A Guide for Selecting New Nonprofit Software

This is part two in a series about how nonprofits should approach choosing a nonprofit CRM written by our partners JCA, a nonprofit consulting firm.

Whether you have had your current system for a few years, or many years, making a technology switch to new nonprofit software is a big deal. After all, you’ve worked hard to collect and manage data. You’ve also worked hard to build relationships with supporters that have strengthened your organization to the place it is now. The data you’ve worked to collect is critical — not only to your history but to your future. 

There are big questions to ask about what you need, why you need it, and how the switch will happen. Before you jump right into the marketplace, start at the beginning by understanding your needs. 

If you’ve already taken the important step of assessing your needs, identifying gaps, determining that your current system can’t support these needs, and documenting what you need a system to do — you are ready to start looking at new nonprofit software. It’s time to go shopping to identify systems that have the potential to meet what you need. To do this, you need to prepare to carefully review potential solutions and then select the best fit. Your end goal is to be certain that the system you choose will meet your needs. But how can you be sure? We’ll talk about some key steps and considerations to create the confidence you need to make your decision. 

Assess and Document Your Ecosystem

You may have started with the idea that you need a new nonprofit CRM, but there are other systems in your organizational structure. For example, you likely have finance, ticketing or program registration, document storage, project management—and possibly many more. 

Most organizations have several systems, but often those systems are siloed to the teams that are using them. However, no systems exist in a vacuum, even if they are not currently integrated or shared across teams. Everything that happens in an organization is interconnected. Consider all of the following activities: 

  • Casual lunch meetings with donors 
  • Sending a follow-up email
  • Event attendance 
  • Major gift donation
  • Sending acknowledgment letters 
  • Gift processing

All of these items are foundational to a good, responsive fundraising program. However, business processes to support these constituent actions may not be happening in one system. 

When you are shopping for your new nonprofit software, no matter what kind, you must consider whether it can integrate to systems in your organizational structure. You should also think about how you want data to flow. Start by making a list of all systems. As you are shopping for solutions, you may be able to consolidate systems, or at a minimum, create integrations. The important part is to document your ecosystem clearly and define the roles of each system in its current state. 

Manage Your Expectations and Prioritize Needs for Your New Nonprofit Software

Defining exactly what you need in your new nonprofit software first allows you to keep an open mind in your search. While an all-in-one system might be a nice idea, the realityx of your business needs may not align with that dream. 

Your organization may require a set of systems that can tightly integrate to best cover your needs. It is important to acknowledge that a system may not be able to meet every need you outlined. This isn’t to say that something won’t do so, but more to acknowledge the need to prioritize your requirements. 

For example, if recurring donations are an important part of your business model, you’ll have to find a system to support that. But if text-to-give is on your wishlist, it may be ok to accept a system that cannot currently support that need.

In another view, if your communications system is working well and can integrate into a new CRM, the potential new CRM’s communication capabilities may not be a critical consideration. Define your needs first, make them clear, and then prioritize your must-have list, your nice-to-have list, and your wish list. Organize your system requirements into areas (marketing, major gifts, etc.), prioritizing not only the individual system requirements but also the teams that need the new system most. 

Create Your Evaluation Tool

You’ve outlined your requirements for your new nonprofit software, you’ve assessed your current systems for functionality, integration options, and gaps, and you’ve prioritized what you must have in a system versus your wish list. Before you start to shop for a solution and ask to see what it can do, it is important to create a process by which you will grade each option. 

By creating a grading system that you can use across systems, you’ll be able to objectively rate the systems based on your requirements. Your scale can be A, B, C, D, and F, or a point system of 1 to 100, or anything that makes sense to your team. Just be sure it is clear, prioritized, and usable for your team for evaluation.  

Narrow Your List and Request Information 

Before you reach out to vendors, review the nonprofit systems marketplace by doing the following: 

  • Talking to similar nonprofits
  • Searching nonprofit resources
  • Looking at nonprofit system websites

You may have a general idea of functionality offered by the systems you preview, so once you’ve decided on your shortlist – get ready to connect with the vendors. Start by creating an RFP or RFI. An RFI is a simple request for information, while an RFP is a more formal request for a proposal. 

In either case, tell the vendor about your goals, your timeline, an overview of your organization, and most importantly, your requirements checklist for your new nonprofit software. Also, let the vendors know that they can skip sections of the requirements that don’t apply, so they don’t exclude themselves. For example, if a vendor doesn’t have live auction functionality but you are happy with your auction platform, it might be ok with you if a vendor doesn’t offer this functionality in their system. 

Don’t waste your time or a vendor’s time. Responding to RFPs and analyzing responses takes a lot of time. From both the vendors and you. Don’t send your RFP to ten vendors if you know that five will never meet your needs, or if you know you won’t have time to read more than three or four responses. 

Making the Grade 

When vendors respond, you’ll evaluate their responses by reviewing their submissions and grading their proposed functionality using the objective score sheet you created. This helps to eliminate vendors who aren’t close to what you need but also measures differences between similar systems to see where each system’s strengths stand out. Keep in mind, no new nonprofit software will do everything you need without customization. Be suspicious of any vendor who responds “yes” to all requirements, but don’t discount a vendor who identifies areas for modification or customization to meet your needs—this is normal. 

Pay attention to budgets and how the vendors present pricing. Pricing may be based on the number of users, record counts, or something similar. It is important to understand your costs now, and your future costs, because they may relate to your organization’s size and any growth you’re expecting. When it comes to budgets, make sure you understand the one-time implementation costs and the annual costs to maintain the system. If budget is the top priority, this might be the highest weighted grade on your score sheet. 

New Nonprofit Software Demonstration Time 

Once you’ve narrowed your selection to two or three new nonprofit software candidates that have the potential to support you, demonstrating the systems is a critical next step. It is one thing to read about the functionality, but it is quite another to see it in action based on your specific needs. 

Write a script or demonstration scenarios that you would like to see. Think of the use cases that your organization has:

  • Is membership functionality important? 
  • Donor and/or member portals? 
  • Digital advocacy? 

Ask your teams to write a few examples of their systems use, so that you can see the functionality replicated in the proposed solution. Creating a script also helps you keep your evaluations objective, to compare systems fairly by seeing the exact same functionality demonstrated. 

After the demos, it is important to grade what you’ve seen as soon as possible, both to help narrow your selection and so that you don’t forget what you’ve seen. 

Decision Time 

After the scoring, you may have a couple of different top contenders. Before you choose a winner, it’s important to do your due diligence. Ideally, you’ll want to talk to three or four references of organizations using the system to eliminate any surprises. Talk to them about the product itself, the implementation process, configurations, and the vendor’s customer service and support. 

Costs to Consider

Due diligence may also help you decide about optional features, additional modules, customizations, or partner applications. Once you have a clear winner, part of your due diligence should be forming a picture of ALL potential ownership costs. This includes obvious costs like licensing fees and implementation fees, but also some of the not-so-obvious costs such as the following: 

  • Integration assistance
  • Ongoing training resources
  • Hardware and equipment upgrades
  • Staffing changes to support the solution

Implementation costs are very important and are typically based on the number of hours a vendor plans to spend working directly with you. Implementation typically involves the time and resources necessary to onboard your organization, set up your system, convert your data, and train your team. Be realistic about the time and support you need. Cutting corners here can lead to extra expenses and headaches later.

Create a Business Case

The goal of the process is to guide your decision-making, using a methodical, objective approach that keeps your goals and priorities in mind. Once you’ve reviewed the systems, carefully vetted the options, and discussed the choice as a cross-functional group, it is decision time! 

Create a business case to use as talking points when the new system is announced. The business case is the justification that a new system implementation is warranted and worth the investment. By going through this selection process, you should be able to build a strong case and get the buy-in you need to be successful. 

Integration Considerations

Part of your system decision might be considering integrations if you have multiple systems needs. It is important to have a basic understanding of integration options to begin these important conversations with your vendors. Essentially, there are four major integration options: connectors, manual import/exports, custom integrations, and IPaaS tools. 

Some vendors create their own integration tools, such as “connectors” between their system and another common system. These are usually pre-built and ready for purchase. These connectors are usually stable but relatively static, giving you a reliable connection but limited ability to customize data mapping and flow. 

Sometimes you can achieve a simple data exchange with an export/import process using the system’s native tools. This is a manual process and may require multiple steps and may be a perfectly fine solution for a very simple data exchange that doesn’t happen often. 

If you have database engineers on staff or as contractors, you may be able to build a custom integration. This would give you the flexibility to meet your exact business requirements, but the work may be expensive to build and maintain—for example, it may need fixing every time your new system vendor updates their software. 

IPaaS tools are becoming more widespread and provide flexibility for integrations. IPaaS stands for Integration Platform as a Service. It allows you to build workflows, integrations, and automations, rapidly and with little or no code specific to your needs. The downside is that the tools can be expensive to purchase if you want to create your own workflows.

The point is, it’s important to know your options for integration and decide on your path to connect systems as a part of your decision about what your new ecosystem will look like. 

Stay Tuned 

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series, where we’ll share the important steps in implementing the system you’ve selected. 


By Shannon Abitbol

Shannon Abitbol has been working with nonprofits since 2006, focusing on a variety of roles including business process improvement, community engagement, fundraising, change management, and leadership. As an independent consultant, she has helped to implement CRM systems and database conversion projects. Most recently, before joining JCA, Shannon was the Executive Director of GiveVisuals, a start-up nonprofit that works with volunteers from the film industry to create short films for small nonprofits around the world in visually communicating their message.

As a knowledgeable nonprofit leader, Shannon has a wealth of nonprofit experience. Shannon has worked with a variety of nonprofits including advocacy organizations, arts and culture organizations, and museums. Clients include Naples Botanical Garden, Studio Museum in Harlem, New World Symphony, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Shannon holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida. As a member of her local community, she serves on three boards of directors in support of the arts and community cohesion.

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