Coming from a healthcare background members of our staff frequently heard the statement that taking risks with systems risks people’s lives. From our perspective, this is wise advice regardless of the industry. As a technical leader at your non-profit, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your donors. In those rare windows when resources come your way, your only option is success. Far too many technical leaders get shown the door for failed implementations.
Many vendors, new and old, are racing to create a new generation of donor system platforms. We agree it is long overdue. The approaches, target audiences and reasons are varied. The obvious reason is that the current generation of platforms could at best be kindly described as legacy. The not so obvious reasons are that the new generation generally carries with it three new elements – a higher degree of uncertainty, proprietary control, and higher cost.
Early adoption of new technology is more work and more risk.
You are going it alone - just you, the vendor, and their client testimonials, absent the luxury of counsel from your industry peers. You must question the advice of consultants who are compensated by software vendors for referring clients who commit to new products. Implementations have more glitches and problems than products that have matured in the marketplace, requiring costly customization and fixes. More time and energy must be spent setting expectations for end users and leadership. Once the contract is signed and the money is spent, the famed Pottery Barn Rule goes into effect. “You break it, you own it.”
With the price tag of some implementations exceeding seven figures
yes, seven figures - you own a lot in terms of cost. You must also be certain what you own for your money in the new world versus the old world. Some new platforms are available, some are still in development, some have a basic shell but require hundreds of hours of custom programming work to meet your needs, and others are available but still require the old platform to run in tandem until the rest of the modules have been built. Is that really a market ready product?. Can you choose your reporting tools? Do you have access to the back end of the database? Will third party plug-ins work? Can you still have an interface to other systems? Can you control security? So how should technical leaders in the non-profit space plan
for the move forward to the next generation of technology? Warren Buffett said it best by noting “risk comes from not knowing what you are doing.” So our answer is simple – assess your needs, minimize risks, and do not be an early adopter. Let institutions with resources to risk light your way down the path. Only after these products have seasoned in the market will there be a large enough sample size of clients to begin a due diligence exercise free of vendor input and interference. Focus exclusively on direct inquiries with clients using the new platforms. No systems selection process should ever begin with vendor demos. In order to ask the right questions, you must have context and empirical evidence to share and compare against vendor claims.
When you are asked to commit substantial dollars and staff time
to make a change, also be certain you can provide a documented return on that investment. Scrutinize vendor white papers that try to prove it. Question their validity by speaking directly to the featured client. For example, a white paper or case study from a vendor may claim a client saw amazing revenue gains from the online tools in the vendor’s new platform. The trouble is they may only be seeing those results because they never did online fundraising at all within their old platform, not comparing apples to apples. System selection in the non-profit space may be the single greatest challenge technical leaders will ever face in their career. Make the wrong decision and everyone downstream feels the pain. Do not adopt new platforms before they have been tested and proven over time to be a better world than the ones clients left. Conduct thorough due diligence before you speak with vendors. Your staff and your donors deserve nothing less.