As originally published in the American City Business Journals
Just the other week I had the pleasure of speaking with a group of fundraising consultants in DC. These consultants serve nonprofit clients exclusively, and were having trouble finding proper guidance on donor management software.
There were two main challenges at hand: (1) they couldn’t find an objective perspective on the subject and were just getting “sold” at every turn, and (2) many of them simply didn’t know where to begin.
A surefire way to short-change the process? By beginning with this question: “Which package should we choose?”

What’s the big deal?

Why can’t you just buy a solution off the shelf and install it yourself? It says it’s perfect for small businesses, I’m a small business, so what?
If you’re a very small organization that is willing to mold its operations and workflow to fit the software’s capabilities, then yes, you can probably get away with choosing on a whim (and still don’t be surprised if you need to make a change down the road as you discover different limitations).
But for most of us, we have technologies and processes and policies in place that we need to maintain. And given how central many applications are to our ability to make money, a poor fit can be downright crippling to our operations.
Imagine for example that your accounting software didn’t integrate properly with your email. You’d have to send your invoices via snail mail, which means it takes longer to receive payments, which means bad things for your company’s cash flow (not to mention your accounting team’s morale).
If you’re a consulting company, you know how damaging it is to lose billable hours to (a) your consultants fighting against a clunky system, or (b) them not being able to actually enter their time properly in your billing software. This adds up to thousands upon thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

How to approach software selection

Rather than typing “best accounting software for a 40-person company” into Google and crossing your fingers, there are four main steps that you need to follow when choosing any software application.
1. Chart your needs. Your first – and most important – step is to assess your business processes as they relate to the package you’re investigating. The whole point of a software system is to facilitate your operations as a company (and to improve them where possible), so what is it that you actually need to be able to do? What capabilities must you have? Which would be nice to have? Which could you do without entirely? Work with a cross-section of your team to map this out, and don’t skimp on the process – these will become the standards to which you hold every package that you investigate.
2. Do your research. This involves a lot of legwork. Make calls to potential vendors, and make calls to references. Pay special to things like:

  • FunctionalityWill it do everything you determined that it needs to? Does it hit any of the “nice-to-haves”?
  • Usability – Is the design intuitive? What’s the learning curve going to be for your staff?
  • Access – Do you need mobile access? How well does the package translate to phones or tablets?
  • Integration – Does it integrate with your billing? Your website? Your email? Does it need to?
  • Reporting – What reports can you run? Can you control access to them?
  • Support – What kind is available? Email? Phone? At what times? Will it cost you extra?
  • Cost – What’s the pricing model? Where could there be hidden charges?

Put all of this data into a matrix so you can compare each solution directly and easily eliminate those that aren’t the right fit
3. Get a demonstration. Once you’ve narrowed down your pool, see the remaining solutions in action. Have the vendor take you through each piece as it relates to your business specifically. Feature lists, after all, can only tell you so much about a product.
4. Implement. This part is complex enough to warrant its own article, but suffice it to say that the process isn’t over after you’ve made your decision – you still need to work through the technical implementation (which may or may not include transferring data from your legacy software), customization, testing, roll-out, staff training, and so forth.
Above all, take your time when it comes to choosing your software, and be sure to begin with a business-level evaluation before making a blind jump to comparing solutions.
What do you think? Have you had success with an off-the-shelf package? Or did you find yourself in a sticky situation after implementation? Email me at – I’d love to hear your stories.

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