between applications.
- Look for outreach. New nonprofits often find that email marketing to donors, volunteers and members is critical. Find applications that support this process. Also check for direct mail and social media features that you can implement in the future.
- Look for reporting options. Funders and board members want updates on your activities, outputs and impacts. Many applications come with an array of basic templates for these types of reports. Look for ways to customize these templates and create your own ad hoc or specialized reports.
- Look for mature applications. The longer the product has been on the market, the better. If the vendor disappears, your software may become obsolete.
- Look for market share. The name of the vendor matters less than the size of the user community. When applications are widely adopted, that's a sign that they work.
- Look at all the options. Choose the software that works best for your organization, even if it's not specifically developed for nonprofits.
Online message boards and other software forums — such as Idealware, TechSoup and the Nonprofit Technology Network — are rich sources of technology support.
You might also contact other nonprofits with a similar mission and capacity. Find out what software they use and ask for their recommendations. Make use of the collaborative nature of the nonprofit world to take the guesswork out of your software decisions.
National Council of Nonprofits: Find your state association
Software Advice: Nonprofit software buyer view (2015)
Software Advice: Compare non-profit software by Justin Guinn (2016)