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Five Steps Toward Successful Implementation of Online Fundraising Software

With the increasing availability of Web-based fundraising software, also known as software as a service (SaaS), non-profit groups now have the option of paying a monthly fee to use fundraising software rather than having to purchase the software and install it, maintain it, and support it themselves.

"We don't have an IT department, and we can't afford to hire someone to take care of our software," says Donna Salacuse, donations manager for Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay organization based in Newton, Massachusetts. Previously, before installing DonorPerfect Online, the fundraising database had been written in Microsoft Access, "and we had constant problems backing up the server. We decided we really needed to move to the online hosted application."

Indeed, one of the biggest reasons that non-profit organizations move to a hosted online fundraising solution is cost. But to ensure a successful transition to SaaS, professionals in charge of fundraising and donors at non-profits recommend following five critical steps:

Know your needs
Exactly what kind of fundraising do you do? Is it mostly direct mail? Is it event-based? Do you encourage on-line contributions from donors? Do a complete inventory of your fundraising needs and methods, and go down the checklist with all potential fundraising vendors. Be warned: some functionality may only be available by purchasing software to use on-site, as opposed to subscribing to an online solution.

"Every organization has its own fundraising needs, and so you need to be very specific when you talk to vendors, and when evaluate their products," says Pam King, executive director of Childcare Resources of Indian River, in Indian River, Florida. "In our case, we needed to make sure that the software could handle our gift shop, the fact that we resell tickets to the theatre, and that we have lots of volunteers who are also donors."

Check customer references
This is an absolutely essential step. Even if, as you suspect, the references will be hand-picked to reflect a positive view of the vendor's products and services, talking to other customers can be very helpful. For starters, they can tell if you your plans for using it are appropriate given the product's features. They will often be candid in ways the vendor doesn't anticipate when it gives out their names. "Absolutely, talk to others who use the product, and be especially careful to ask about technical support," says King.

Add up all the costs
One of the advantages of SaaS is that expenses related to the service are much more predictable. Yet sometimes there will be some hidden costs. There's training, for example. Even when provided free from the vendor, it still takes up valuable staff time. Sometimes there are consulting services needed to customize the service to meet the specific needs of your organization. And – given the high degree of turnover of volunteers at most non-profit organizations – the cost of retraining, and retraining again, as volunteers move in and out of your offices can be prohibitive, especially if the service is less than intuitive to learn and use. "Our previous fundraising software required me to go offsite for a week to get trained on it," says King. "Given that we have a lot of volunteers and that turnover is relatively high, that was a big negative."

Make sure you can easily import data
This is essential. Most non-profits have some existing way of managing donors or fundraising activities, even if it's as rudimentary as an Excel spreadsheet. To be able to automatically move this data into an online fundraising service without excessive manual intervention should be a key determinant of which service you subscribe to. Ken Meifert, director of membership and sales at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York, says that he frequently must import Excel and text file from "list swaps" with other organizations for direct mail campaigns, and it's essential that his fundraising program – he chose Blackbaud – be able to easily accommodate that. "And when we first brought in the software we had to a do a major data conversation, so the ability of Blackbaud to accept data in a number of formats was essential," says Meifert.

Take it for a test drive
One of the best things about SaaS is that most vendors will agree to provide you with a free no-obligation trial period – usually 30 days – where you can get a complimentary account to see how you like the service. Even on those rare occasions when a vendor won't agree to this, the very nature of SaaS means that it is a very low-risk proposition to test out how well the system works for you. There's no software to purchase or install, no additional hardware to invest in. As long as you were able to easily import your data into the service (see #4) you've lost very little time and effort.

The number of Web-based fundraising software available has steadily increased in recent years, creating ever more choices for non-profit organizations. Although some of these SaaS offerings are from new vendors, many of them are from existing fundraising software providers who are offering online versions of their tried-and-true products. Either way the range of options for you to choose from is expanding – and increasing the likelihood that you'll find something that fits your specific needs.
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