Pursuing The Mythical Software Unicorn

The Best Software for Nonprofits is like searching for a Unicorn In 1997, I began my career in the enterprise software industry. During that time, I have seen many new features, trends, and software companies come and go. In this article, I will share briefly my personal journey in the search for a perfect solution, the software unicorn, and my relentless pursuit to assist my clients with selecting the best software fit for their respective organizations.

The Journey to Find the Best Nonprofit Software 

Can You Handle the Truth?

Yes, thank you very much Tom Cruise (from his famous line in A Few Good Men), I want the truth. And, I feel like I can handle the truth too. In my job, I am continually evaluating software options for my clients and have committed myself to finding the best software solutions on the market today. During this time, I have not limited my software search to the lesser known software vendors. Rather, I have an open mind and actually am intrigued by both the mature software players who have put out good software products for years and equally new software players which have recently come into the market to build a “Better Mouse Trap”.

In my mind, every application software player may be a possible candidate for an organization’s “Software Unicorn”, the perfect fit. I believe that organizations who embark on a software selection journey should seek “Awesome Results”. And, I begin each software selection project with excitement in hopes of finding that particular software solution (product and services) which is just the right match. I still have this excited feeling even though I know perfection or the “Best Software” isn’t usually one particular software option each and every time. I know the truth.

What is the Best Software Fit for Nonprofits?

As stated, I am relentless in my pursuit to help my clients find a solution which truly meets their requirements and business objectives. Even though it’s not perfect, a “Software Unicorn”, we always seek a solution which will solve key business challenges. And, even neutralize some of their poisons in the work environment (Ex. lack of efficiency, lost revenue, losing supporters). The idea of “The Best Software“, a Software Unicorn, is a futile pursuit.

Yes, after reviewing literally hundreds of software vendors and devoting countless hours researching vendors, interviewing them, writing product reports, and sitting through countless demonstrations, there is no such thing as the mythical “Software Unicorn” nor a software which can take a prize for “The Best” in every use case. The Best Software for Nonprofits is unique to every organization.

Despite similar duties and roles, every organization is unique. Conversely, so too is every software product & vendor. Yes, there is a “Best Software Fit” for my clients, but there isn’t one and only “Best Software” which solves everyone’s problems all the time. There is a distinction between the two. And, that truth or knowledge is sometimes painful for executives to come to grips with. Especially when so much money and risk is at stake to get “The Best Software”. There will be work to do to make the software the “Best for You”.

There is App for That!

Unfortunately and fortunately, in the last five to seven years, personal productivity applications and easy to create websites have proliferated. Everyone has the ability to get “that application” for this and that. For that reason, I believe because we know that technology is accessible, affordable, & easier for the almost anyone there has to be an enterprise software which is just like that too.

In essence, our thirst has been “teased” with the “possibilities” of what we have experienced (the Amazon Experience) so our desire for “more” keeps us pursuing the elusive “Software Unicorn” to help rid us of futility, poisons, & pain in our day-to-day jobs. I believe that in many cases this has perpetuated the myth to some extent.

The Pursuit of Finding “The Best Software”

I am amazed by how many CRM, Membership Management, Donor Databases and Marketing Automation Software solutions are on the market today. The reality is that many are very capable. Unlike most sane adults, I love researching software platforms. Even more, I enjoy reviewing solutions which truly solve business problems. Whether it be helping with the use of non-transactional data or how we can capture and use transactional data to make better decisions, the benefits of technology abound. That is exciting. I truly find myself sometimes getting lost in exploring software systems.  But, since software selection is our primary service, it’s valuable for my clients too. It truly pays to discover!

But, I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For

Very early on in my career, I questioned whether or not clients failed because they didn’t or had not found the “Perfect Software”. In some cases, they do fail. However more often than not, I realize now that failure is not in “not” finding the “Perfect Software” but rather not finding the “Perfect Fit In A Solution”.  To reiterate, an evaluation based on seeking perfection is a flawed misconception. Rather, “Awesome” comes in selecting you organizations “Best Fit”. It’s so critical to first seek “must haves, goals, and priorities”.

In so many levels, it is a waste of time for all parties involved if you start with vendor identification (doing demos) rather than looking first at your organizations uniqueness first. A search based on features and functionality rather than end goals and metrics of success will lead to a “Perfect Failure”. If you still haven’t found what you are looking for, you likely don’t know what you need or require to be an “Awesome” fit for you. Further, the lack of defining your aspirations will paralyze your organization’s abilities to make a decision too. Resulting in lost opportunities, frustration, and usually a hasty decision in the end. Should You Give Up The Myth? Absolutely not!

It’s prudent to reach for the stars. Your organization should aspire to obtain the “Smartest Fit” based on your overall goals as an organization. Your organization should also take the time to prioritize them too because at the end of the search you will need to make a decision. And, without firm needs documented you will have a tougher time making that final decision.

The Myth of the Software Unicorn; It is Not An Animal, It is A Human Being

One final word on the myth of the Software Unicorn. Contrary to the prevailing perception of many executives searching for software today, the best cannot be found in just features, functions, or roadmaps. Nope, the myth is not an animal, a unicorn. Human beings who work at software providers as much or more than anything else impact software success. The myth is that the software product is all that matters. Unfortunately, human beings are often underestimated in the search for “The Best Software for Nonprofits”.

If you take nothing else away from this article, please make note of this. Software is written by people for people. Support, Service, and a deep commitment by both client and vendor to solve your key problems (documented early on and measured) will be the key to realizing your elusive and mythical unicorn. After years on my personal and professional journey to find that mythical “Software Unicorn” there is no truer statement than “Success can be found in the Partners You Choose”.

Until next time, keep SmartThoughts in mind. Software reviews for Nonprofits

3 Things a Non-Techie Exec. needs to know about Databases

There are 3 things you need to know about Database Analysis. We share here.

Are you contemplating a better way to manage your constituents in the new year? If so, there are three things that a nontechnical nonprofit leader should know about “The Database” before embarking on “The Search“. In this article, we cover three key items to ponder before attempting to obtain a database for your donor, member, or customer relationship needs.

Three Nonprofit Database Basics


1. The Minimum Expectation of a Database

The minimum expectation of a database is to store information properly. In its literal translation, there are many devices and items which could, for some, be construed as a database. For example, a telephone book is essentially a printed database. It can’t do much except be there for a manual alphabetical look-up resource but many could (and have) argued their “Rolodex” is as good as any in helping them.

However, moving into the 21st century, with nonprofit database software you should expect more than just storing data. Your database should gather, store, and group that data into their own related tables. Those tables, in turn, should be connected through common fields — a member or donor ID number, for example. By connecting those tables in a relational database with lookup fields, a good system can be used to segment your donors/members/customers information, find records more efficiently, reduce data redundancy, automate tasks, and a whole host of other capabilities today.

2. What are the limitations of a Database?

To be direct, there are clear limitations of what some databases were intended to do. Trying to have Excel, Microsoft Access, or FileMaker (common off the shelf database programs) to do more advanced functionality is a stretch for most. For example, Access/FileMaker are clearly database software programs, but they are not database software designed specifically to manage associations or nonprofit organizations. Access/FileMaker are not designed, out-of-the-box, to manage nonprofits and all of the processes they generally have to address. Things like customer management, donations, membership dues, events registrations, accreditation and certification, exhibit sales, sponsorships, committee management and reports are frequently found as baseline functionality within off-the-shelf nonprofit software packages. While these could be built into Access/FileMaker, you are not going to find them out-of-the-box when you purchase Access/FileMaker. And, database programming can be difficult, time-consuming and complex so not a likely option for most nontechnical laypersons in nonprofits today.

To be certain, there are many comprehensive solutions on the market which were written for the nonprofit industry. That noted, it’s important to start out by determining your specific needs today and think long-term to determine what you may need in the future before venturing out to find that “perfect software” option. And, don’t be so hard on yourself if you get started and then you find you need more. This reminds me of a famous army saying, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In other words, when your plan meets the real world, the real world wins. Nothing goes as planned or imagined in most cases.

3. Beware the implications of “Data Rot“? 

Now, let’s move back to our good old phone book. It’s not surprising that the telephone book is somewhat obsolete even before it hits our doorstep. People change addresses; women acquire new last names when they marry, etc. Likewise, databases — especially those with a large number of records — need data collection processes and timely updating for obvious reasons.

You would not want to begin an ambitious fund drive with a donors list that has not been updated for a year. Each inaccurate piece of information in your database is a missed opportunity to solicit the financial support you need to run your organization. The phenomenon of “data rot,” then, has to be factored into any database analysis, where accuracy is essential. Also, “data rot” can quickly deteriorate into data loss without reliable — and preferably offsite — data backup.

Finally, remember that database success is not a perfect science. But, you should implore some measures and processes to ensure good results. For example, I believe that donor and member self-service website access is a “must have” in most donor or member database systems today. In addition, you need to be sure that your database has “duplicate checking” or “cleansing” features. And, as you grow, you may need to consult with a database resource such as Updentity or  Wes Trochlil  at Effective Database Management to help maintain your databases integrity.

If you are embarking on a search for a database for the first time at your nonprofit, we would enjoy helping you find a database tool best suited for your specific needs. And, be sure to start out with our list of software options to help in your process. Until then, keep SmartThoughts in mind.


If you are seeking a database for your nonprofit, don't search without reading this!


Top 10 Actions To Do To Avoid Software Selection Anxiety

10 Tips For Nonprofit Software Decisions

Top 10 Items to Consider To Avoid Anxiety in Software Searches 

We know! There are simply too many membership management and donor database software choices on the market today. The human brain is just not equipped to process an overload of information. And, having an abundance of software options for your nonprofit may actually cause anxiety.

When it comes to making decisions about procuring or upgrading technology, software selection anxiety can be an enormous issue. The more staff members who are involved, and the longer the process takes, the more negatively software selection can impact an organization. In our opinion, the key to avoiding software selection anxiety is to know what matters most, before beginning the buying process.

In other words, don’t go shopping without a clear list of priorities. That noted, here are the top 10 quick suggestions before you “google” your way to a new software option:

  1. Know Your Business Functions: What exactly will this software be used for? Having a list of functions that the software must perform will limit the choices from the start. Ex. I need a system which will handle recurring drafting. I need a system which can handle Purchase Orders.
  2. Is Scalability Important?: Look for software packages that can grow with the organization. If a big expansion is planned in the future, the software must be able to handle the changes.
  3. Understand Your Key Performance Reports: What kinds of reports are needed to make informed decisions? New software must be able to create them.
  4. How important is Security?: How sensitive is the data? Software must have adequate security features to meet the organization’s needs.
  5. Does reliability matter?: Stability is important. Look for software with an excellent track record for reliability.
  6. Who Needs to Use the system? Ease of Use and knowing how many people will be using the system is important. Therefore, take this into account when assessing software. If only a handful of technologically savvy staff will use the software, that’s one thing. But if every staff member and volunteer will be using it, then the interface needs to be easy to learn and easy to use.
  7. Where do users reside? Will this software reside on a few workstations in one location, or will staff members need access from anywhere? Cloud based systems are the norm today but there are still systems which are not!
  8. What is a realistic budget? How much can the organization afford? Calculations should include any hardware upgrades that will be needed to run the software (if applicable). Once there is a firm budget number, this could narrow the choices considerably. You need to have a good starting point.
  9. Any recommendations?: Consult with other organizations that have similar needs. Go to a review site laser focused on the type of software you are searching for like ReviewMyAMS.com. With this information, you will benefit from your peers who may have been through the same process recently and have useful information to share.
  10. Do you need expert Advice? Seek counsel from a software adviser who can help sort through the noise and act as your guide through the process.

Is software selection anxiety impacting your organization? If so, please contact us to find out how we can help or schedule a call now for our “Free Software Advisement” offer by clicking the Learn More button below.