How to Choose Donor Management Software: Managing Donor Files

Getting Your Donor Files In Order

Fundraisers looking at a donor database.
stevecoleimages/E+/Getty Images

Your donor management system isn’t immortal: the time always comes when your nonprofit's donor management software needs to be upgraded or completely replaced.

When do you know when that time has come, and then what do you do? Several nonprofit professionals gave these answers when I asked them to complete this sentence: "I knew it was time to get a new donor management system when...."

  • The one we had couldn't report out the data in the ways we needed.
  • The dog ate my index cards.
  • I wanted to know stuff about my donors, and it took an absurd amount of staff time to find the answer.
  • The last "system" left with it in their head.
  • The only person who had a clue how to use the system (an old Access database) was retiring.
  • A volunteer's computer crashed, and we lost everything.

Do those reasons ring true for your nonprofit?

Deciding that you need a new system is, however, the easy part. There is a world of confusing information about competing systems out there, and no easy way to put it all together.

I turned to the "Consumer Reports" of nonprofit technology to find the answers. Idealware is a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits make smart software decisions by performing unbiased research and then translating it into easy-to-understand reports, articles, and training.

Andrea Berry, Director of Partnerships and Learning at Idealware, suggests these steps to choosing a new donor management system.

Figure out if you really need a new system.

Berry says to start by evaluating why you don't like your system. The problem may not be what you think, and it’s not easy to switch software. It takes time, effort, and money.

Berry said, "There is no silver bullet system out there, so make sure that your current system really is inadequate.

For instance, you may just need to learn more about the system you have, rather than switching completely to a brand new system."

Take the time to determine what the problem really is. Could it be one of the following?

  • You need more training. Perhaps your current system has features that you don't understand or know how to use. Ask your vendor if there are training options, like videos or online resources, that you can access.
  • You need more support. What are the support options for your current system? Is there available and affordable support? Does the vendor understand your problems and try to help, or do they talk down to you? Do they have a solution for your particular problem?
  • You don't understand all the capabilities of your current system. Do you really know for sure that it doesn't do what you want? Is there available documentation? Some vendors are working hard to provide more help such as videos, forums where you can ask questions, and literature written for non-techies.
  • Your system is too weak or too robust. Sizing a system to your process and your budget is a crucial step.
  • Your system is too expensive. Are you paying for more functionality than you need? Berry says, "When talking to a vendor, remember that this is a sale...the nature is to 'up-sell.' Understanding your needs will help you not be distracted by 'shiny object syndrome.'"
    • Your system is out of date. Perhaps your system is missing new features. Keep in mind, it should be updated regularly either automatically or by yourself or your vendor. Just be conscious of how your system stays updated.
    • Your system is no longer supported by the vendor. Berry says this is not common but does happen, especially if a smaller vendor is bought by a larger one.

    Idealware provides a workbook, A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems that will help guide you through this self-assessment process.

    Identify a team of stakeholders.

    So you've decided to switch. What is next?

    Berry said, "What we see all the time is the development director decides to get a new system but doesn't consult with the marketing department, or the executive director, or the volunteer coordinator, all of whom will be using the system."

    It is a good idea to consult everyone who is going to use the system. When you're brainstorming features that you need, let everyone have a say. Make sure everyone who will use or be affected by the system is represented. Someone in the major gifts department should definitely be present as should an individual who heads the fundraising efforts.

    Understand your current processes.

    Make a detailed list of your fundraising processes, standardize them, and evaluate everything you do with your databases. Ask your organization:

    1. Why do we do it this way?
    2. Do we have to keep doing things that way?

    Berry said, "Standardization gives you flexibility in choosing a system...the less expensive systems do not afford great flexibility so the fewer 'oddities,' the better. Look for best practices in the field and avoid unique procedures."

    Eliminate redundancies before you invest. How many times do you enter an address, for instance? Don't carry over quirky tactics that have proliferated over the years and instead focus on what your organization currently needs.

    For example, you’ll want to set a standard for phone number entry. Will you record numbers as (555)555-5555 or 555-555-5555? These are all essential details to think about.

    Prioritize your wish-list of features.

    Get everyone together who will use the system or who will get reports from it. Brainstorm everything you could want, and then rank these features. Determine what you absolutely need, without which the system is useless. Doing this first will keep you from going off to a level of complexity that could wreck your budget.

    Berry recommends creating a three-tiered list:

    1. What do you need or else the system is useless?
    2. What would be nice to have but isn’t a deal breaker?
    3. What would you want if money was no option?

    Popular features often include:

    • Donor engagement tracking
    • Custom fields and notes
    • Donor cultivation
    • Scheduling capabilities
    • Reports on popular trends
    • Membership management

    Bonus: Take a look at Salsa’s Guide to CRMs to determine the right features for your organization.

    Do your research.

    Use Idealware. They have done the necessary research for you. Idealware's reports have narrowed the field, picked systems that are dedicated donor management systems, and then pulled out the top ten systems and provided a features list.

    Check out the Consumer’s Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems.

    Using the report, make a shortlist of three or four viable systems.

    Schedule vendor demonstrations.

    Some vendors will come to you, or you can go to them. But many demos are broadcasted online with the help of a web sharing tool. Sometimes you can even download a trial version.

    Be sure to use real examples to see how each system will work for your needs. A great help is Idealware's Six Tips for Navigating the Vendor Demo.

    Rank the systems against your wish list—fancy vs. core needs and high cost vs. affordable—and choose the right system for you.

    You might be able to purchase your new system with a credit card online, but bigger systems may have a contract that needs to be processed and signed.

    Berry says, "Sometimes you can start using your new system immediately, while other systems need to be customized. DonorPerfect Online is well known for customizing a system before you start, while other systems, such as GiftWorks, are easy to use from the get-go. Some systems will need a consultant to get set up."

    Keep in mind that you’ll be using your CRM to improve donor relationships the most, but you can even use it to enhance your fundraising strategies, too.

    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.