Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

6 Tips to Help You Select the Right Online Fundraising Platform

6 Tips to Help You Select the Right Online Fundraising Platform

Selecting an online fundraising platform is a great opportunity to boost your organization's capacity to engage with supporters and raise money.

And whether you're selecting a platform for the first time or migrating to a new platform, there are several hundred options available in the marketplace, giving your nonprofit a wide range of choice in terms of features, service, and price.

But the selection process can be daunting and require a substantial commitment of staff time. To help you succeed, here are six tips to keep in mind.

1. Assemble a Team. The best place to start is to pout together a team of people who will be responsible for steering the process to a successful conclusion. At a minimum, you'll need to bring together staff who work on communications and fundraising for your organization. It can also be helpful to have a finance person who deals with accounting issues and an information technology person who can address technical issues. Finally, designate one person as the project manager and task them with the job of keeping things on track and moving along.

If you have concerns about the capacity of your staff to manage the process, you may decide to bring in an external expert to help. In that case, you may have someone in mind, or you can search for a contractor through TechSoup's Consultant Connection. Whether it's advice or actual implementation support, Consultant Connection makes it easy to find the help you need from consultants specializing in, and referred by, organizations like yours.

2. Arm Yourself With Information. The next step is to get your hands on two documents that will be invaluable in your selection efforts and which I highly recommend to any organization going through such a process.

A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems (published by NTEN and Idealware, February 2017)

This 156-page free report is a comprehensive guide to donor management systems targeted to small to medium-sized nonprofits for whom fundraising is a priority. The hundreds of systems systems it covers are suited to a wide range of organizations, from the smallest just getting started to those with a staff of as many as five fundraisers, and the report also includes numerous case scenarios. 

The Nonprofit Guide to Online Engagement Tools (published by Firefly Partners, Fall 2017)

This 27-page report looks at seven donor management systems deemed by Firefly Partners to be the best options for midsize and large organizations that want an integrated suite of tools for fundraising, email marketing, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and peer-to-peer fundraising.

3. Conduct a Comprehensive Internal Needs Assessment. Once you've put together a team and done your homework, it's time to define what you need in an online fundraising platform. You should do this whether you're selecting your first platform or migrating to a new platform. The needs assessment will help you identify your communications and fundraising priorities and how they translate into digital marketing and engagement. Your ultimate goal is to create an inventory of the functionality you need today, and are likely to need down the road.

Be sure to review the first section of A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems (see above) and pay attention to its detailed explanation of how to conduct a needs assessment. Next, create a document that you can use to collect and organize your organization's needs into different categories. Here's a checklist of elements it should include.

  • a map that visualizes how your organization interacts with its constituents and donors; the map should also describe data flows and the user experience;
  • a description of your constituent data file, including number of records and the system you currently use to store that data; be sure to identify which fields you're using to capture information;
  • a list of you organization's needs in the areas of fundraising, email marketing, advocacy and grassroots organizing, and crowdfunding, both currently and in the near future;
  • other, non-digital needs that can or may be addressed with an online platform. These might include storing mailing addresses, generating labels for mailings, or tracking telephone or personal interactions with donors.

4. Determine Your Budget. Prepare a draft budget for your new online fundraising platform that includes estimates of what you're prepared to pay both upfront and in monthly fees. Fee structures for different platforms can vary widely, so be prepared to dig into the details and create cost scenarios that model your costs over several years.

5. Scan the Vendor Landscape. Use the two reports referenced above to help you identify a handful of vendors that you'd like to contact for proposals. Be sure to share with them a document that describes your needs in as much detail as possible. A business development person will contact you to schedule a demo and then prepare a cost estimate. When reviewing vendor proposals, be sure to contact any references a company gives you and do your own due diligence.

6. Think Carefully About Your Timeline and Staff Capacity. As you're in discussion with specific vendors, be sure to carefully assess the capacity of your own staff to manage a migration. Create a project plan that describes the steps that will be needed to get up and running with a new platform and identify staff members who will be responsible for each step. Last but not least, think about the best time to launch a migration, keeping in mind the many periods when fundraising and other internal staff are likely to have their hands full with other projects.

Michael Stein is a writer and digital strategist active in progressive social causes and the author of three books as well as numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.