Version: December 18, 2009

Choosing Specialized Software
(Or Using What You Already Have)

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Label-making software, name tag software, certificate creation software, address book software, volunteer management software, employee management software, project management software, donor management software...

There are lots of specialized software packages out there designed to help mission-based organizations (not-for-profits, non-governmental organizations/NGOs, civil society and public sector agencies) meet a variety of needs. They sound really wonderful, but are they something you should buy -- or do you already have the software you need?

Many organizations make the mistake of investing heavily in a software package that is not appropriate for their situation (you see reports about this in the media whenever a government agency does this). Or, an organization expects the software to solve a problem that has nothing to do with software or computers (a volunteer management/tracking software could be quite valuable to your organization, but only if you are gathering the information from volunteers to input into it!).

Maybe You Already Have What You Need
("Buy v. Build" Debate)

Before you spend the money to buy specialized software, look at the software you already have on your computers; maybe it already has the specialized functions you need.

For instance, I have yet to find a computer that didn't come already loaded with a program that allows me to create and manipulate graphics. Something like PhotoShop is for professional designers; most organizations need just very basic functions in a graphics software, and this is usually readily available on a software already loaded on to their computers (I used a Mac, and the program that came with it, AppleWorks, provided all the functionality I needed for graphics manipulation; and every IBM/Clone I've used had something similar that was pre-loaded onto the machine).

The database functions that come with the free office suites OpenOffice or NeoOffice, or fee-based software like FileMaker Pro, Lotus Approach or Microsoft Access, can be used to easily create very advanced, integrated tools to do everything from manage employee records to track volunteers and their contributions to manage individual projects with multiple contributors. Such database packages are relatively easy to use, and many come with simple and advanced templates that are very easy for even a novice to adapt and link together, creating a people-tracking or project-tracking system that can meet current needs of various staff and circumstances, and can easily expand to meet new needs. Building your own means building exactly the database structure you want, which will give you a much greater foundation of knowledge for when it's time to invest several hundred or even thousands of dollars in a more advanced, customized package.

Here's a list of the various templates that came with a used software package I bought for less than $300, all of which can be integrated together and adapted to fit a variety of reporting and tracking needs. This is an example of the breadth of templates available on many database software packages:

  • Address Book
  • Asset Management
  • Business Cards
  • Calendar/To Do List
  • Certificates
  • Checkbook & Ledger
  • Course Syllabus
  • Employee Leave Forms
  • Event Planning/Schedule
  • Expenses
  • Fax Cover Sheet/Letterhead
  • Gradebook
  • Identification Badges
  • Inventory
  • Invitations
  • Job Listings
  • Library
  • Membership
  • Messages
  • Personnel Records
  • Presentations
  • Projects
  • Purchase Orders
  • Résumés
  • Seating Chart
  • Student Projects
  • Student Records
  • Time Billing
  • A customized database can be as simple or as complex as needed: add or change fields of information, screens, reports, automated functions and forms for whenever you need to -- no waiting for the vendor to get around to it. The database can be used across your computer network, and you can make certain fields confidential or unchangeable except by particular users. You can even create several different databases and link them together -- allowing, for instance, the fund raising staff to view and use data in their own way, and allowing project staff to view and use data in their own way, with all of the data linked together in a master database.

    And remember: the more freedom users have to change a system per their needs, the more likely the system is to be accepted by users.

    Finally, remember that experienced "techie" volunteers are often happy to help provide support to staff in building such databases: you can recruit such volunteers from among university students, professional societies or tech-related companies.

    (See Finding a Computer/Network Consultant for tips on how to evaluate candidates for software-related tasks)

    Whitney Morris, Manager of Volunteers at Girls Incorporated of Alameda County expressed on CYBERVPM in Spring 2000 her selection process for volunteer management, and her experience is still valid:

    I went through the decision-making process of choosing volunteer management software last year. I looked at a few programs but felt most had many components that weren't useful to me. We already had a copy of Filemaker Pro here in the office and so I chose to use that and develop my own database. I was able to enroll in a class to give me some direction and because Filemaker Pro is a relatively easy program to use I was able to create my custom database that met my needs exactly in about an afternoon! So far it has worked beautifully for me. However, my needs may be different than others. I track relatively few people (about 600 right now) and want to have lots of information on each person. I am not tracking schedules of any kind. Essentially, it provides me with contact info, demographic info and a record of hours and volunteer assignments. Another advantage is that the data can be transferred fairly easily to other databases like Blackbaud which our development department uses.
    Catherine Trapp, a volunteer program consultant in San Francisco, responded to Whitney's post thusly:
    File maker is MAC compatible and also gets my thumbs up. I sweet talked a volunteer into designing a new Filemaker Database for us at the museum I worked for. Easy to use and customize - I also made sure to include some follow-up visits in the design request. We had been using Filemaker version 2 - which is a "flat file" version, the next upgrade is a relational database. In english: the flat file database did well with names, addresses and a basic tally of hours. The new relational database let me track which hours went to which department and the type of job done - a huge improvement in tracking. (700 plus volunteers a year in 15 plus departments) I was even able to import graphics and do very nice certificates off the database.
    Michael de Groot at Asian American AIDS Services weighed in on the subject via
    Often the more features a program has, the greater the price. If you are looking for something to keep phone numbers and addresses in, then buying a program like [PRODUCT NAME DELETED] is going to be too robust. However, if you want to track someone's giving history, than a commercial package may be up your alley.

    I am a database programmer on the side, and since our organization cannot afford [PRODUCT NAME DELETED], I used its layout as a template to program our own MS Access version.

    The key is to have a program which matches your fundraising needs, not the other way around. If you do end up buying a database and then building your own application, I strongly recommend that you use Access or any other relational SQL based database. Relational databases give you the option of developing sophisticated databases.

    Tim Mills-Groninger of the Technology Resource Consortium (TRC) and the Information Technology Resource Center (ITRC) frequently weighs in on the "buy v. build" debate on the newsgroup. He noted:

    "If you choose to make you own system, set a 24 month milestone where you will honestly evaluate your progress and revisit the buy option."
    Remember: the more freedom users have to change a system per their needs, the more likely the system is to be accepted by users (see getting acceptance for computerization and upgrades).

    Don't know how to use these already-available templates on your computer, or even where to find them? Consider involving a volunteer to help your organization with such. Such volunteers are easy to find and eager to help. And, as noted earlier, in using these already-existing templates and software already installed on your computer, you will be building your own capacity to better-evaluate software in the future -- very helpful skills and experience when its time to upgrade to specialized software.

    Sometimes, You Do Need Something Specialized

    Sometimes, your nonprofit organization may need to invest in specialized software. If you have been using the software you already have available for functions that you want to transition to specialized software, you will have a MUCH easier time -- you will already know what functions are most vital to you, how you want screens to look, what new features you need most, and what you want to avoid.

    Specialized software comes in many forms: Your accountant may a financial management/accounting software. Maybe you need to manipulate art work (change background colors, draw your own work, convert material to .gif files for your Web site, etc.). If you are a not-for-profit theatre or dance company, you may need ticket-selling software to manage the volume of sales and the volume of information you need to track per ticket buyer, and track which ticket-buyers are donors and volunteers, and vice-versa.

    When shopping for database software, make sure that it at least meets this basic criteria:

    Before you invest in a specialized database software package: For those looking to choose software to track volunteers and their contributions, see this resource which provides a listing of volunteer management software and suggested criteria to help organizations evaluate such software.

    There is a lot of online Free Help With Databases & Software; before you buy a package, check over this list and see what free help is available.

    These tip sheets may also help you in understanding databases that track people (volunteers, donors, etc.):

    Other Resources

    Free Help With Databases & Software
    In addition to tutorials and printed support material that came with database software packages, companies often provide free online bulletin boards, Web sites and automated fax libraries where users can get more specific or updated answers for database questions. There are also Internet discussion groups centered around discussing the use of particular types of database packages. Participants in the groups are software users just like you, although many are often advanced users.

    Free Open Source Software Mac User Group, a web site providing lists of free, credible open source software for Mac OS X.

    Formerly CompuMentor, this web site is designed especially to help mission-based organizations with computer and Internet issues. TechSoup features extensive information on specialized software, including database software, and information on what's on the market.

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