Nonprofit technology: the next frontier

This has been the unexpected surprise about my new job…nonprofit technology is a whole new world and I’m loving it. It’s really, really interesting. Last year at this time, my Newsgator feed list was full of CSS sites and “web 2.0.” Now it’s all about CRM, fundraising, advocacy…and still all the “web 2.0” stuff, since social connections and grassroots engagement are a huge part of a successful small nonprofit.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the shallow end of the pond where we’re wading…the little guys like us, not the United Ways or American Cancer Society. They’re playing on a completely different level.

“Nonprofit” does not mean “same old, except cheap and free.” Quite the contrary, it’s big business and sometimes big money. Nonprofit technology, at least to me, means taking existing business models best practices and applying them to a business where the measure of success is not in dollars and the accountability stakes are much higher. Think about that for a moment. In most businesses, you market a product or service and you are judged and measured solely on the value of that product or service. You set a price, you get the money and then it’s up to you to determine how to best distribute those funds so you can continue selling your product or service. You only have to stand by what you sell. Grossly simplified, but that’s the general idea, right?

In the nonprofit world, your “product” has to demonstrate benefit before you have your first customer. Your “customers” can place demands on you, and not give back a single thing, and that’s perfectly okay. The people who pay for your product may not even be the people that use your product, and they can tell you exactly how you are allowed to spend every dime they give you. Can you imagine buying your computer and saying to the salesman, “You know, I think the hard drive is the most important part of the computer, so I’d like this $2,000 to only go to the hard drive people, okay? Oh, and in a year I’d like for you to send me a report telling me exactly how you spent my $2,000 or I may never buy another computer from you again.” On top of that, you have to report to various local, state and federal agencies who tell you exactly how much of your money you are allowed to spend in any one area and you have your Board of Directors who (if they’re doing their job) are keeping it all in balance. All the while, you are still passionate about the cause that got you on this rollercoaster ride to begin with.

I find it amazing that any very small nonprofit (and by that I mean a budget of under $500K per year) even existed before computers. It’s a ridiculous amount of information and strategy to juggle all at once. Having a business plan is the easy part. Using technology so you can look back and answer the question, “did we do what we said we’d set out to do?” is the challenging part, especially when you have a mission that isn’t a direct service. Policy and public perception of an issue do not turn around overnight, and we can’t hang a sign that says “XX Billion Served” to measure our progress.

From the beginning, I knew that in order to get where we want to go we had to have a technology plan and build it into our very first budget. We have to be as organized and efficient about how we operate when we have 50,000 names in our database as we are now with, well, much less than that. We’ve looked for technology partners that will work for us now while we’re small, but will be scalable so the features and services we will want and need will be there for us later. Since January, our online donations, advocacy and e-messenging have been handled through the GetActive platform. It’s an ASP (hosted) solution which is essential for us. That lets us have a couple of laptops and as long as we maintain a good strong pipe to the ‘Net, we don’t have to worry about additional hardware investments.

While GetActive is very good at what it does well, it’s not as strong as a stand-alone CRM (contact relationship manager) application. We can collect information, but adding to the records as we build relationships, linking contacts together and reporting on it all is a big weakness. So as I blogged a while ago…we set out to find a better database, still keeping GetActive for what it does far better than any competitor, in my opinion.

Originally I thought we could get by with a Microsoft Access database, but as we started thinking through the project and talking with vendors, I realized we needed much more than that. An Access database is a spit & scotch tape solution that we’d outgrow quickly. Plus, with our lack of server technology, putting something that important solely on a single laptop wouldn’t be a smart move.

After looking at more software products aimed at the nonprofit world than I can count, including hosted platforms and even a custom-designed solution, what did we decide on? is an incredible CRM. Extremely powerful, extremely configurable. It reminds me a bit of the Movable Type world, as there is a huge support community and a cottage industry so-to-speak that makes its living supporting and configuring this platform. Out of the box, we couldn’t possibly consider or afford the package, running at $1,500 per year per user. However, has a foundation where they give away licenses to qualified nonprofits! Completely free. No strings attached except that you have to use it to keep it. So I opened a trial account and started reading and learning and the more I read and learn, the more I like what I see. Yes, I know they had some stability issues a couple of months ago but that appears to be a non issue now. I completed the paperwork to apply for their grant, which was awarded earlier this week, so now we’re all set with 10 licenses of the Enterprise edition.

The catch is that out of the box, is of course designed for the for-profit sales & marketing business model. It takes quite a bit of configuring for it to work for the non-profit model, and then you have to consider the training necessary on top of that. That comes with a price as I need to contract with an implementation partner to work with us to make it happen. I can flounder around and figure it out for myself eventually, but in the long run I think our money is better spent doing it right from the beginning than learning from our mistakes that I know someone else has already learned from and can help us avoid. I think it’s worth the effort, and I’m enjoying the ride as I’m adapting to the way we do our business and reporting.

What are some of my new favorite sites?


4 responses to “Nonprofit technology: the next frontier”

  1. Thanks, Mark. Your site was one of the first I added to FeedDemon when we got our donated license. Great read!

  2. Judi, I’d like to invite you to also check out, and to sign into our forums through – we even have one specifically for non-profits. Also, let me know if you have any difficulty accessing any of those resources.

    Kingsley Joseph,
    Product Manager,

  3. My feeddemon took a similar turn of events in terms of the feeds it is looking at.

    We are implementing salesforce @my nonprofit as well. We are an all volunteer organization and our entire board is elected. So everyone needs to be able to login from a different place. salesforce completely ROCKS.

    Just some notes that have helped me.

    I am growing a lense @squidoo and you should too. I would LOVE to see what your lense looks like. But on it are a list of some tools. You should definitely check out DemocracyInAction as an alternative to GetActive, if you need a cheaper alternative. Backpack is awesome too, it’s like fisher price version of microsoft sharepoint.

    please keep us updated on your salesforce endeavors!!