Implementing Your Donor Management Software
You’ve defined your requirements, talked to vendors, seen demos, found the right donor management software for you and worked through the contract—now you’re done, right? Not so fast. You still need to implement the system, which requires additional planning, teamwork, configuration, data migration and testing—my favorite part!
This can be a big project. A common rule of thumb says to expect implementation costs roughly equal to your first year of offline software costs. If you’ve chosen a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution with subscription fees, estimate implementation costs at roughly three times the annual cost before any discounting.
How you plan your implementation can mean the difference between success and disaster, and can affect whether the final system is really optimized to your needs. In this article, we’ll walk through what you need to know to smoothly implement your donor management software.
Defining your Task Force
Your first step is to pull together an implementation task force. These are the people who can tell you what a successful implementation will look like. Your task force will be responsible for understanding your organization and the needs of your staff, and how your new software works. They should coordinate with any external partners you involve in the implementation process. Your task force will also have the important role of helping colleagues use the system, keeping focus on the key processes the system supports, and serving as the “institutional memory” for decisions made along the way.
Who should be on your task force? At a minimum, the person who will be in charge of daily database maintenance—he or she will be attuned to how your old software was used, and can give important input on what features you’ll need or should opt out of, and how the organization should use the software. More importantly, after the new software has been used for several months, that person can answer questions about why the software is being used in a particular way.
You’ll also want an executive sponsor on the team with the authority to both lobby for the financial resources you’ll need and assign people to the project (and let them off the hook from some other tasks they would normally do). An executive-level point-of-view also keeps the primary goals in focus as you move through the process. Executives don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details, but should keep their eyes on the strategic issues that can, or should, influence the project.
When you ask staff to join, they may say they’re not software experts, that they just know fundraising. And that’s fine. You’re looking for a fundraiser’s perspective. What will this new software allow them to do that they could not have done previously? What current strategies do they want to continue? What business processes do they want to maintain? What processes are they hoping the new software will make better for them? And, ultimately, what strategies do they hope to implement that they’ve been unable to with the current tool set?
We All Need Help Sometimes
Your task force will be invaluable, but keep in mind that the skills required to implement software differ from the skills required to maintain it. If your organization hasn’t implemented a system before, it may not necessarily have the skill set required to make all the decisions required, or the perspective needed to implement the software successfully. This is where you might consider external resources to support you.
Organizations that do perfectly well running fundraising programs on their own often find implementation is a good time to consider bringing in an outside party. Of course, I can’t claim to be entirely unbiased, but here’s how you can make the decision for yourself. Ask yourself what the potential issues and benefits would be if you: 1) simply did it yourself; 2) hired the vendor to do it for you; or 3) hired an experienced third-party expert to collaborate in the process.
If you do decide to seek outside help, whether a consultant or a vendor, make sure you identify up-front what you need or want them to bring to the table. Unfortunately, there’s no easy formula to define how much help you need. Instead, work with your potential partner to determine the scope of the project. Ask them for detailed descriptions of what they would do at each major milestone, the tasks that lead to those milestones, and how much of their time—and your money—each milestone will take.
If they tell you they can’t give you detailed estimates because you have a lot of unique situations, make sure that rings true. If you feel like you’re getting that answer at every turn, beware—that could be indicative of what it will be like to work with them in the implementation process. Your experience scoping out the project together will likely be reflective of your experience throughout the project as a whole. Use the planning process to get to know the consultant and their working style.
See if the implementation plan they create reflects what you need. If you can, talk to colleagues who have worked with that consultant and ask if they delivered more or less service than needed, or if it was spot on. How accurate was the plan as to what was ultimately needed? Share your proposal with them and see how it compares with your colleague’s experience. Do important steps seem to be glossed over or missing? Are unnecessary projects or charges outlined? Now is the time to discover these things, not mid-project when it impacts your budget.
Timing is Everything—Particularly When It’s Your Time
Selecting the proper time for your implementation project is crucial. Review your annual fundraising calendar to find a window when your task force is relatively available, and the key fundraising initiatives you hope to support with the new software are far down the line. The time frame for implementation will vary depending on how complex your needs are, the state of your existing data and how much customization you’ll need to do, but might range anywhere from a couple months to six months or more. Ideally, you want your software to be up and running at least one-to-two months in advance of those fundraising initiatives; that will afford you the time needed to reach a certain comfort level with your new software.
At the beginning of an implementation process, there’s a good deal of staff participation required to scope out what’s going to be needed of the software. It’s critical that your staff participates. While they may feel they don’t have the time to participate up front, they will certainly have the time to comment on the end result when the implementation project is done. So it’s to everyone’s benefit that they take the time to talk about what a successful implementation would look like to them.
The more time your task force can devote, the better the end result. If you need to pause in the middle of the project because there’s some unavoidable fundraising effort, that’s perfectly legitimate. We’ve seen people start a project in October or November, participate quite heavily up until early December, and then take a month-long hiatus while they focus on their end-of-year fundraising. Then they pick up the project again in mid-January.
It’s important to establish an appropriate timeline. Conduct interviews to articulate goals, prioritize those goals based on what your organization thinks a successful implementation will look like, and then define some primary milestones and benchmarks.
Putting the Pieces Into Place
With a solid understanding of what’s needed and the help of your task force, you’ll need to do the actual system configuration or customization. This could be a fairly minimal process of defining the values for a set of drop-down boxes and creating some reports, or could involve wholesale creation of new functionality or modules. Either way, ensure that all your decisions are solidly based in your organization’s processes, and that you run both the designs and the results by your task force to make sure they make sense.
Moving the data from your old system into the new will be a significant part of the implementation. Start with a careful look at your data. Are there records or fields that aren’t useful? Are there a lot of duplicate records? Is data inconsistently entered? A migration to a new system is a great opportunity to consider exactly how everything should be tracked and stored. It likely makes sense to do a wholesale clean-up of your data during the conversion process—it will boost your staff’s confidence and buy-in to the new system.
You’ll also need to map the data from the old system to the new. This can be a substantial task, as often the fields don’t precisely match up across the systems. Start by outlining what you’re going to need to get out of your new system. How will you generate the segmented cultivation lists? How will you process transactions? What kind of reports will you need? Armed with these answers, take a systematic look through every field in both the old system and the new, and define where each piece of data will eventually be stored.
Taking Your System for a Test Drive
We believe a test conversion is at the heart of every successful implementation. Load your data into your new system and test the results to see if you’ve made the right choices about where to put everything. You can also test list generation and reporting features, and fine tune the business practices that you’ll use on your final system. Sometimes testing reveals additional opportunities for adjustments—and it’s a luxury to find them while it’s still easy to make those changes.
A test conversion allows your staff to get involved with the software before it is mission-critical. They can develop a comfort level with the software’s terms, interface and tools that training alone just can’t do. It’s important that your team develops a familiarity beyond the knowledge required to work within the software, and that only happens with time. Having a test system diffuses a potentially intimidating situation, engages our natural curiosity and lets your fundraisers play with the database before they work in it. Allowing time for this will go a long way toward lowering people’s anxiety about switching systems and raising their excitement and commitment to the new software.
You’re Live! Now What?
OK, you’ve flipped the switch—the sky’s the limit, right? All in due time. We’ve found that phased implementations work best. That means there are certain goals that you’ll aim to meet on the day or week that you go live, such as processing a donation, acknowledging your donors, or generating key lists and reports. Those goals allow you to conduct business and continue your donor stewardship, which is the lifeblood of your organization. You might have other goals that you plan to phase in, like the ability to integrate with outside data sets or manage new fundraising strategies. While sales demos can paint a bright future, you want to be clear to everyone in the organization that the goal is not to take advantage of every little feature on the day you flip the switch.
After the first couple months, start looking for improvements. You hope, of course, that your new system is more efficient and effective than your old one right at launch. But it often takes a while to settle in and realize the efficiencies that should come with the new fundraising software, and to maximize its potential.
Further out, you should have some phased goals. In the first three, six, nine or 12 months of using the software, consider taking advantage of additional feature sets. It makes sense to finish implementing one feature milestone before planning in detail for another. Many variables can come into play between the starting line and your first milestone, and it’s only as wrap up the first one that you can realistically plan how to move to the second.
After the Honeymoon
In those first few months, your staff will be adjusting to the new software and getting used to your new business practices. Even people eager for change will require time to adjust to a new way of doing their daily tasks. And there will be little items—configuration issues or data anomalies—that need to be cleaned up. No matter how careful you are, there will always be some small flukes or problems you’ll need to deal with.
Plan a few months for the transition. The goal for those first three months is to get to the point of doing what you’ve always been doing, but in a more efficient, effective and less-stressful manner—so you’re not just getting back to even, you’re actually making progress. After that, you can revisit the phasing plans that you developed and ask yourself, “OK, now that we’re settled, where do we want to go next?”
And that’s when you get to fully enjoy and appreciate the value and opportunity of your new fundraising system.
Keith Heller is the founder and Principal of Heller Consulting, a fundraising technology and development operations consulting firm specializing in Raiser's Edge. Since 1996 Heller Consulting has helped over 600 organizations streamline their existing donor management systems or implement new ones. Keith frequently speaks at local, regional and national conferences for nonprofit professionals.