How to Choose a Donor Management System
With complex tools and lots of options, choosing a donor management system can be difficult—but focusing on usability, needs, and budget could help keep expectations in check.
Having specific software to manage your donors could help you better nurture fundraising and modernize your approach. But these tools can be complex—and that can make the process harder than it appears.
“It can be very overwhelming,” says Chad Barger, a fundraising coach who has researched a variety of donor management software products for his website Productive Fundraising. “There’s so many options. People don’t know where to start.”
One starting point: your organization’s specific needs. Kathy Renzetti, CAE, executive director of the engineering education group DiscoverE.org, says it’s important to know your needs before contacting potential vendors.
“A key takeaway is to take the time to determine what you really need from the system before you start reviewing your options or asking for proposals,” she says.
Of course, that only works if you’re aware of the fundamental benefits of donor management software. “Some places, especially if it’s their first system, don’t even really know what these things can do,” Barger says. For those associations, he recommends watching videos of vendor tools to get a feel for the interfaces as an early step.
Why Donor Management Tools Matter
It’s easy enough to keep track of money and names, but managing donors is another story. Barger says he’s seen organizations—particularly young ones—rely on software such as Microsoft Excel rather than a customer relationship management (CRM) approach. “When they do that, all they’re doing is tracking transactions,” he says. “They’re not tracking relationships and fundraising, anything in the relationship.” This can result in lost fundraising opportunities, such as targeting repeat donors.
And given the increasingly virtual nature of donations, these kinds of donor management features matter more than ever.
These software tools are user-friendly both for donors—say, in terms of online forms—and for the associations themselves, which often work in digital dashboards. And many donor management systems can integrate with your website and other tools.
Assessing Your Options
Each of the many donor tools has its benefits and weaknesses. So what’s your North Star? Renzetti argues that it’s your donors.
“As you are thinking of those needs, remember to include the donors’ perspective,” she says. “Will the donor interact with the system you choose, and in what way? It’s important that the donor sees you as a credible, professional organization.”
When you do nail down your needs, consider working directly with vendors to demo specific tools. Barger says it’s important to be able to kick the tires on the software.
“You have to get into it on your own—not with somebody telling you what to do with the demo—to get in there, figure it out,” he says. “Sandboxes are great; they all have them.”
You may need to ask about sandbox environments for testing, as vendors may not directly pitch them to you. But hands-on evaluation can tell you things about the software’s ease of use and effectiveness that you may not learn from a demo.
Associations don’t have infinite budgets to spend on large projects of this nature. Renzetti suggests that systems should “give the option to scale up or down” based on budgetary needs to help with this.
But the software isn’t the only cost to consider. Barger argues that a portion of the budget should be set aside to cover the costs of training and conversion processes needed for a new tool.
And while it’s possible to train and convert in-house, it can create additional challenges and invite shortcuts in data implementation, leading to lower-quality data. Investing resources early can prevent problems later, he says.
Barger suggests going into the selection process with this in mind. “If I have a $5,000 budget, I’m probably really only looking for an option that goes for like $3,500, because I need $1,500 for that conversion and training,” he says.
Renzetti agrees that spending time upfront can help avoid surprises on the back end.
“There is a lot of information available on the pros and cons of the different systems—so do your homework,” she says. “It can be a significant investment, so the time spent pre-planning can save you money in the long term.”
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