Outputs, Outcomes, and the Meaning of “Impact”

How do you know whether your organization is making a difference? We talked to leaders at nine different large nonprofits to learn about the technology and strategies they use to help themselves answer that question. From this research we created a report that tells their unique stories and outlines their practices. You can read the report at:
However, in the course of that research, it became clear that not all organizations use the same terms when talking about this topic. 
Performance management is commonly used to refer to a wide range of activities—from program outcomes to individual employee performance. To some, program performance management clarifies the issue, but that term often gets confused with program evaluation, which is sometimes used to define the practice of looking at the success of a program after it’s completed rather than while it’s still in progress. And we often hear that nebulous-but-important word “impact” get thrown around, which is just as often used to refer to small interventions as it is to sweeping change. 
Idealware views the terms this way. Performance management is the all-encompassing term that includes outcomes management, employee management, program evaluation, and most other practices relating to data about programs. Our report focused on outcomes management systems, which is our term for how organizations measure their impact, or success in the wider world, when it can’t be easily rolled up from the constituent level. 
The terms outcomes and outputs are not without confusion themselves. These are distinct ideas and opportunities for measurement. Outputs are the result of the activities an organization has carried out. For example, the number of people who turned out to a rally or the number of acres preserved by a land trust are outputs. Outcomes go further. They look at how outputs had a broader effect on the world. For example, that rally that thousands of people attended could have contributed to the passage of legislation. The legislation creating a new freedom or banning a harmful practice is an outcome. Similarly, the acres protected may have produced the outcome of hundreds of new migratory birds or cleaner drinking water. Counting those birds or measuring the pollution levels in drinking water are the outcomes because those are the results that the original activities were trying to produce. 
An outcomes management system looks at both—outputs and outcomes—in whatever way is meaningful to the organization to help it draw lines of progress and provide tangible measurements for processes that are at times abstract, complex, and messy. 
Even if we all agree on the terms, you probably have never heard of an outcomes management system. In fact, there is no such software. In our research, we did not uncover any software in use that could be described as a comprehensive outcomes management system. 
But that doesn’t mean that many organizations are not trying to put together their own systems. Read our report to find out how organizations such as GuideStar, the United Nations Foundation,, Habitat for Humanity, and more have developed their own systems for measuring outcomes. You may discover approaches that could work at your organization.

Photo credit: NASA HiRISE camera, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Measuring Return on Investment for Technology

Editor's note: This article was originally published in NTEN: Change (, June 2015, CC BY-SA 3.0 (
Don’t let technology gobble up staff time and money, without giving enough back. Effective organizations have a positive Return on Investment, or ROI, for individual technology choices as well as their overall investment in technology. In this article, we answer your basic questions about why ROI is useful and how it works. We’ll share simple ways to measure and compare return on investment and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process. No accounting background is required!
What if you were spending three times longer on troubleshooting your broadcast email tool than on developing the content of your newsletter? An exasperated executive director recently lamented to me that this is happening in her organization. Technology is gobbling up staff time and money, without giving enough back.
On the other hand, when an organization is using technology effectively, the results are greater than or equal to the resources invested. That’s what it means to have a positive Return on Investment (ROI).
Let’s take a closer look at some simple ways to measure and compare ROI and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process.
When is ROI Useful?
When you’re making a purchase decision, thinking about ROI can help you considered whether the product or service is worth your money. But that’s not the only time when ROI is useful. When you are looking at past investment choices, ROI analysis can help you evaluate those decisions and make more accurate projections of costs and benefits next time. When you are writing grants, articulating the funder’s ROI in terms of dollars and mission impact makes your case stronger for technology funding.
Challenge yourself to look beyond specific purchases and projects, and considered your organization’s overall return on its investment in technology. Your executive director and IT director or advisor should be looking at how resources are allocated toward hardware, software, and services; as well as across programs, fundraising, marketing, and administration. Are expenditures made in proportion to the way technology benefits each of those functional areas? Are you wasting resources on technology that isn’t doing much for you? Is your technology budget simply keeping the lights on, or is it fueling your mission?
Basic ROI Mechanics
To do return on investment analysis on a practical level, you don’t have to be an accountant and you don’t have to be perfect. For now, let’s not worry about net present value, internal rate of return, cash flow, or payback period. Let’s keep it simple.
The basic formula is: ROI = net gain/cost
Example: I spend $50 and make $75. My net gain is $25.
ROI = 25/50 = .5 or 50%
In order to do this, you need to assign numbers to the costs and benefits. Many of your numbers will be guesses and approximations. Just make note of your assumptions as you go along, and consider running some alternate scenarios. For example, if your estimate of staff time saved is over or under by 20%, how does that affect the equation? Also, choose a timeline. For items with an ongoing cost, such as a software subscription or equipment maintenance, I typically use a 3-5 year timeline.
Some examples of costs are money, staff time, disruption and frustration, and opportunity cost. Opportunity cost means the missed chance to do something else that might have saved or made money. In addition to the investment before you, think about the cost of other alternatives, including the option to do nothing. In the price tag for technology, don’t forget the costs of training and support, and disposal or recycling of your old technology.
Some costs are tricky to measure. I worked with one nonprofit employee who suspected she was spending an unreasonable amount of time on a tedious report creation task. She was comparing data management products that purported to streamline this work. So, she timed herself with a stopwatch on the current process, then timed herself doing the same task in each of the products under consideration, and multiplied it out by how many times per year she needed to create the report. By doing this, she formed a reasonable projection of how much time the old system was costing her.
What are the benefits of a technology investment? You might think immediately of ways that it saves you money or increases staff productivity. Note that efficiency by itself isn’t worth much—it is the increased output or decreased personnel cost that matters. One organization made the case that by freeing up two hours per week for the development director, she could personally contact enough donors to more than cover the cost of the investment in her efficiency.
Technology can also lead to new or increased revenue streams, a broader reach of your services, and other benefits. For example, in my technology capacity building work, video conferencing and document collaboration tools enabled us to provide remote consulting to clients in an underserved rural area and helped to build our image as a tech-savvy organization. At another organization, a CRM investment improved morale by making employees’ data entry and reporting work more enjoyable, while at the same time improving the quality of services by providing visibility into the client’s full history and relationship with the agency.
Some return on investment analysis falls short because it does not fully capture the benefit side of the equation. Think about what your organization is trying to accomplish in the world. Is it possible to quantify mission impact in terms of social ROI? For example, if a technology investment can be tied to increased wages, helping people off public assistance, or reducing carbon footprint, consider how you might factor that into your ROI equation too.
Example: Should I Buy A New Server Or Move To Cloud Services?
Weighing return on investment for replacing a server versus implementing Cloud file storage and management is a great example because it’s a real decision that many nonprofit organizations face today. It’s interesting because multiple alternatives add complexity: you could replace or upgrade existing servers, move to a platform such as Office 365 or Google Apps, move completely or partially to a file management service like, use more lightweight hardware such as a NAS device, or many, many other options—including doing nothing.
It might be tempting to boil this decision down to a simple choice between costs that are more front-loaded and costs that are spread out over time. But the cost-benefit equation is more complex than that and will be different for each organization, depending on how you weigh various factors. For example, it’s generally agreed that Cloud-based file management offers greater mobility than a conventional server network. Does that matter to your organization? Does it matter enough to ask all of your coworkers to say goodbye to that remote desktop connection, which was such a pain to set up but now works almost all of the time, and go through the pain of learning a brand new system?
In this analysis, I didn’t attempt to assign a dollar value to morale or some of the other more fuzzy aspects of return on investment. However, I did try to unearth some of the hidden costs. Considering only the cost of the technology itself, a conventional server network looks pretty inexpensive, while Cloud services appear slightly higher. Adding in projected costs for implementation and support gives you a better feel for the total cost. Adding downtime, training time, and lost productivity changes it again—and this makes the Cloud look less expensive. In the end, it’s unclear which one is the winner, due to the margin of error.
  • This is loosely based on a real nonprofit organization and the numbers came from an assortment of price quotes and best guesses.
  • It’s perhaps misleading to have such a precise total. It might be better to say the expected costs are “$20,000-25,000ish” for both options.
  • Actual downtime can make a huge difference in the totals.
  • For convenience, we’re saying there are 30 employees and cost of staff time is equal to the average pay rate of $30/hour.
  • I chose to use a five-year cost of ownership since that is a reasonable life span for a server.
  • This doesn’t count added productivity from increased mobile access.
  • This also doesn’t count any of the costs of a remote access solution with a server. 
More on the Process
Now you know a bit about how ROI analysis works and you’ve seen an example. Maybe you’re ready to try it in your organization. Who should be involved? How much effort should it take?
Like any aspect of a technology investment decision, if you want buy-in from leadership and end users, you had better involve them. End users will help you check your assumptions about the real costs and benefits. The executive director and board should be making sure ROI is considered in important decisions and provide guidance on the relative weight of each factor. Initiating and leading an ROI analysis is an opportunity for an IT director or other technology responsible staff person to position themself as a valuable resource and as someone who is capable of thinking strategically about technology.
Of course, you shouldn’t perform an ROI analysis for every little decision. If you need a mouse, buy a mouse. But make it part of your organizational culture by using it consistently for large investments—before and after deployment. Circle back to check whether your assumptions were right, and you will learn to get better at this.
When presenting the results of your analysis, don’t assume that everyone else is going to geek out on the details. Share a handful of data points to make your case, and tell a story that provides context and interest. Let’s say I was presenting the same analysis about server vs. Cloud. I might point out that the five year cost is approximately the same, but the chance to reduce down time by even a small amount is tremendously valuable because…etc.
And finally, remember that ROI is not the law. Sometimes you won’t be able to show positive ROI with numbers, yet there is still a strong business case for your investment. Do your homework and you will be able to make a deliberate, well-informed decision.


The Known Unknowns

A couple months ago, I saw this list of essential tech skills and ever since I’ve been thinking a lot about how little technology expertise I had before joining Idealware and how much has changed for me in the past year. 
Last spring I was in college, where I typically spent 70% of my working time reading books (made of paper, not the e-kind), and the other 30% writing. I wasn’t all that picky about the tools I used—Microsoft Word was good, but Google Docs did just as well, and sometimes a pen and paper was preferable if I just needed to concentrate. In a few art classes, I developed a deeper relationship with software such as Adobe Audition and Max 6. My use of calendar and reminder apps was minimal at best.

The technological ecosystem I inhabit now is far more diverse. My daily tasks include broadcast email, file sharing, CRMs, CMSs, spreadsheets, and social media. I spend so much time working in these tools that it can seem as though my professional potential is determined by what I can make technology do, rather than how hardworking I am or how intelligently I look at broader world issues. 
But looking down the list, I still can’t immediately do half of what’s here. And that’s fine, because my success isn’t actually dependent on what technology I can use. My ability to learn and adapt has been far more important than what I knew last year. I can Google articles and videos that will show me how to make a chart like Edward Tufte or export a list in CSV format. These are things I can learn in a few minutes, or an afternoon.
A lot of Xers and boomers expect college graduates to be technology experts in a box, but that’s not actually what an organization needs. Technology changes too fast for that. And the reality of life outside of a cubicle is most people have little reason to use many of those tools before taking the job. Besides, it’s too much pressure to be expected to know everything about so many complex functions and software programs.

To recent grads, I say don’t sweat what you don’t know. Convince your future employer that working with technology is not a skill set—it’s a mindset. The flexibility and intelligence to figure it out the system is what will make you stand out.
Photo Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images


Best of the Web: June 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.
How to Build Your Email List (Fast Company)
The reports of email’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. As it turns out, email is still a great way to communicate with constituents and members. Here’s how to reach out to more of the right people.
Exploding Myths About Learning Through Gaming (NPR)
How can what seems like escapist fun be a tool for learning? Researchers and gamers argue that the central principles of gaming—experimentation, persistence, working toward goals—are what make games effective teachers.
Why Social Listening is Key to Donor Retention (Epolitics)
“Social listening gives organizations unprecedented insight into their donors’ lives and an opportunity for richer engagement through personalization. Far beyond surveys, focus groups or feedback forms, nonprofits have the ability to analyze, in real time, what their donors think, feel, and care about—and can react with predetermined triggers or send personalized marketing messages.”
Social Advocacy and Politics: How We Use (Not Utilize) Social Media (Social Media Today)
Social media has grown into a complex ecosystem of different user experiences, but many nonprofits have been slow to adapt. It’s no longer enough to post just to post. To make a platform work, you have to understand why people go there and provide content that meets that need. 
The Remote Office: Putting Free Video Conferencing Tools to the Test (Idealware)
At Idealware, we sometimes are the guinea pigs in our own experiments. Lately, we’ve been sorting out what it takes to be a low-budget organization with staff members in three time zones. To kick off our series on remote offices, we put the top free video conferencing tools to the test to figure out the pros and cons of each. Here are the results.
The Skills You Should Have to Be a Successful Remote Worker (Lifehacker)
Not everyone works well alone and at home. If you’re thinking about hiring someone to work from home or are considering a move to remote working yourself, this is a must-read.
Your Top 10 Topics (Tech Soup)
What’s been top of mind for nonprofit techies this year? Based on its blog engagement numbers, Tech Soup has compiled a list of the top ten topics over the past year and provides links to the stories. 
From Paint to Pixels (The Atlantic)
We talk a lot about finding meaning in data, but artists seeking new forms of expression are turning to data and technology in search of whole new layers of meaning. 
Texts From Teens Build Real-Time Maps of Crisis in America (Wired)
CTL, a crisis-intervention text message hotline, uses demographic data tied to keywords to give text responders some context for the conversation. The system also maps its data to help researchers and other nonprofits working on suicide prevention to see trends and where the need for help is greatest.
4 Ways You Are Putting Your Clients’ Information at Risk (Lawyerist)
Whether you’re a lawyer or any other kind of organization that collects a lot personal data, these tips can help you keep sensitive information safe. 
Platforms Connect Talented Instagrammers with Good Causes (Springwise)
Social media has opened up avenues for people all over the world to contribute to a cause. In this case, visual artists and other talented users of Instagram are being teamed up with organizations to provide beautiful and impactful content.
Technologies and Practices for Managing Outcomes: Lessons from Large Nonprofits (Idealware)
How does your organization know it’s making a difference? What strategies and technologies help you find out? We asked these questions and more to some of the top nonprofits in the U.S. This report collects and analyzes what we learned.
Product Teams: The Next Wave of Digital for NGOs? (Mobilisation Lab)
We’ve known for more than a decade how important digital content and communications are to the success of nonprofits, but organizations of all sizes continue to struggle with implementing and managing those technologies. The Mob Lab asks whether a different organizational structure—one that looks at your digital technology the way a product manager might—could make a difference.
7 Things Your IT Department Wishes You Knew About Tech Support (Lifehacker)
Just a little something to discretely slip into your colleagues’ inbox or innocently post on Chatter. You’re welcome.
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The Remote Office: Putting Free Video Conferencing Tools to the Test

Editor’s note: With almost half of our staff members working from home (not to mention in different time zones), it’s time to start thinking of Idealware as a remote organization. Over the next six months, we’ll take a closer look at our own back office tools and processes and report back what we’ve found.

For the remote office, the casual chat or the quick around-a-monitor powwow isn’t possible, so scheduled meetings take on a whole new importance. 

In the past, we primarily used Google Hangouts for meetings between in-office and remote staff. However, as we’ve grown, we’ve had some quality issues, so we decided to check out the free alternatives and compare them. 

First, a couple caveats about our “review.” Common sense suggests that how well different video conferencing tools work depends more on your internet connection and hardware than on the tool itself. Therefore, your organization will likely see different results. Additionally, this comparison was completely and utterly unscientific, and not even close to the robust methodology and review criteria we use for our reports and articles. The results presented below reflect merely how Idealware staff felt each tool worked for them personally.

And with that out of the way, on to the contenders in The Battle of the Video Chat Superstars!

The Contenders…

Google Hangouts (

The Good: We started using Hangouts because it is so convenient. Since Idealware was already using Google Apps, using Hangouts for meetings let us start video calls from our chat windows and include a link to a hangout as part of meeting invites. Since we often need to meet with freelancers, contract researchers, and other people from outside Idealware, it was nice to only need their Gmail address to call them, instead of finding their username and friending them. Being able to open up and view a Google Doc within the call was also nice because it often meant we could avoid sharing a desktop. 

The Bad: With eight people and eight separate computers on the call together, a lot of staff members noticed problems with our audio—low quality, tinniness, cutting out. One computer would fail to recognize the microphone every other week. In general, our call quality just wasn’t reliable.

The Ugly: I feel that a lot of our problems with video quality were because, if the connection is poor, Hangouts will automatically lower your video quality to limit everyone’s bandwidth usage. It can keep people from dropping off the call, and hopefully improve audio quality, but it won’t look pretty.

Skype (

The Good: So far, as we’ve tried out Skype, video quality has been higher and more consistent than we had with Hangouts, and audio has (mostly) been more reliable. 

The Bad: Skype has had some audio issues for us—tinniness, echoing voices, some dropped audio on a couple calls. During one meeting, one staff member kept losing her video feed. Setting up a call (especially for a recurring, weekly meeting) is more time-consuming with Skype than with Hangouts, as one person (usually me) needs to call everyone, rather than having the same link each week in the calendar invite. Since most of us do not have Skype set to automatically start when the computer boots up, some staff members forgot to open Skype prior to meetings, causing us to lose a couple minutes at the start of each call. Finally, since you can only call people who are already in your contacts list, Skype isn’t as easy as Hangouts for meeting with people outside Idealware.

The Ugly: Ads. They’re not too intrusive, but banner ads are kind of annoying to see during a work-related call.

ooVoo (

The Good: When you add a new person to your contact list, ooVoo lets you invite them to connect with other people in your list, which made setting up for the first time pretty smooth. 

The Bad: ooVoo was just the wrong fit for us. When you initially download and install the desktop client, you’re presented with a lot of pre-checked boxes to download new browser toolbars, search engines, and other (potentially sketchy) bloatware. While there’s a lot of video and audio quality settings for you to configure, the default settings are not great for quality. For example, the default is 15 frames per second for video, which, for an A/V geek like me, is pretty low. And we discovered that the auto-adjusting mic volume feature meant that when you’re not speaking, the volume will crank way up, leading to distracting background noise. Finally, unlike Skype and Hangouts, ooVoo doesn’t seem to auto-adjust each participant’s video quality based on your bandwidth, so if your connection is slow, it won’t try to conserve how much bandwidth each person is using.

The Ugly: Again, ads. The ooVoo client displays a HUGE banner ad next to your list—half of the entire window was just advertising. And, depending on what ooVoo’s algorithm thinks about you, the ads displayed may be rather inappropriate for the workplace. (No, I’m not interested in Bud Light with Lime, especially not during a call with my Executive Director!) (

The Good: We had heard pretty good things from people who had used this tool before. doesn’t need people to create accounts or download and install a desktop client—all you do to join a call is follow a link—so it was really easy to set up and start the meeting. And since all you need is the link to access the meeting, it should be really easy for calls with people outside the organization. 

The Bad: We had such high hopes for this one, but just isn’t right for Idealware. Right now, you can only have up to five people on the call, and we have eight staff members, so…

Those of us that were able to join the meeting experienced fairly low video quality and the audio went all tinny and “roboty” on us.

The Ugly: is really well-designed, with a clean, minimal interface, and since there are no accounts or anything to download, it seems pretty idiot-proof. If only we could have more people on the call.

The Results…

Since staff members had pretty strong negative reactions to both ooVoo and, that left us with a choice between Hangouts and Skype. A few staff members didn’t notice a difference in quality between using either of the two, but generally people felt that Skype was the better choice…for now.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

Ultimately, the problem with call quality isn’t with the tools themselves, but with the internet connection at Idealware Global Headquarters. Broadband isn’t cheap, and we’ve been using a connection that worked fine when we only had one remote staff member, but now that each person joins meetings from his or her own computer, our connection isn’t enough to handle the load. The minimum requirements for Hangouts and Skype aren’t very demanding, but we never planned on having five or more Hangouts happening at the same time.

When it comes down to actually comparing your free options for video conferencing, the solution you choose really doesn’t matter as much as your internet connection does. Want to learn about both free and paid solutions for video conferencing, webinars, and desktop sharing? Read our article, A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools, updated for 2015!


 Photo credit: Wikipedia

Best of the Web: May 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

Is Mobilegeddon Coming? (NPR and NTEN)

Google’s new search algorithm now favors “mobile-friendly” websites in mobile search results. NPR covers the reaction. NTEN offers a solution.

Break Down the Silos—For Real This Time (Idealware)

Every organization knows what engagement is and knows how important it is, but how you get there can be tricky. Heller Consulting’s new white paper takes you through the barriers organizations create for themselves and how they can start to break those barriers down.

Civility in Social Media (Wired and Civicist)

Internet trolls and other bad online actors are a frustration in every corner of the internet. Even troll hangouts such as Reddit feel the need to keep online harassers at bay. Civic Hall suggests that bots that can automatically monitor an issue and report back its findings may be one solution to quieting the trolls and bringing forward important voices.

Let the Sunlight In (Sunlight Foundation)

The Sunlight Foundation continues its quest to open up more data to help citizens stay informed about how communities are creating social change. Its research into the methodological challenges of open data are a big step forward for the open data movement.

The last thing you want in your fundraising strategy is blind spots (read: missed opportunities). For many organizations, Gen X is that missed opportunity. If you’re looking for ways to make email fundraising work, start with these five experts. And if all you need are a few good tools, check these out.

Helping Your Board Collaborate (NTEN)

Our own Kyle Andrei wrote a guest blog for NTEN outlining software options for nonprofit boards seeking to improve information sharing and collaboration.

What’s New in Social Media (Mashable and Jon Loomer)

Google+ just unveiled a new feature that allows you to group images by topic-based sections called “Collections.” Some are comparing it to Pinterest. What do you think? And Jon Loomer provides you with every measurement you’ll need for posting images or ads to Facebook.

Why Are Social Causes Easy to Launch But Hard to Win? (NPR)

Zeynep Tufekei wonders whether the easy ways we gather information and move through spaces on social media are actually making people less motivated to take action for what’s right.

A Consumer’s Guide to Case Management Systems (Idealware)

If you’re in the market for a new case management system to track clients, a good place to start is our recent report lead by Kyle Andrei. His rigorous research methodology narrowed the field to a handful of general systems that can be adapted to most organizations.

How to Successfully Launch Nonprofit Infographics Online (Nonprofit Tech for Good)

Creating the infographic is hard work, but it’s only half the job. For it to have any lasting impact, you need to share it with the world. Here are a few tips how.

Measure Your Mission #BeyondVanityMetrics (Medium)

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget what you’re trying to measure. Jackie Mahendra talks about finding meaning in your metrics and learning how to measure what matters.

Biometrics May Ditch The Password, But Not The Hackers (NPR)

Will fingerprints and iris scans protect us from hackers better than passwords? And what about privacy concerns? Time will tell whether biometrics are the future, but NPR reminds us that hackers have a way of finding holes in the system.

How to Fix Most Any Computer Glitch By Yourself (Gizmodo)

For you accidental techies out there, here’s a handy guide to help you look like a computer wizard the next time your colleague asks you to fix his computer.

Researchers Are Rushing to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Should They? (Washington Post)

Amazon’s platform for hiring people to do piecemeal online work is often used by researchers to find study participants. The Washington Post weighs the pros and cons.

Inequality and Space: Mapping the Geography of Human Services (Nonprofit Quarterly)

“A core argument for privatizing human services is that it brings services closer to the people who need them, yet this argument is difficult to study. A cartography of the nonprofit sector could help, with mapmakers not only looking at geographic space but also at the relationship between people and the services they demand. There would need to be two different types of maps: one that charts the populations needing services, and another that charts the providers supplying those services.”

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Client Management Systems for After-School Programs

Here at Idealware, we've been spending a lot of time thinking about case and client management systems for all different sorts of organizations. It's a complicated market, with a whole bunch of different types of systems, often specialized to meet the needs of a particular niche of nonprofits.

We've come across a great report to help us all understand one of those specific niches. The National College Access Network has created a very useful overview of client management systems that apply specifically to organizations that are working with kids to improve college readiness, including several that are specifically tailored to after-school programs. It's a free PDF, online at:

By the way, if you're looking for case/client management systems that aren't specific to after-school programs, a good place to start is our new Consumers Guide to Case Management. It looks at five system that are in wide use across a number of specific areas.

Want to help us understand more about a specific set of niche client management systems? We'd love to do that research. Contact us at

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Five CRM Mistakes Nonprofits Should Avoid

Editor's note: This post comes from Jenna Puckett at TechnologyAdvice. TechnologyAdvice helps buyers make well-informed purchase decisions through comprehensive product listings, industry analysis, and user-generated reviews.

Securing repeat donations is a huge challenge. Most organizations only retain 27.3 percent of first-time donors. A constituent relationship management (CRM) system can help you keep more of those donors, but only if you invest the time and thought necessary to get the full value of your CRM.

To help you choose and implement a system successfully, let’s look at the biggest CRM mistakes to avoid as a nonprofit. 

1. Putting technology before people 

Investing in a system that your staff can’t or won’t use isn’t an investment at all. It may be tempting to choose the most powerful CRM you can find, but if there’s a steep learning curve involved, you won’t get the buy-in necessary for successful adoption. On the other hand, skimping on features or overlooking usability to save a few bucks will also result in a neglected system. 

To make sure you’re choosing the right system for your organization, first, identify who will be using the system the most. Will volunteers use it? What about people who aren’t tech savvy? Once you’ve identified your primary users, invite them to be a part of the demo or free trial process. This way, you ensure buy-in with the people who matter most to the success of your CRM system.

2. Committing to the first vendor you find 

It’s difficult to select the best CRM software for your nonprofit when there are hundreds of options on the market. You may be tempted to choose the first system in a Google search, the one your last organization used, or maybe the one your Executive Director’s nephew recommends. 

But skipping the software vetting process usually leaves you with a system that is a poor fit for your organization. Don’t settle for the first vendor you come across. Take your time and review the features and benefits of at least a handful of systems. Then choose three or more to demo before signing a contract. The due diligence you perform now can save you hours of frustration and is more likely to uncover a system that will be a valuable tool for many years.

3. Getting the requirements wrong 

Before you start your vendor search, identify the donor management features you need. What problem is your nonprofit facing? What does your current system lack? Pinpointing the goals behind your switch to new software ensures you only look at vendors that solve your problems. 

One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make is putting price or vendor popularity first. Consider creating a checklist that includes the integrations, mobility, social media tools, and customizations you need to make a CRM investment worthwhile. Your systems functionality requirements checklist will be the GPS that steers you through the CRM market and can help lead you to the right solution for you. 

4. Treating all data equally 

Once you’ve selected a CRM, you’ll be yearning to fill it with all the data you have. But not all data is equally valuable. Before importing any information into a new system, you’ll need to clean out redundant, inaccurate, or irrelevant constituent information. 

Depending on the size of your data, this may require additional tools or a consultant. If you know beforehand that your nonprofit struggles with dirty data, then plan for outside help or add the ability to detect duplicate data to your systems functionality checklist.  

5. Choosing a solution that doesn’t scale

It’s easy to get caught in the moment and select a vendor that only meets your current requirements. But what happens as your organization grows? Be sure to consider your three- to five-year growth projections and choose a system that can scale with you over time.

Finding the right technology for your nonprofit is difficult. Tackling it alone may be the biggest mistake of all. If you get overwhelmed while comparing vendors, don’t be afraid to ask an unbiased third party for help.

Author Bio:

Jenna Puckett is a junior technology analyst at TechnologyAdvice. She covers topics related to gamification, employee performance, and other emerging tech trends. Connect with her on LinkedIn



Break Down the Silos—For Real This Time


Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from Heller Consulting’s white paper “Taking Engagement Seriously.” Click here to download the full white paper>>

We know we need to do a better job of engaging with our supporters, but never before has that need been so urgent. The commercial sector is investing in technologies and strategies that have heightened every viewer’s expectations for relevant, personal, and important information. Smart companies are investing heavily in customer satisfaction—and making the delivery of the right message to the right person at the right time via the right channel the absolute best experience possible. 

To learn how to better engage with their audience, savvy nonprofits are focusing on obtaining a “360-degree view” of their constituents. The goal is to see all the important interactions with a donor or supporter in one place—providing major donor officers a complete understanding of how their donor has interacted with the organization. 

Many organizations expect a CRM system to solve their challenges, but technology alone cannot deliver a 360-degree view. Nor can data alone deliver this. Strategy and content must come first. The technology and connected data are simply tools that are used to implement a sound strategy. 

One potential roadblock to building a successful strategy is your organization’s silos.

Every organization lives with silos. Siloed teams, siloed information, siloed donor experiences, siloed affiliates from headquarters. The bigger the organization, the worse this problem seems to be. When you keep your constituent at the center of your strategies and tactics, these silos MUST come down. A donor sees ONE organization—not different departments, not different chapters or affiliates. One organization. And what do they want more than anything? To know that their actions and their gifts are doing the most good to fulfill your mission. That’s it. 

So while you can implement new technologies and business practices to create a better experience, you also have to make sure that your engagement strategy is holistic, multi-channel, cross-chapter, and relevant and interesting across the organization and at every point of contact. If you have a great digital program that is disconnected from your mail and phone program, you are not doing enough. Think about how your donors hear from you. Is the experience cohesive? Does they feel as though they are giving to one organization? Do you know when and how you are reaching them across different channels? They do! And they know whether those communications are connecting with them or making you look disconnected. When the later happens, they may seek out other organizations to support. A sound strategy will keep them in your camp. 

Read more>>


Buddha’s Advice On Program Measurement

Someday I’ll climb a Himalayan mountain to ask the monk there all of my questions about the universe, but I already know what he’ll say when I ask about program measurement. Let me save you the hike. There are two steps to effectively measure your programs and improve them based on performance:

1. Begin

2. Continue


Okay, so I’d never ask a monk about program measurement and, if I did, he’s no more likely to say this than some Englishman named Christmas Humphreys. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t ancient wisdom or that it doesn’t apply to your very modern technology problems.


We, as nonprofits, and especially as those who support nonprofits in their program measurement efforts, like to throw around terms (read: jargon) and theories; geek out on technologies that can support these efforts; and list the best practices that we think every organization should consider. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s never undertaken any kind of program measurement. The bigger the list of things they should be paying attention to, the harder it is to start.


It's sometimes hard to remember that organizations need to walk before they can fly. Just getting started measuring some kind of data, even simple metrics and outputs, is a positive step. They need time and a little experience before they can start to strategize deeply about impacts and longitudinal studies. 

We need to remember not to build the mountain higher for those seeking enlightenment through program measurement. Anything is better than nothing. Our job is to help them take the first step and encourage them to take the second. Begin, continue, begin, continue.

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