money for nothing, IT for free

Is this like one of those “prizes” you get when you win a free watch, but you have to fly to Hawaii and sit through a three-day sales pitch to claim your watch?”

That’s something a friend of mine emailed me the other day about a deal she was considering that seemed too good to be true, and I’ve been thinking about it for a few days with respect to some of the free technology that’s out there for nonprofits and other groups with severely limited budgets.

Specifically, I’m thinking about Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems (like Salesforce, Kintera, Convio, to name just a few of the leaders in the field). CRM software is often one of the first big technology purchases that a growing nonprofit will make.

There are some great programs through which you can obtain free (or nearly-free, or free-for-a-while) versions of CRM systems that might otherwise be out of your organization’s budgetary reach. And free software donations are wonderful and highly commendable corporate initiatives.

But nothing is for free, even when it’s free.

It is terribly important to consider carefully the money and staff time that will be necessary, over the long haul, to learn how to use a new CRM, to make it really work for your organization, and to keep on relentlessly training staff, keep on improving and cleaning up your data, keep on spending precious time on the maintenance of that shiny new toy.

Everybody knows that staff time is a fantastically precious commodity in nonprofits, large and small. When your organization is mission-driven, every minute spent can, in some way, be considered an outlay of donor dollars. So nonprofits have to especially careful about the commitments they make to large technology buys — and they have to be very realistic about what they are getting themselves into.

Blogger Judi Sohn weighed in on this topic recently:

Time is money. Whether it’s your time or the time of a consultant you use to help you get the most out of these tools. Far too often I’ve spoken to folks who … can’t put the time or attention into {a new CRM system} that’s needed to really understand how it works and configure it for their organization’s unique needs.

It takes time to learn how to use a CRM designed for multi-million dollar companies. It takes time and patience to optimize your data. If you aren’t willing to spend days or weeks of your time to figure it all out, you should just stand up and slowly back away from the keyboard before you break something.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever bitten off more than you can chew. Now raise your hand if you didn’t raise your hand the first time. That’s better.

It’s human nature, let’s face it. But it doesn’t have to happen when choosing a CRM provider. Here are a few starter steps to get you on your way.

First, consider creating a long-term technology plan that:

  • Includes projections of money and staff time to be allocated not just at the outset, but over a multi-year period of time;
  • Sets goals and objectives over weeks, months, and years;
  • Identifies what success will look like at various points along this timeline;
  • Includes an exit plan for when the system no longer fits your needs.

Your technology plan should be a living document –one that is referred to constantly at staff meetings and even board meetings — and one that looks five years ahead. Things will undoubtedly change over those five years, so you will constantly be updating your plan.

Second, find out which software systems are constructed specifically for your type of organization, including the size of your staff, the number of your contacts, and the technological requirements of each system.

There are CRMs for every shape, size, and tech-savvy level of nonprofit organization. You just need to find the right fit for your situation.

Third, talk to other organizations who have gone through the same software selection process. Ask your peers for their experiences and their advice. Don’t go this alone — you can learn much from other people’s successes and mistakes and make far better choices, the more research you do.

And speaking of research, Techsoup is a fantastic resource for advice on choosing a new system, transferring your data, and a host of other considerations. NTEN also has excellent reports and webinars to help you navigate the process.

What’s your experience with Constituent Relationship Management software? What’s the best advice you would give someone else about choosing and implementing a CRM system?

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3 responses to “money for nothing, IT for free

  1. Idealware has great reports and articles and resources on this topic.

  2. And, this guide might also be helpful, although written for UK ngos.
    http://www.icthub.org.uk/publications/How-To-CostFund-ICT_web.pdf

  3. Thanks, Beth — sorry that I didn’t link to that before. I found that to be an incredibly helpful planning and assessment document.

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