Salesforce crossroads: A decision reached

Back in February, I did a little “thinking out loud” about where C3 was going with Salesforce.

We started using Salesforce as our main database in 2006, following the nonprofit best practices of the time. Now, 3 years later C3 has grown exponentially and we’re quickly outgrowing the structure I set up in 2006. Not outgrowing Salesforce by any stretch. There were simply some assumptions I had made in setting up our data model that were true and valid in 2006 that no longer apply. I had a big decision to make on where we would be heading next.

Over the last few months I’ve talked to many folks I trust and respect in the Salesforce nonprofit community. People who are a lot smarter than I am on many levels. They confirmed what I already suspected: There are no easy, obvious answers. Whether I decided to install the Salesforce Foundation’s Nonprofit Starter Pack, Convio Common Ground or something in between (or nothing at all), I would have some concessions to make.

After weighing all the options, and with a little help from some friends, we’ve decided to purchase Convio’s Common Ground.

I feel good about our decision. Read on for why…

Let’s face it, Convio has a certain negative reputation in the nonprofit community. It’s expensive. The interface is unwieldy. It’s expensive. It’s overkill. Did I mention that it’s expensive? All that can be very true.

But here’s the thing…and I’m being entirely sincere…I’m grateful that Convio has been a supportive partner of C3 since before Convio. When I was looking at nonprofit software vendors at the end of 2005, GetActive didn’t snicker at our ridiculously small budget. They took a chance on us and helped us work out an arrangement so we could afford their service and get the most value out of it. That carried over when Convio bought GetActive a couple of years later.

In 2005, a Convio sales rep literally laughed at me on the phone when I spoke to him. Today, while by no means a perfect fit for all organizations (and yes, it can be buggy and the admin interface still sucks in spots) that condescending “you’re not worthy of us” attitude is all but gone from Convio. It’s far from free, but if it’s a fit they’ll work within an organization’s budget and needs. We’re living proof.

While I may kvetch on Twitter about how much I hate the Convio admin interface, overall we’re more satisfied than dissatisfied. So to my question of, “Do we really want to tie Salesforce to Convio?” the answer that makes the most sense to me is: no compelling reason not to.

The reality is that for C3, the Nonprofit Starter Pack is more expensive than Common Ground. Say what? But the Starter Pack is free, you say. Have I mentioned that I’m not a developer? I’m a decent self-taught Salesforce administrator, and I’ve somehow managed to figure out how to get Salesforce to do what I want it to do through a lot of Googling, social networking, tutorials and trial and error. If I get to the point that I can even understand Apex (Salesforce programming language) I’ll consider it a miracle. Forget any dream of being able to say, “Oh, let me build a trigger for that…” Hiring a Salesforce developer either as a consultant or staff member is way out of my reach.

Bottom line: The Nonprofit Starter Pack will require more knowledge to install/configure than I can give it. Thank goodness the Foundation has the amazing Steve Andersen working on the software now, so it will only get better. As it improves, I would have to handle updates on my own, counting on my friends in the NPSF community to guide me out of whatever mess I know I’d create for myself.

On the other hand, Common Ground has functionality out-of-the-box that is fully supported by Convio, and is frankly amazing. And getting better all the time. For starters, it’s more in line with how I prefer to handle households in Salesforce (treating them as an account, rather than a custom object). Email messaging campaigns in Convio are mapped to Salesforce (not available in the connector I’m using). It has built-in functionality for Tribute/Personal Fundraising gift campaigns. It can handle any kind of donation or sales process we’ll throw at it, although it’s a tad weak on e-commerce.

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I’ll be busy this summer. There will be some hard decisions as we figure out how to get existing data into the new Common Ground model. I’m sure I’ll have many a blog post on the process as we go.

Overall, though, I think the rewards of Common Ground will be much greater than the concessions I’ll have to make.

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