Selecting Software: 3 Tips Before You Start

By |2023-08-14T07:23:08-04:00August 14th, 2023|Organizational Development & Performance|0 Comments


Editor’s Note: In 2023 we’re going to introduce several guest bloggers. This blog post on how nonprofits should choose software was written by Debbie McCann of W4Sight. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, let us know. 

For many nonprofits, selecting new software feels daunting.  There are so many choices, yet they all feel the same. How should you choose?  What if you choose the wrong one?  These three steps are intended to help you feel confident that you’re on the right track with your selection process – whether you’re selecting a donor management system, program management tool, communications software, or a product that does all those things and more.   

At the beginning of a software selection project, everyone’s excited to get to the good stuff. As tough as this is to resist – DO NOT START THIS PROJECT BY WATCHING SOFTWARE PROMO VIDEOS ON YOU TUBE. Instead, push your colleagues to come together around some important discussions first. 

Step 1: Focus on the features you really need.   

Get your colleagues who will be impacted by this software decision to participate in these discussions.  While this process can take more time up front, the buy-in is an important factor in the project’s success.  Key questions to ask include: 

  • What problems are we trying to solve?  You probably have complaints about the way things work now, either with some old software that doesn’t fit your current needs, or your organization’s clever workarounds using a million spreadsheets and passing things back and forth via email.  Gather those complaints and be clear about what issues need to be addressed.   
  • What new “Ps” need to be considered?  Most nonprofits are changing all the time, developing new priorities, programs, and processes to keep up with them.  Make sure you have a list of new things your software needs to accommodate, instead of just thinking about what your org would need today.  Ideally, you want a software solution that is flexible enough to grow with you.  

Step 2:  Assess your constraints.   

Picking the right software solution for your org is like balancing a stool with three legs: functionality, cost, and technical capacity.  In Step 1, you focused on the functionality.  In Step 2, it’s time to be honest about what your organization can afford in terms of cost and staffing. 

Cost has multiple components. 

There are three types of cost: software license fees (usually paid monthly, sometimes with discounts if paid annually), support fees (sometimes different costs for chat, email/ticket, and phone support), and implementation fees.  Implementation fees vary widely, but often cost more than the annual license fee. The good news is that it’s a one-time fee to set up the system according to your org’s needs, transfer your data, and provide training.

Plan for overlap. 

Many software vendors require that you start paying for the software right away, even if it takes several months to set up, so during the first year, you may need to be paying for both your old system and your new system at the same time. 

Don’t choose a solution you can’t maintain. 

Some software platforms, like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics, are extremely powerful and flexible and can meet almost any need.  However, all that power and flexibility comes at a cost, and your entry-level development coordinator or program coordinator won’t be able to manage the system. Instead, you need to budget for a certified professional with existing software expertise. Non-technical staff can manage other software. This software may only require a percentage of a person’s time.  Make sure you talk through what existing staff at your organization will be responsible for managing the system, so that you can adjust either your expectations about the functionality, or budget for additional resources. 

Step 3: Plan your transition timeline.  

Most donor management/CRM solutions take 3-4 months to implement the minimum functionality needed to stop using the previous system. You have to be able to process checks, write acknowledgement letters, and accept online donations, and you need your data converted. While there’s no perfect time to disrupt your operations to fit in a software selection and implementation project, there are a few ways to find a “better” time: 

Make a list

Make a list of the major activities in your annual cycle for the department(s) impacted by this transition. Be sure to map out the ramp-up and wrap-up time associated with each activity.  For instance, the 3 months leading up to an annual gala and the 2 weeks after the gala may be especially busy.   


When will you have the funds available? Because of the increased cost in Year 1, it may take another budget cycle to budget appropriately.  However, you may be able to do the software selection in the current fiscal year. Then, you can fund the implementation next fiscal year.

Timing and Staffing

See if you can fit in the project immediately following your busiest time. That’s often the biggest lull in the calendar. If you have the flexibility to push back the timing of the next activities to make room for the project, that might be helpful. 

Think about how you can reallocate staff resources during the selection and implementation process to free up staff capacity to participate in decision-making, setup, and training. 

Is there anything an intern or temp can do to free up staff time? 

Can you cut anything from the calendar?

Once you have a clear sense of your requirements, your budget, and your staffing capacity, THEN it’s go-time. Start watching those videos, ask your peers what software they use to address similar needs, ask for help in professional groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  A consultant can help as well, but make sure you’re hiring one that doesn’t accept referral fees from software vendors to recommend their products.  And even if you hire a consultant, that doesn’t get you out of completing these three steps – a consultant will need the same information to support you through the process. 

About our guest author 

Debbie McCann is the co-founder and CEO of W4sight. W4Sight was founded in 2009 to strengthen nonprofits and other mission-minded organizations by making technology work for them. Debbie is an expert in software selection and implementation, and ensures that the tools are always tied to a strong business purpose. She is a seasoned veteran in leading projects from beginning to end. Debbie loves working with mission-driven clients in the public and non-profit sectors. 

Capacity Building: A Blueprint

Capacity building, or organizational development, is the process by which organizations obtain, improve, and keep the skills, knowledge, tools, equipment and other resources needed to do their jobs well or better, on a larger scale, to a larger audience, with more impact. Every organization is different, but any building project needs to start with a solid blueprint.

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