Real responses to real-life questionsKathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO offers her response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.
I think my nonprofit has purchased the wrong software and it’s my fault.
I oversee IT at my nonprofit. Recently, my organization finally decided to upgrade our technology infrastructure and gave me approval to purchase accounting software built in the 21st century!
I reviewed products at three different companies, asked for references, sat through demos and made my selection.
I'm afraid I made the wrong choice. The software company I selected hasn't been on time for even one component of the agreed upon install dates, they’ve yet to outline our customization requirements and their customer service is practically non-existent. The product looked good and the company had a great sales pitch, but this is slowly turning into my personal nightmare. Colleagues are blaming me and my executive director is getting impatient with the lack of results.
Help! How can I fix this mess?
Kathryn says ...
As a former CEO of a company that designed, built, sold and serviced software for nonprofits, you’ve come to the right place for answers to your questions.
Here’s what I would do:
- Stop all action on your rollout and ask for an immediate meeting with someone at a management level, along with your current vendor software team or individual service representative.
- As you prepare for that meeting, remember that most software vendors are committed to delivering an excellent product or service. When problems occur, the vendor could be over-committed, suffering from staff turnover or some other unknown situation. Consider that you may have had some role in miscommunications or past due deliveries.
- Request the appointment and attend the meeting with a friendly, can-do attitude. Try to maintain the sense that this can be worked out and your software rollout can get back on track. Don’t assume the worst of your software vendor until you attend this meeting.
- Review your software license or purchase agreement and look at what conditions if any, allow you to terminate the agreement and if possible, get all or most of your money back. Some software vendors do not allow any way out of a purchase contract (we can discuss what to do in that situation later in this response.) But many good vendors have a “right to cure” clause that indicates how to document your complaints and to whom, and define how long, in terms of days, weeks or months, in which the company must cure the problems or agree to terminate without penalty to you.
I assume you had legal counsel review the agreement before signed and approved the provisions. Many smaller nonprofits skip this step because of cost. If you or your executive director signed without legal review, you may be in for some difficult, although not impossible, negotiating with the vendor.
A word of caution to all nonprofits making any large or high-impact purchase: Find a volunteer lawyer or pay for a consultation to have all purchase agreements.
For your meeting and follow up with the software vendor, I suggest you do the following:
- Write down all your past and current concerns with as much information as possible, such as promises made and kept (or not kept), due dates and conversational details. Arrive at the meeting with that document and pass it out to everyone present. Review every point.
- Take your executive director to the meeting if possible. If he or she understands the situation (vendor lack of follow-through) your executive director is much less likely to blame you. He or she may also put some muscle behind your complaints and authorize bringing in a legal consultant or volunteer to assist.
- Identify what constitutes a successful outcome at both the meeting and overall with your software provider. Quantify what you expect and what the vendor has agreed to. Carefully detail these expectations and provide copies as soon as possible to all who attended the meeting and your executive director.
- If there seems a reasonable way forward, ask for weekly updates on progress, attend those meetings and document everything. Don’t wait until a due date is missed and then despair! Make the weekly meeting mandatory and immediately alert your executive director and vendor manager if they fail to attend or cancel.
- Be assertive but not aggressive throughout this process. The best outcome for both parties is to get the project back on track. Descending into angry chaos won’t get the job done on either side.
- Document, document, document. If failures, delays and poor service continue, you'll need a paper trail. Many IT folks at nonprofits do not have experience with full-out project management processes, tools and techniques. If this is your case, hire a part-time software project manager (if possible.) If you cannot, then you are now a project manager, which means you need to stay organized, write everything down and be an excellent communicator.
Another great rule in project management, including a software rollout: If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen.
- If the agreement you signed doesn’t allow you to terminate for a certain amount of time or other unreasonable conditions, then it’s time for your executive director to negotiate with a top vendor executive (or the highest you can access) to negotiate an “out” for your nonprofit. This isn’t always successful, but thorough documentation and legal representation can help your case.
- Your vendor does not want you to be unhappy and telling your many nonprofit colleagues about a terrible product or service experience. They want to retain you as a satisfied customer. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you will broadcast their unprofessional behavior, and the time and money wasted by your good nonprofit via any means you have available — think social media and nonprofit get-togethers —should they fail to act in a judicious fashion regarding a fair resolution. The vendor owes you value for money and your nonprofit should receive that value.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up about your vendor selection. In software purchase and rollout, the devil is in the details. Make this a project management learning experience and you can avoid some of these headaches in the future. Many nonprofits experience hiccups in their process but emerge with a good software toolset. You can, as well.