How do I select the best
donor database?

Evaluating for Purchase

Introduction: A Buyer’s Guide

About This Guide

There are many donor management and fundraising software systems to choose from. It can be hard to decide which one is the best fit for your organization.

With endless features, options, and alternatives, it might be easy to pick one, but it is hard to pick the “right” one.

As a decision maker or leader of your organization’s software selection process, you want to mitigate the risk of selecting the “wrong” system so your organization can fully invest in the “right” system.

You can increase your chances of finding the “right” donor management software by carrying out a disciplined selection process.

This guide walks through each step of an intentional software selection process, offering tips and best practices along the way.

We hope that you are able to use this guide to make a smart software purchasing decision and find the best donor management and fundraising software for your nonprofit organization.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is for any staff member, fundraiser, volunteer, board member, or consultant at a nonprofit organization that is looking for new donor management and fundraising software.

The strategies and tactics in this guide will help you to navigate the software selection process whether this is your first time finding new software or you’ve been through a software selection process before.

Who is Sidekick Solutions?

We help nonprofits of all sizes and types find, set up, and get the most from donor management and fundraising software. We are consultants and experts for two donor management software platforms: Blackbaud® eTapestry® software, Bloomerang® software, and NeonCRM part of the Neon One Family.

We are sharing this free guide as a resource to help you make a smart and informed software purchasing decision. We hope that you find it useful! Keep us in mind if you have questions about donor management and fundraising software.

Searching for New Donor Management Software? Start Here

  • Key Points

    • Before jumping into a Google search, contacting software vendors, or evaluating different software options, start your software selection process with an internal needs assessment. Clarify your requirements and vision for new software so you know what to look for when you start your software search.
    • In addition to an internal needs assessment, prepare for the software selection process by setting expectations for data migration, outlining your fundraising strategy, defining an initial budget and timeline, collaborating with other departments in your organization, and cultivating buy-in with team members that will use the software day to day.
    • When setting expectations for data migration, keep in mind that you don’t have to migrate all of your data from the old system to the new system. Consider archiving old data that isn’t relevant or is of poor quality.
    • It is important to outline your fundraising strategy before you start your software search because your strategy determines the features you will need in new software. For example, major gifts, events, memberships, grants, direct mail, and online fundraising strategies may all require special and unique features.
    In the next chapter, we’ll cover how to develop a shortlist of software options and find available software systems through research.


Currently, you are tracking constituent and donor data in Excel or an aging, feature-deficient donor management database. You feel like you are outgrowing your current system. Everyday you keep thinking, there “has got to be a better option” out there. You are reaching a breaking point.

The idea of a new donor management and fundraising software system seems promising. You dream of a system that can help you raise more funds, streamline fundraising processes, save staff time and stress, and help you make better decisions. The perfect system is out there, you think. You just need to find it. You are ready to search for the best donor management and fundraising software. The time is now!

But before you dive into your search, take one step back. Clarify your organization’s requirements and expectations first. A little bit of internal reflection and discovery will help you find the best software system.

Ready for new software? Start with an internal needs assessment

We often find that organizations are quick to jump into software research when they are ready to look for new donor management and fundraising software, but a little upfront preparation can go a long way toward selecting the best software.

Instead of starting with a Google search, contacting software vendors, or attending a software demo, start with an internal needs assessment.

An assessment is a good place to start because:

  • You can define what you want and don’t want and be specific about your desired software system;
  • You can offer potential software vendors specific information on what you want, what you don’t want, and your overall expectations;
  • You can form initial opinions and thoughts without other parties influencing your decision making process out of the gate; and
  • You can confirm that the current challenges and current strengths of your existing system (or systems) are addressed in the new software.

An assessment gives your entire organization the opportunity to develop clear expectations, a specific purpose, and a singular goal for the software selection process.

Answer five assessment questions

Conduct a thorough needs assessment by answering each of the following five questions. Each question below uses the word “system” to represent software, Excel spreadsheets, or manual processes and procedures (like paper forms). Your existing system is the thing you use currently and the thing you hope to replace with new software.

  1. What are the challenges with the current system?
    What don’t you like about your current system? List all of the pain points and inefficiencies of your current system(s). During the software evaluation process, find a software system that mitigates current challenges.
  2. What are the strengths of the current system?
    What do you like about your current system? List all of the efficiencies and likes of your current system(s). During the software evaluation process, find a software system that empowers or replicates current strengths.
  3. What is our vision for the new software system?
    In a perfect world, what do you want the new software system to look like? What will it manage for you? How will it integrate with your organization? How will it improve efficiency?It is important to describe the ultimate outcome you hope to achieve with new software, even if the vision is lofty. Visions will be constrained by budgets, time, and other resources. The remaining two questions in the needs assessment narrow your vision so it is reasonable and practical.
  4. What part of our vision for the new software system is “nice to have?”
    What specific elements of your vision aren’t necessary in a new software system? “Nice to have” elements are secondary features or functions that won’t make or break your decision in the software selection process.The “nice to have” elements will make an impact on your return on investment in the new software, but they can be let go if budgets, time, and resources dictate that they be let go.
  5. What part of our vision for the new software system is “need to have?”
    What specific elements of your vision are must-haves in a new software system? “Need to have” elements are primary features or functions that are so advantageous that they will drive the software evaluation and selection process.The “need to have” elements will dictate the decision to select a particular software system because they are the elements you need to improve efficiency and achieve a positive return on investment in new software.

Write down your answers

Write down your answers to each needs assessment question so you can use your notes during the software selection process. Your internal needs assessment will help you determine if the potential software systems you are evaluating can empower your strengths, mitigate your challenges, enhance your opportunities, and help you achieve your vision.

Clarify your requirements for new software first

An internal needs assessment creates a benchmark that can be used to compare the potential software systems you’re evaluating to your organization’s wants, needs, and expectations. Since you are intimately familiar with your organization’s internal strengths, deficiencies, and processes, an assessment gives you a reference point to evaluate and ultimately select new donor management and fundraising software.

Even if you aren’t technologically proficient or you are overwhelmed by the software selection process, an assessment will prepare you for next steps.

Six more things to consider before you start searching

Now that you have a clearer picture of your organization’s requirements for new donor management and fundraising software, there are a few more things to consider before you start searching for software options.

  • 1. Plan for data migration

    Data migrations aren’t easy procedures, they can be costly if they are mismanaged, and the accuracy of a data migration is paramount because you are moving business-critical data from one system to another.

    Setting expectations about data migration upfront will help your organization minimize the time, cost, and stress of a data migration and prepare your organization for any unknowns during a data migration.

    Reflect on these five questions to prepare for a data migration.

    1. What data is absolutely must-have and critical to our new system?
    2. What data if deemed unnecessary or irrelevant could be left out of a data migration?
    3. Is our data clean in its current form or will it require cleanup prior to data migration?
    4. Is our data easy to export from its current location or will we need help with exports?
    5. Who on our team will be the primary contact for the data migration specialist (assuming you work with a third-party data migration specialist)?

    The default response to the first question is often to migrate everything from the old system to the new system. Keep in mind that you don’t have to migrate all of your data to the new system. Consider applying various strategies to your historical data, especially if that data isn’t relevant or is of poor quality.

    For example, migrate essential data to your new system and archive the non-essential data in Excel or another easy-to-access database system. This way you can always access your historical data and it will not affect the health or quality of your new donor management and fundraising software.

  • 2. Outline your fundraising strategy

    The way you raise money determines the types of software tools that will be most helpful to your fundraising activities.  Not every donor management and fundraising software is an all-in-one system.  Even those that are all-in-one systems are often strong in some areas but weak in other areas.

    Outline your fundraising strategy so you can pinpoint the specific features you will need in new software.

    Although nearly every donor management and fundraising software comes with donor segmentation, gift tracking, payment processing, pledge management, and other standard fundraising features, not every solution has specific features for events, major gifts and prospects, grants, and memberships.

    Here are some examples of how fundraising strategy influences the features you will need in new software.

    • Major gift fundraising and personalized, 1-to-1 approaches will require prospect and portfolio management, moves management, pipeline (funnel) management, and task management features.
    • Web-based fundraising with high transaction volume will require web-form functionality and seamlessly integrate with your website. This strategy may need peer-to-peer and campaign fundraising features as well.
    • Special event fundraising will require ticket purchasing, attendee management, in-event activity management (like an auction), and post-event receipting and attendee follow-up features.
    • Membership fundraising will require recurring transaction processing, membership notifications and reminders, as well as a member login or directory and the ability to track membership benefits.
    • Grant fundraising for individual, private foundation, and public funding will require application management, pipeline (funnel) management, and notifications or workflow management.
    • Direct mail fundraising and campaign management will require mail merge capability as well as campaign tagging, campaign segmentation, and return on investment (ROI) analysis by campaign.
  • 3. Prepare an initial budget

    You will have many conversations about budget throughout the software selection process. Start the first conversation prior to researching software options.

    An initial budget frames your software search, providing a benchmark that can filter out software options that aren’t a good fit.

    An initial budget will also reduce “sticker shock,” allowing you and your organization’s decision makers to focus on the features and benefits of the software rather than focusing solely on price.

  • 4. Collaborate with other departments and functions

    There are other departments and functions within your organization that might want to start tracking data in the new software.

    New donor management and fundraising software systems are multi-faceted tools.  While development is the primary department to use this type of software, most new systems are full-feature constituent relationship management (CRM) systems.  CRM software can track and report on many data sets.

    Even if you have departments or functions that are loosely tied to development, it is worth including them in early discussions about new software.  You may find that the new software will benefit more than one department or function, increasing your return on investment in the software.

    Here are some departments and functions to include in the conversation.

    • Events
    • Major Gifts
    • Grants
    • Accounting and finance
    • Volunteers
    • Community, advocacy, and business outreach
    • Client services
    • Memberships
  • 5. Define an estimated timeline

    Implementing new donor management and fundraising software will involve an investment of time and effort from your entire team.  Before diving into a new software, plan for an appropriate implementation timeline.

    • Research and evaluation – Do not rush this step. Plan ahead and allow for time to find available software options and to fully evaluate each option’s strengths and weaknesses.
    • Negotiation and contracting – Once you’ve selected the best donor management and fundraising software for your nonprofit, you may have a period of time where you negotiate with the software vendor for a particular price and specific terms and conditions.
    • Initial setup – The initial setup organizes and activates features in your new software so you can use it in your daily work.  The initial setup may include writing reports, adding custom data fields, developing automated workflows, and activating user accounts.
    • Data migration – For the most part, you cannot start using the software until the data migration is complete.  Plan accordingly because data migrations can take from two weeks to two months or even longer.
    • Training – Learning the software will take the longest of any of the elements listed above. Plan to learn the software in stages. The first stage is to be functional in the software (short term).  The second stage is to become an expert in the software (long term). Getting started with new software is dependent on the first stage so allow adequate time for your users to become proficient.

    If you consider each of the items above as dependent tasks on the road to adopting new donor management and fundraising software, you can work backwards to identify when to start your software search.The timeline for every organization is a little different, but start your software search at least three or four months before your deadline to launch the software.

  • 6. Cultivate team buy-in

    Implementing new donor management and fundraising software is no small undertaking. End users are a critical piece of that process because they are the staff members that will be using the software for everyday tasks like entering data and running reports. The success or failure of your new software depends to a large degree on whether or not end users buy into the new software.

    To effectively manage the onboarding of new donor management and fundraising software, you’ll need staff to be motivated, invested, and onboard with the required changes. Below are five practical tips to cultivate team buy-in for new software.

    1. Start early – Bring end users into new software discussions early. Solicit their feedback, answer questions, and address concerns. Waiting until after software decisions are made is too late. If you wait too long to involve them, you’re no longer asking staff to buy-in, you’re selling them the decisions you have already made. Selling is much more difficult.
    2. Listen – Take to heart the feedback you receive from end users. This doesn’t mean that you have to honor every request, but it does mean you should take feedback and concerns seriously. Your end users will be working closely with the new software and may have insights into how it can work best for them.
    3. Make it personal – There are numerous benefits for end users when implementing quality software. However, don’t assume that staff will understand how the software benefits them personally. Be explicit. Focus on how the software will streamline data entry, make running reports easier, help them manage their daily workload.
    4. Create urgency – A body at rest tends to stay at rest. To motivate end users to embrace new software there must be a catalyst for change. There needs to be urgency for the change you are promoting, otherwise it is far too easy to stick to the status quo. Show how the new software system is urgently needed in order to make their lives easier.
    5. Continue communication – End users are excited, energized, and fully support the new software.  Great! Your work is done, right? Not quite. Getting end users bought into new software can be a feat, don’t lose momentum.  Keep lines of communication open.  Continued communications reinforces the idea of co-creation and keeps staff engaged.

Search for new software options

With your internal needs assessment completed and an understanding of what to expect in the transition to new software, you are ready to research potential software systems, contact software vendors, and compare multiple donor management and fundraising software systems side by side.

How to Shortlist Multiple Donor Management Software Options

  • Key Points

    • A shortlist narrows your list of software options down to a manageable size so you can focus on just those options that are “qualified” for your organization.
    • Think of a shortlist like the semifinals of an Olympic race. The athletes that win the semifinals qualify to compete in the finals. If an athlete doesn’t qualify in the semifinals, they are removed from the competition.
    • Developing a shortlist is a five step process that includes research and high-level reviews of software options in an initial “long list.”
    • Look for seven key features when you are reviewing software options for your shortlist: control of data, customizable structure, reporting and analytics, electronic data records, workflow tools, staff management and monitoring tools, and a defined roadmap for success.
    • As a rule, select between three to five, but always more than two, software options for your shortlist.
    In the next chapter, we’ll cover how to select the best software option from your shortlist using side-by-side comparisons with a standard set of evaluation criteria.


When searching for new donor management software, it is important to leave no stone unturned. Cast a wide net to get a full view of the software market, any relevant trends, and all available software options. Don’t miss the “right” software with a search that is too narrow or too restrictive. Instead, develop a long list of software options first, and then narrow your long list to a shortlist of software options.

What is a shortlist and why does it matter?

Searching for new software can feel overwhelming.  There are so many software options to choose from and it is hard to narrow down the features and functions that are most important to your organization.

  • What am I looking for?
  • Where should I look for available software options?
  • What features matter?
  • What software options are available?
  • How do I decide which ones are the right fit?

If you’re asking questions like these, you’re not alone.

You need a way to simplify the new software search process to make it less overwhelming.  That is where a “shortlist” comes into play.

A shortlist narrows your list of software options down to a manageable size so you can focus on just those options that are “qualified” for your organization.  Rather than evaluating all available social work software options, remove the unqualified options from your list early on and focus your energy on evaluating a limited number of options that match your initial shortlist criteria.

Think of a shortlist like the semifinals of an Olympic race. The athletes that win the semifinals qualify to compete in the finals.  If an athlete doesn’t qualify in the semifinals, they are removed from the competition.  In the same way, a shortlist qualifies software options so you can complete in-depth analysis of those qualified options in the “finals” of your software selection process.

Five steps to develop a shortlist of software options

  • 1. What are we looking for?

    You are looking for donor management and fundraising software.

    This may seem obvious, but identifying what you are looking for is actually more important than you might think. Answering this question frames your search so you know where to look for available software options.

    • Identify the type of software you’re looking for using your own words.
    • Write a narrative description of that type of software using your own words.

    The description doesn’t need to be perfect and should be less than one page.


    We are looking for donor management and fundraising software to track information on all of our organization’s constituents (including volunteers, not just donors) and our interactions with them.  The software should be easy to use and the software should be used by organizations that are similar to us.  The donor management and fundraising software should help us do common workflow tasks more efficiently like processing online donations, generating acknowledgement letters, running Board and management reports, notifying staff members of new tasks, and scheduling new events with constituents.  The software should be web-based and accessible on laptops and tablets.  We are also looking for software that uses role-based permissions so we can restrict access to users that aren’t within our internal team (like volunteers). We are also looking for a software that provides an analytics engine to help us retain existing donors, acquire new donors, and analyze our revenue potential from year to year. Bonus features include wealth screening, moves management, and email marketing.

    Your description will identify keywords and phrases that can be used to find software options. You will be better equipped to search for software options if your description is specific.

    At this point, jump into a web browser and search for the type of software you described. Use specific keywords and phrases from your description in your search.

    Start building a long list of software options by writing down software options that you find in your search.  Do not filter software options at this point.  Write down all options that you find (unless they obviously don’t match your description).

    Other relevant keywords to consider in your initial software search.

    • Donor management software
    • Donor management and fundraising software
    • Fundraising software
    • Donor database
    • Donor database software
    • Donor database system
    • Nonprofit donor management software
    • Nonprofit donor management software
    • Donor database software for nonprofits
    • Donor database management
    • Fundraising database
    • Fundraising database software
  • 2. Broaden the view even wider

    The goal of this process is to provide a broad view of all available software options so that you can make an informed software purchasing decision.  A broad search will make sure that nothing is missed along the way, eliminating any regret or hesitation in your final software selection.

    Continue to add to your long list of options.  While the keywords and phrases used to describe the type of software you’re looking for in Step 1 are solid, they may not be perfect terms for your search.

    If you’re not able to search using the right keywords, you might miss a software option that could be a perfect fit for your nonprofit.

    Do some research to define supplementary terms that might enhance your long list of options.  Here are four ways to bolster your search.

    1. Peers – Ask peer organizations what software they use.  Also ask them if they know of any other software options that are available. Recommendations from other organizations that are actually using software are great validation for your long list of options.
    2. Search – Complete an online search with a term from your description and then take a look at the bottom of the search page in a section called “Related Searches” (available with a Google search).  The related searches section offers additional terms that closely match your original search query.  Use these additional terms to broaden your search.
    3. Industry resources and publications – Research sites like NTEN, Idealware, TechSoup, Capterra, SoftwareAdvice and others.  These sites list available software options by software type and offer additional resources for selecting new software.
    4. Software reviews – Search for online reviews.  While sites like Capterra and SoftwareAdvice aggregate reviews in one place, social networks like Quora and even Twitter are great places to search as well.

    Do not evaluate the options you find during this initial search. Simply write them down in your long list.  You’ll narrow your long list in subsequent steps.

  • 3. Initial impressions and reviews

    Now that you have a long list of options, which may include five, ten, or even more viable social work software options, conduct high-level reviews of each system.

    A high-level review is light on detail but should provide enough information to qualify a software option for your shortlist.

    Evaluate high-level topics like:

    • Key features and functions that interest you
    • Online reviews and testimonials
    • Clarity of the software vendor’s website and marketing materials
    • Overall impression and opinion of the software vendor
    • Ease of finding the software vendor online (was it easy to find or was it difficult)

    Add notes next to each software option in your long list during this high-level review.  Add relevant excerpts from reviews you find online or details about key features that caught your attention.  You will reference these high-level notes when you make selections for your shortlist.

  • 4. Select a shortlist of options

    Using the high-level reviews you completed for each software option in your long list, narrow down your long list to three to five systems that you feel are best suited for your organization.

    We recommend three to five options (at least more than two) so you can objectively compare multiple options side by side in the next phase of the software selection process.

    You can use the following test to qualify software options for your shortlist.

    Based on what I’ve seen so far, is this a software option I want to learn more about?  At a minimum, do I want to see a demo of this software option before deciding whether or not it is a good fit for my organization?

    • If yes, add it to your shortlist.
    • If no, omit it from your shortlist

    Because you are completing high-level reviews of your long list, impressions of each software system may not be one-hundred percent objective.  The qualifications for your shortlist shouldn’t be overly restrictive.  The goal is to filter out any software options where it is obvious that they are not good fits.  It is fine to act on some subjective feelings and gut reactions during the shortlist process.

  • 5. Complete Steps 1-4 again to confirm the outcome of your initial shortlist

    Ultimately you will complete an in-depth evaluation of each software option in your shortlist, but circle back through the shortlist process one more time.

    Using the shortlist you just developed, start with Step 1 and complete Steps 1-4 again.


    Now that you have some perspective on the available options and what to look for, going back through the process again will confirm that you didn’t miss anything the first time around.  In addition, you can validate any judgments you made about your initial shortlist.

What features are most important for a shortlist?

As you’re reviewing your long list of options, you might be thinking…

How will I make initial judgments on software options without knowing what to look for?
What software features and functionalities should I consider for my shortlist?
Each donor management and fundraising software system has advantages and disadvantages, as well as different features and functionalities, but any software option should help you to:

Spend less time on low value fundraising and development tasks so you can spend more time on high value tasks;
Create deeper relationships with donors and empower you to engage your donors in more meaningful ways; and
Use data to make smart fundraising and development decisions that grow revenue and increase overall fundraising performance.

In addition to those broad, overarching goals, there are seven key features to consider as you develop your shortlist.

  • 1. Control of data

    You will want full access to own, manage, and organize your data in the software. Full access to your data includes the ability to export, update or modify, delete or archive, and create data without limits.

    Your organization’s data requirements may evolve over time. Changing requirements will require updates to the structure and format of your software and the underlying database in the software.  Control over your data provides flexibility so you can scale the software up or down over time.

    Four common database features give you ultimate control over your data.

    1. Mass Create – the ability to create new records in batch or import data via formatted spreadsheets (Excel or CSV).
    2. Mass Edit – the ability to edit existing records in batch where each record will be edited differently.
    3. Mass Update> – the ability to edit existing records in batch where all records are updated the same.
    4. Mass Delete – the ability to delete or archive existing records in batch.

    Some software options don’t offer full access to all of these features.  Not having one of these features isn’t a make or break scenario.  If a software option is limited by one of these features, define the workarounds for that software option and make note of those workarounds before placing it on your shortlist.

  • 2. Reporting and analytics

    Donor management and fundraising software should help you make smarter decisions by giving you a clear picture of past performance, current status, and future forecasts.

    Smart decisions are data driven, so new software should help you to:

    • Identify the activities that generate the highest return so they can be replicated or repeated in the future.
    • Manage annual performance to specific benchmarks and goals while making course corrections in real time.
    • Monitor campaign and appeal performance so you can optimize each strategy with incremental improvements.

    You should expect your donor database software to produce reports and analyze data quickly and with relative ease. Something isn’t right with a software option if it feels like data is “locked away”, inaccessible, or difficult to report on.

    The “right” donor management software takes snapshots of performance, associates performance to campaigns, and aggregates that data into reports and dashboards. Look for new software that not only offers standard reports and dashboards but also custom analytics that align with what your organization needs to measure.

  • 3. Collaboration tools (enhance internal communication and transparency)

    Development and fundraising activities are team efforts. It takes multiple people to pull off a successful campaign or appeal. It also takes multiple people to engage constituents when your constituent pool contains thousands of individual, family, corporate, and foundation contacts.

    Because multiple people are engaged in the fundraising process, your donor management software should enhance coordination, communication, and collaboration between those people.

    For example, if the person that is responsible for a major gift prospect isn’t available to continue the relationship with that prospect, your software system should allow a new person to step in without missing a beat.

    Multiple users should have access to the software (unlimited user access is a plus). Users should also be able to access the software wherever and whenever it is needed (web-based software is recommended).

    Software features that enhance internal communication and collaboration vary from system to system, but here are a few to consider.

    • Notifications and recent updates – Users receive notifications when new items (like a prospect) is assigned to them or if an item to which they are assigned is modified by another user.  Alternatively, some systems offer a feed of recent updates by constituent account or in the system as a whole.
    • User tagging and stamping – All records in the software are stamped with a “Created by” or “Modified by” stamp.  These stamps should be reportable. This improves transparency and is a great reference.
    • User assignment to data – Users can assign tasks and records to another user in the system.  Assigning data in the system improves team transparency and defines clear roles.
    • Mobile accessible – Access is a priority.  Mobile accessibility to the software should be a requirement.  Look for software options that offer a full mobile experience.

    If a software option on your long list doesn’t appear to improve internal communication and transparency, then it shouldn’t make your shortlist.

  • 4. Workflow tools (to streamline internal processes)

    Time is both a cost and an opportunity. As a cost, time is an input to your fundraising activities, and as an opportunity, where you spend your time dictates the return on investment for that activity. Bottom line, to maximize the potential of your fundraising efforts you must minimize wasteful time and maximize time that yields a high return.

    Donor management software should contribute to the time equation. Here are four ways donor management software should save you time so you can allocate that time to other tasks.

    • Connect and engage more donors in less time using segmentation and mass communications (like email and direct mail).
    • Process online donations quickly and easily using website integrations that process gifts and automatically acknowledge donors.
    • Automate donor acknowledgements for non-website giving so you spend less time generating acknowledgement letters and more time with 1-on-1 donor engagements.
    • Develop list views or lists queues that prompt workflows for donors that give above a certain cumulative amount, new donors, or prospective donors that are ready to give.
    • Streamline task and event management that keep donor cultivation efforts on track and on schedule.

    If a software option on your long list doesn’t reduce paperwork, streamline internal processes, and save time, it shouldn’t make your shortlist.

    A Note About Integrations

    While not common to all donor management and fundraising software, some systems integrate with other software. For example, a system might integrate with:

    • Payment processors like PayPal or Stripe
    • Web form software like Formstack or Wufoo
    • Email marketing platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact
    • Productivity software like Google Apps (G Suite) or Office 365

    Technical integrations with other software systems are often “nice-to-have” features (meaning they aren’t always critical) but they can significantly streamline internal processes.

  • 5. Donor segmentation, tagging, and grouping

    Donor segmentation characterizes donors based on their likes, dislikes, preferences, expectations, passions, motivations, demographics, and history.

    Segmentation delivers your donors the right message, at the right time, and in the right place so you can inspire action.

    When done right, donor segmentation should increase conversion rates and engagement rates in your fundraising and development strategies (email, mail, events, etc.).

    Here are some examples of donor segmentation:

    • Preference to particular programs or components of your mission (i.e. interests)
    • Preference on communication frequency (e.g. monthly, quarterly, annually) and communication type (e.g. mail, email, in person)
    • Status in the community and association to other groups, organizations, or memberships
    • Description of the donor’s entity type (e.g. business, individual, nonprofit, etc.)
    • Affiliation to your organization (e.g. donor, volunteer, board member, staff or another type of contributor)
    • Giving level or a prospective donor’s interest in giving

    Donor database software should be able to customize fields, forms, and tags for segmentation that is specific to your fundraising strategy.  Any software option on your shortlist should allow customization well beyond standard or generic field sets provided by the software out of the box.

  • 6. Import functionality

    The ability to import data into the software system is an extension of “data control” and creating records in batch, but is on this list independently because imports are a critical component to your overall technology profile.

    Your organization may have many technology systems.  These systems may or may not integrate with each other.  If your systems don’t integrate with each other technologically, you may want to integrate your systems with manual processes and procedures.  Import functionality becomes the primary tool for manually integrating two software systems.

    Excel spreadsheets are the integration tool for non-integrated systems.  If you can export data from one system to Excel and your database software has import functionality in CSV, you can integrate the two systems.

    Look for the following features in any software option’s import functionality.

    • A high import record limit (1,000 is good, 2,000+ is better)
    • Allow the user to select a “trust” setting (i.e. overwrite or merge upon import)
    • An “undo import” feature or a system that stamps records with an import flag so you can cleanup records manually
    • Export an error file for data in the import that is corrupted or misaligned to the import template
    • Allow you to set the duplicate check for the import file

    The software options you are reviewing may not have all of these features, so determine which features are “need to have” and “nice to have” for your organization’s integration scenarios.

  • 7. Roadmap for success

    The last item to look for isn’t a technological feature or tool.

    Look for a roadmap for success.  A roadmap for success should answer the following questions.

    • What do the best users of this software do to sustain the software?
    • What is recommended within the first six months of using the software?
    • What are the best practices for implementation, training, and ongoing administration?
    • What challenges do users encounter with the software?

    Knowing what others do to be successful may contribute to your organization’s success with the software.

    Keep in mind that you don’t need a full picture during this phase of your software selection process, but knowing that there are resources to help you be successful with the software are critical to any option on your shortlist.

Next Step: Evaluate each shortlist option using a standard set of criteria

Now that you’ve created a shortlist and cycled through the process to confirm that the shortlist includes the best available options for you organization, it’s now time to evaluate each software option in-depth.

An in-depth evaluation will compare the software options on your shortlist side by side using a standard set of criteria so you can make an informed and objective software purchasing decision.

How to Select the Best Donor Management and Fundraising Software

  • Key Points

    • Evaluate each software option on your shortlist using a standard set of evaluation criteria, which will make it easier to objectively compare multiple options side by side.
    • Download our free software evaluation guide and worksheet for a step-by-step process to evaluate each software option on your shortlist.
    • For further reading, download the Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems by Idealware.
    • Asking questions is the best way to learn during your software selection process. Ask questions of both customer references and the software vendor.
    • Select the best software for your organization by objectively comparing each option side by side. Choose the option that is the best fit in the most categories of your evaluation.
    • For a more thorough evaluation, schedule a demo with an organization that uses the software, chat with an objective third party, evaluate all features except price, ask two internal team members to complete independent reviews, and run a pilot with a free trial.
    In the next chapter, we’ll cover how to develop a business case for new software that you can present to your Executive Director, Board of Directors, or a department manager.


If you are looking for new donor management and fundraising software, navigating the market to find the best option for your organization can be a daunting task. New donor software is a major investment for your organization, but more importantly it is an opportunity to transform the way you raise funds for your organization.

How do you find new donor management software that is the “right” fit for your organization?

Once you have a shortlist of options, evaluate each option using a standard set of criteria and then compare your options side by side.

Evaluate each shortlist option using a standard set of criteria

To start, we recommend downloading our free software evaluation guide and worksheet. The guide outlines our recommended step-by-step process for objectively evaluating each software option in your shortlist side by side.

Sidekick Solutions Nonprofit Software Selection Pack

Other resources for evaluating new donor software

In addition to our software evaluation and comparison worksheet, you can also explore the web for more resources on selecting the best donor management and fundraising software.

Consumer’s Guide to Donor Management Software

by Idealware

Idealware is a nonprofit technology research and advocacy organization that helps nonprofits make smart technology decisions by publishing high-quality and highly-researched content. They published a guide on selecting donor management systems in October 2016. That guide is titled, A Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems.

Idealware is a nonprofit technology research and advocacy organization that helps nonprofits make smart technology decisions by publishing high-quality and highly-researched content. They published a guide on selecting donor management systems in October 2016. That guide is titled, A Consumer’s Guide to Donor Management Systems.

Here is what you can expect when you download the guide from Idealware.

  • What types of systems are available? – A quick overview of the styles of systems you will find during a software search. Styles include hosted versus installed, constituent relationship management (CRM) systems versus donor management systems, and custom-built systems. This is a good introduction to donor management software, including a brief case for why nonprofits should look beyond Excel spreadsheets to track donor, development, and fundraising data.
  • What these systems do (typically)? – This section of the guide focuses exclusively on use cases for donor management and fundraising software including tracking transactions, managing constituent information, developing proposals for prospects, mail and email, website integration, integrations with other software like accounting software, and more.
  • Recommendations of potential options – This section is particularly useful as a baseline for your final software selection. Review this section to determine which of the software solutions that Idealware reviewed is a good fit for your organization. Keep in mind that this may not be a perfect interpretation of the “right” fit, but it is a place to start.
  • How to choose – Idealware makes some great points in this section that are worth noting. Remember not to over-prioritize price, understand your fundraising and donor processes, plan for growth in the number of accounts in your system (if a system is priced based on the number of accounts), weigh flexibility versus complexity, and consider how to align accounting with the new software.
  • In-depth reviews of five software options – The majority of the guide is devoted to reviews of eleven donor management software systems. If one of the systems they reviewed is on your shortlist, read the section of the guide pertaining to that option and determine if your conclusions about that software are accurate.

Ask the right questions

When you go into a software search, selection, and evaluation process, you are learning along the way. You may not be an expert in donor management and fundraising software, but you need to gather as much information as you can.

One of the best ways to learn is to ask questions, but you want to ask the “right” questions.

Vendor interviews and interviews with customers that currently use the software (references) are the two most important components of a software evaluation. A software vendor and an existing user will often have different opinions about the software.  The contrast between the two perspectives might show you something you don’t expect.

Questions to ask references

Talk to existing customers.  They will give you honest feedback on the software.  Their feedback will be based on real-life experiences.

Most references provided by the software vendor will be customers that are exceedingly happy with the software. Software vendors will rarely use references that are unhappy with the software.  This shouldn’t deter you from contacting references though.

Have a list of questions ready for each conversation and be ready to dig for the feedback you need.

  1. What do you like most about the software?
  2. What do you like the least about the software?
  3. What would you do differently if you started over again?
  4. Did the software match the expectations you had going in?
  5. Were you caught off-guard by anything with the software (“gotcha” moments)?
  6. If the vendor offered other software products, would you purchase them?
  7. What other software did you evaluate in your process?
  8. In your peer groups, have you heard of any software that might be comparable?
  9. What is your top feature or benefit with the software?
  10. How did you fund and implement the software?
  11. Overall, how would you rate the software?

Try to speak with at least three different existing customers for each software option on your shortlist. Take notes from your call and record key takeaways.

Questions to ask software vendors

Your relationship with the company that owns and supports a particular software system (a software vendor) is important.  As a result, you should ask targeted questions that help you to understand their viability as a company, the quality of their software product, and how they view themselves as a vendor in the social work software market.  How they respond to your questions might impact your evaluation of their software.

  • How is our data protected and secured?
  • How long has the software been available for purchase in market?
  • How long have you been working for the company (sales or account manager)?
  • How often do you release new features for the software?
  • Do you have other customers that are similar to our organization?
  • What is your current customer count for the software?
  • What is the first year retention rate of customers that purchase the software?
  • What are some reasons why your company will continue for the next five years?

In addition to the software vendor questions above, be specific about the terms and conditions of the software contract.  There are five things to pay attention to with respect to the legal side of your software purchasing decision.  Carefully review each topic with the software vendor. Download our free guide on what to look for in the terms and conditions of your software license.

nonprofit database software terms conditions

Unconventional ways to evaluate software

Most software evaluation and selection processes follow a similar path.

  • Identify a need
  • Outline a list of required software features
  • Build a basic budget
  • Develop a short list of solutions
  • Contact each software vendor

You can certainly select software for your organization with this process, but you can increase your chances of finding the best software system by gathering more information. Here are five unique ideas on how to gather more information for your software selection process.

  • 1. Get a demo from an organization that actively uses the software

    Peer organizations offer unfiltered, honest feedback on software. This makes their feedback extremely valuable.

    Request a live demo from a peer organization so you can see how the software operates in a real-world setting. A live demo from an actual user will expose workarounds, tips, and tricks for the software. These demos are generally more realistic than demos offered by the software vendor.

    A demo from an organization that uses a software system day to day will show you what it actually takes to implement, manage, and sustain that software option.

  • 2. Chat with someone who can compare multiple software platforms side-by-side

    It is hard to understand all of the nuances of a software platform during an evaluation process. You may only receive a glimpse of the software system’s capabilities during demos, webinars, and Q&A sessions. Benchmarking overcomes this challenge.

    Benchmarking compares software platforms side-by-side. A side-by-side comparison will show you where one platform is strong and another is weak, or vice versa.

    Here are three Ideas for a side-by-side comparisons.

    1. Look for a consultant with experience on multiple software platforms.
    2. Search for consumer reports that compare different platforms.
    3. Meet with peer organizations that have switched software solutions recently.

    If you aren’t evaluating multiple software systems at the same time, still compare the primary software system you’re evaluating to another platform. Comparisons of two software platforms will yield insight that may not be evident if you only evaluate a single software system.

  • 3. Evaluate everything but the price, develop conclusions, and then discuss price

    Pricing is important, but pricing can also cloud the software selection process.

    Would you immediately rule out any software platform that doesn’t align with your budget, even if that software platform matched your requirements perfectly?

    If yes, you might miss an opportunity with a great system.

    Consider a different approach. Pricing discussions add bias to the selection process. Take that bias out of the equation so you can focus squarely on the benefits of each software option.

    Compare various software systems, make judgments as to the one that is the best fit, and then request proposals for pricing.

    This method will lead to interesting discussions and questions about the value of a software platform instead of its cost.

  • 4. Ask two internal team members to conduct simultaneous, independent reviews

    Direct side-by-side comparisons may not be available for the software you are evaluating (as outlined in #2 above). If that is the case, consider having two team members conduct simultaneous independent reviews of the software system or systems you are evaluating.

    An independent review means that the two team members will not talk to each other during the evaluation process. The goal of this method is to reduce subjectivity in the decision-making process.

    The two team members should provide a recommendation at the end of their reviews.

    • If the team members agree on the software system that is the best fit, then you can move forward with confidence.
    • If the team members disagree on the software system that is the best fit, their disagreement prompts your organization to identify differences and focus more heavily on why a particular solution is the best fit.

    While agreement between the two reviewers generates confidence that you’re selecting the right software system, disagreement allows your organization to ask questions and evaluate software in greater detail. Both scenarios ultimately lead to a more informed purchasing decision.

  • 5. Use a free trial to run a live test with the software for a specific scenario

    Implementing a free trial for a short-term live test requires an investment of time and energy, but it is a foolproof way to determine if a software system is the right fit.

    Request a free trial from the software vendor. Prior to purchasing the software, set up an intentional workflow for the trial period. The workflow might include a short implementation process and a trial scenario for a short-term test.

    You won’t be able to test the whole software during a trial, so focus on a critical use case.

    Define a hypothesis or “desired state” for the trial. This definition will be your benchmark. Gather feedback from users over the duration of the trial and use the feedback to determine if the software achieves the desired benchmark.

    • If the trial is positive, you have a partially functional system already in place and you can move forward confidently with the purchase.
    • If the trial is negative, you can either address the negative aspects before a final purchase or determine that the software isn’t a good fit.

    A free trial provides practical, real-world experience with software before purchasing it.

Unconventional approaches take time, but there is an upside

Unconventional approaches to donor management and fundraising software selection require an investment of time and potentially money. Investing a small amount (relatively speaking) upfront could save you time and money later because the costs of selecting the wrong software are significant but the benefits of selecting the right software are extraordinary.

Compare software options side by side and align with internal evaluation outcomes

With completed evaluations of each software option on your shortlist, you can compare software options side by side and make an informed purchasing decision for you organization.

The decision making process is unique for every organization. Comparing your software options will require some subjective interpretation because not everything in your software evaluations will line up in a 1-to-1, “apples-to-apples” format, but you should start to see where the benefits of one software system are greater than the others.

The solution with the most alignment to your goals and expectations, is often the software system that is best for your organization.

Select the best donor management software

Sometimes the hardest part of the software selection process is making a final decision. Up and until this point in the process, you gathered information and analyzed options, but you weren’t required to make any tough decisions.

While opportunities of new donor management and fundraising software are substantial, making the wrong choice can be costly.

You can rest assured that if you follow a well-thought-out software selection process and software evaluation plan, you will be equipped to make a smart purchasing decision with a software system that is the best fit for your organization.

How to Draft a Business Case for New Donor Management Software

  • Key Points

    • A “business case” is a tool you can use to pitch new software to your organization’s decision makers.
    • A business case tells a story about the journey you’ve taken to make an informed decision on new software, builds trust with your decision makers, and validates your software recommendation with evidence.
    • The format of a business case will vary depending on your requirements, but some of the important elements include: a solid introduction stating why we are selecting new software, describing your process to date, providing reasons for your recommendation, and outlining the costs versus the benefits of your recommendation.
    • The delivery of your business case will also depend on your requirements, but you should consider the formatting, timing, delivery, style, tone, and setting prior to presenting to your decision makers.
    In the next chapter, we’ll cover five early wins that lead to success with new software plus six tips to get the most from donor management software.


You’ve selected a new donor management and fundraising software system using an intentional software selection and evaluation process, but you still need to convince your Executive Director, Board of Directors, or a department manager.  Draft a business case that explains why the software you selected is the best fit for your organization.

What is a business case and why do you need one?

A “business case” is a tool you can use to pitch new social work software to your organization’s decision makers. Your business case will recommend the best software to your decision makers and support that recommendation with evidence as to why that software is the best choice.

A business case will:

  • Tell a story that details the journey you’ve taken to make an informed recommendation for new software;
  • Build trust with your decision makers so when you make your recommendation, they will trust that the software you selected is the right one; and
  • Back up and validate your recommendation with logic, evidence, and rationale based on an internal needs assessment and your research on potential software options.

Drafting a business case

The perspectives of decision makers vary from organization to organization. Some decision makers want to be involved in every decision, getting their hands in the process and probing for details, while others are more hands off, wanting only the high-level details that contributed to your recommendation.

Use this outline in this article as a template for your own business case, adding or subtracting content to match the needs of your decision makers.

  • 1. Answer the question, “Why are we here?”

    Why is your organization searching for new donor management and fundraising software? Look at your internal needs assessment for inspiration and narrow down the reasons to a single catalyst.

    Write down the catalyst as a one or two sentence statement or a short bullet list. This should be a brief introduction.

    Create a statement that is powerful, immediate, and creates a strong sense of urgency for your decision makers.

  • 2. Describe the selection process to date and the remaining steps

    List the steps you’ve taken in your process so far and the steps that you still need to complete.

    Your goal is to demonstrate that you’ve completed or are in the process of completing an intentional and well-thought-out software selection process.

    Build their trust in you and your process so their trust will carry over into your recomendation for new software.

  • 3. Highlights of the internal needs assessment

    List the strengths and limitations of your current data management system, and also identify the components of your vision for a future software system.

    The highlights of your internal needs assessment should paint the picture for why your current system is inadequate, as proof for why you are evaluating new software options.

  • 4. List of software options

    List the software options you’ve evaluated (i.e. your shortlist). We recommend listing the software options only.

    Do not add details for each software option to your business case. Although you may choose to review the details of each software option with your decision makers, be careful.  Adding too much detail in this section of your business case can open the door for decision makers to make judgments that are contradictory to your final recommendation, even though your decision makers are making that judgment with limited information (compared to you).

    The goal of this list is to demonstrate that you evaluated multiple options and that your recommendation is based on objective evaluation criteria across multiple options. This shortlist should prove that you approached the software selection process from an unbiased perspective.

  • 5. Recommendation for new software

    It may feel too early to be providing a recommendation, but go ahead and drop your recommendation here. You will provide evidence to support this recommendation later in the business case.

    Presenting a recommendation upfront shows confidence and removes any ambiguity that decision makers may be feeling up and until this point. Stating your recommendation early also focuses your decision makers on the recommended software option.

  • 6. Reasons for the recommendation

    Decision makers want to know why you are making a specific recommendation. Most want to know how the recommendation impacts the organization’s bottom line, but before you get there, compare the outcomes of your needs assessment to the features, functionalities, and capabilities of your recommended software system.

    Create a matrix for the three sections of your internal needs assessment: challenges, strengths, and vision. Identify a challenge, strength, or vision element and then define how the recommended software system will solve that challenge, promote an existing strength, or achieve your vision.

    Challenge Solution
    List an existing challenge from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option solves this challenge…
    Strength Solution
    List an existing strength from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option promotes or enhances this strength…
    Vision Solution
    List a component of your vision for a future system from your needs assessment… Identify how the recommended software option achieves this component of your visions…

    Create as many comparisons as are needed to validate your recommendation for new software (i.e. write out multiple challenges and strengths plus their associated solutions).

  • 7. Costs of new software

    Decision makers want to know that the investment made in the new software will yield positive results for the organization.

    Start with costs. All software systems generally have the same categories of costs. You can use the following list of costs as a template for your own business case.

    Ask the software vendor, your references, or a trusted software consultant about each cost category. Fill in the blanks of your business case with their feedback.

    • Cost of software – The cost of the software is the cash outlay for the software license. The total cost of the software may include multiple costs that occur at different times. For example, there may be activation costs, ongoing or recurring costs, and annual costs. Also keep in mind that the first year and second year cost of the software may be different.
    • Cost to implement – The cost to implement the software may not come from the software vendor. It may come from an independent consultant or implementation specialist. The cost to implement the software is the one-time fee to get up and running with the software.
    • Time to implement – The time it takes to set up and integrate new software with your organization is a cost. You will take time away from the everyday responsibilities of some staff members in order to implement new software. Translate the time to implement into a cost by multiplying the number of hours to implement the software times the hourly wages (or equivalent) of the staff members that will be involved with the implementation project.
    • Cost to maintain – Maintenance is a cost that is often left out of budget planning for new donor management software. Be sure to include both maintenance costs and maintenance time. The cost to maintain the software includes ongoing training, support, consulting, report development, and any other costs to keep your software in top form year in and year out.
    • Time to maintain – The time to maintain the software includes database maintenance, data quality reviews, report development, user support, and potentially time corresponding with the software vendor or a consultant.  You can also translate maintenance time into a cost by multiplying the number of hours to maintain the software times the hourly wages (or equivalent) of the staff members responsible for system maintenance.
    • Stress, focus, and energy – Implementing, managing, and sustaining social work software takes time and costs money, but it also impacts the emotional energy of the organization. Software can put pressure on the culture of your organization and may divert attention and focus from existing tasks.
  • 8. Benefits of new software

    The benefits of donor management and fundraising software are also fairly common among all software systems. You can use the following list of benefits to complete your business case.

    As with the costs of new software, ask the software vendor, your references, or a trusted software consultant about each cost category. Fill in the blanks of your business case with their feedback.

    • Save time – Time is a cost. Completing a task that requires one hour of time costs your organization the hourly rate of the person completing the task (even if that person is salaried, there is still an effective hourly rate for that person). Time is a resource, and it is a scarce resource. Saving time saves money. There is a direct financial savings if new donor management software saves five hours of work a week (twenty hours of work per month) compared to the status quo.
    • Be more effective with time – Time is also an opportunity. The opportunity of time is less tangible than time as a cost, but the opportunity of time can compound the return of a software investment. If a software platform saves five hours of work a week, what can you do with those additional five hours of time? The benefits of the time savings are compounded because you can now spend the saved time on tasks that are more valuable to the organization.
    • Increase revenue and decrease costs – ncreasing revenues and decreasing costs are the two benefits that are the easiest to understand and quantify. They apply directly to the “bottom line” of your organization. The financial performance of the organization will improve if new fundraising software generates more revenue than the status quo. It will also improve if it decreases expenses. These two measures correlate to direct cash inflows and outflows.
    • Make smarter decisions – An investment in donor management software with strong reporting capabilities can help your organization make smarter decisions. Data shows trends and progress. Data shows what works and what doesn’t work. When used the right way, data can “light the way” toward performance improvement and growth.
    • Improve the performance of your work – Donor management software can also help your organization do its work better. This means it will help you achieve your business objectives, whatever they are. You might want to implement new fundraising strategies, test a campaign idea you have been thinking about, or spend more time with donors in a 1-on-1 setting. Investments in new software should positively impact those measurements whether they are quantitative or qualitative. If the software system is a positive variable in your organization’s growth equation, then the software generates a return on investment.
  • 9. The bottom line

    The decision to purchase new software is easy when it is clear that the return generated from the software is greater than the cost to purchase and maintain it. Define the value of new software using return on investment (ROI) analysis.

    Outputs/Inputs = Benefits/Costs = ROI

    ROI compares the positive outcomes of an investment to the cost of the investment. The outputs and inputs of an ROI calculation can be monetary, time-based, or qualitative.

    ROI will be positive when the benefits outweigh the costs and negative when the costs outweigh the benefits.

    Software ROI calculations are rarely as simple as the definition listed above. ROI calculations will vary from organization to organization and ROI doesn’t need to be purely mathematical either. A simple pro and con list (an intangible method) can be just as powerful when comparing costs to benefits (pros must outweigh the cons for a positive return).

    Your organization’s needs determine the complexity of an ROI analysis. If your Board wants a formal report, then a financial ROI model may be needed. If you need a quick assessment, then a back of the envelope pro and con list might suffice.

  • 10. Restatement of your recommendation

    Summarize the evidence that supports your recommendation, as described throughout the business case. This restatement doesn’t need to be long. It should be like the period at the end of a sentence, closing your business case with a recommendation for a new software system.

Delivering a business case

How you deliver a business case for new donor management and fundraising software is as important as the content contained within the business case itself.

The formatting, style, and setting should all be taken into account when considering how to best present a business case. Present at the wrong time or in the wrong way and your proposal may be dead on arrival. Present in the right way and you can persuade your decision makers to invest in the software system you recommend.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Formatting – Determine the style of your business case: PowerPoint, written report, or formal presentation.
  • Timing – Identify the best time to present the business case: end or beginning of a fiscal year or after major events.
  • Delivery – Decide on the best way to deliver the business case: presentation or documentation. Also, does the business case need to be documented as an internal organizational policy or for the Board’s benefit?
  • Style> – Align the style of the business case with the needs of your decision makers. Make the business case formal or informal based on your relationship with them.
  • Tone – Apply the correct tone to your business case.  Should you be formal or casual?  Should the tone be forceful and direct or provide openings for group discussion?  Match your tone, whether written or oral, to your audience.
  • Setting – Identify where to present the business case.  Should you book a meeting or board room?  Is this something that can be done in a decision maker’s office?  Choose a setting where you are comfortable and where you think your decision makers will feel comfortable as well.

Get Started with New Donor Management and Fundraising Software

  • Key Points

    • Wins are the steps you can take early on with new software to get the ball rolling toward full user adoption, complete integration with your organization, and maximum utilization of the software system's functionalities.
    • Examples of early wins include setting up reports on last year’s donors, drafting software user guides that are specific to your organization, implementing data quality reviews, setting up acknowledgement and receipting procedures, and integrating with your website.
    • In addition to early wins, start getting the most from new donor management software by development complete constituent profiles, logging all interactions with constituents, taking notes in the software, reviewing past interactions before future interactions, importing data from external sources, and using the database frequently.
    • If you are getting the most from your new software system, you will experience three specific outcomes: complete and rich data, transition-ready system, and a focus on donor engagement.
    • Match your enthusiasm for new software with realistic expectations of the potential outcome. If you can align organizational enthusiasm with realistic expectations, you have the best chance to sustain organizational buy-in for the new software.


You purchased a new nonprofit donor management and fundraising software system and you’re ready to get started. Enthusiasm and excitement are high, so channel the early energy toward upfront wins with the new software. Wins build capacity and integrate the new software with your organization. Early wins will also help your organization take advantage of everything your new software has to offer.

Why should you look for wins with new software?

To be clear, there are no shortcuts to a successful setup of new donor management and fundraising software. Instant wins don’t imply that your first steps will be easy, quick, or painless. Instant wins are substantive victories with new software and require substantive investments of time and energy.

Wins are the steps you can take early on with new software to get the ball rolling toward full adoption, complete integration, and maximization of the software system’s functionalities.

Win #1 – Setup (or identify) reports on last year’s donors

A development professional’s goal is to sustain and grow revenue year-over-year. You need data to manage fundraising performance toward this goal. Donor management software provides the reports you need to manage fundraising performance, specifically reports on last year’s donors.

Last year’s donors have a recent relationship with your organization. The relationship you have with last year’s donors is fresh and therefore the easiest to maintain. Last year’s donors can also be significant contributors to this year’s fundraising performance.

You cannot renew last year’s donors if you don’t know who they are. This is why your donor management software is so valuable. Because these reports are so valuable, it is a win to either identify where these reports are located or set up these reports in your new donor management software.

  1. LYBUNT (Last Year But Not This Year) – LYBUNT is a lapsed donor report. Lapsed donors are those that gave last year but haven’t given this year (yet). The goal is to renew 100% of last year’s generated revenue from last year’s donors. Once someone is renewed, they will fall off your lapsed donor report so you can focus on just those donors that haven’t renewed.
  2. Renewed Donors: Upgrade, Downgrade, Same – Simply renewing donors from last year isn’t enough to renew all revenue from last year. Some donors may give the same as they did last year, some may give more, and some may give less. Each of these scenarios is a donor renewal status. The LYBUNT report will identify donors that lapsed (not renewed) while the renewal report will keep your organization up to date on the dynamics of the donors that have renewed.
  3. Top 20% of Last Year’s Donors – The LYBUNT and renewed donors reports provide broad segments of donors based on year-over-year performance. They are global reports that cover all donors whether a donor gave $5 last year or $5,000. Renewing last year’s donors can help you grow; but focusing on high-quality donors from last year can help you grow smarter. The top 20% of last year’s donors report is a high quality report for “smarter” fundraising.

Win #2 – Draft software user guides

Every organization uses donor management and fundraising software a little differently. Data entry processes and operational procedures vary, so give your users the resources they need to be effective with your specific donor management software system. Draft user guides for any processes that are specific to your organization.

User guides are step-by-step instructions for custom processes within your database. Most user guides cover “how to” topics like how to enter a new donor, how to code new donors, or how to run any of the last year’s donors reports mentioned above, among other topics.

Custom user guides offer tangible benefits to users out-of-the-gate, which is why they are a win.

  • Increase the speed of user adoption
  • Increase user data entry and navigation efficiency
  • Improve the data health and report accuracy
  • Reduce the amount of questions about data entry and navigation

Win #3 – Implement data quality reviews

Data entry often begins quickly with new donor management software, so implement data quality reviews quickly as well. Data quality reviews are preventative maintenance for your new donor management system.

Here are some best practices to consider.

  • Complete data quality reviews on a set and consistent schedule.
  • Review where inconsistent data entry or data quality weaknesses are common
  • Focus on data quality where data entry will affect operational reporting
  • Invest meaningful time in data quality on a monthly basis (at a minimum)
  • Develop user guides and manuals for data quality procedures
  • Retrain users and provide user support where data entry is weak or inconsistent

Data quality reviews are a win because they keep your donor management software clean and healthy. If you implement them early, rather than late, they will keep you ahead of potential data quality challenges before they negatively impact your new software system.

Win #4 – Setup acknowledgement procedures

Do you know if every donation made to your organization this year has been acknowledged? You should, and your new donor management and fundraising software should help.

Every donor management system is a little different, but most make sure that no acknowledgements slip through the cracks. With a little upfront setup, most systems will confirm that every donation has been acknowledged (or that the donation doesn’t need to be acknowledged) and streamline the process of generating daily or weekly acknowledgement letters.

Acknowledging donations is an important process for any organization. New donor management software streamlines that process and saves you time.

To make this a true win, be sure to set up a letter template, any required queries or reports to pull the right donations for the acknowledgement letters, and draft a user guide for the entire procedure.

Win #5 – Integrate with your website

Most donor management software systems have the ability to generate online donation forms for your website. These forms may be standalone pages that link to your website or blocks of code that embed in an existing website page. Online donation forms capture donations, process them, and log the donation record in the software. Most will even send the donor an automated acknowledgment email.

Online donation forms let donors give online and also streamline the process of capturing the donation and acknowledging the donor for your organization. New donor management and fundraising software should either offer online donation form options or integrate with an existing solution out-of-the-box.

Having a way to give online is a requirement nowadays, so getting this handled during the setup of your donor management software is a must. Check it off your list and mark one in the win column for your organization!

New software wins overcome challenges during your first steps

Starting up with new donor management and fundraising software isn’t easy. No matter how perfect the process, setup tasks will always have little bumps.

Wins like the ones described in this post, when taken in total, can overcome little bumps by driving the software toward full adoption, complete integration with your organization, and maximization of its features. Not only that, but wins lay the groundwork for long-term sustainability with the software.

Six more tips to get the most from donor management software

In addition to early wins, you can start getting the most from your donor management software by consistently using the database. Here are six best practices that can help you sustain donor database software long term and improve the quality and integrity of your donor management and fundraising software.

  • 1. Develop complete data on all constituents

    Add as much information as you know about your donors, when you know it. This includes gathering up-to-date contact information like addresses, phone numbers, emails, and salutations. Also keep track of donor preferences, characteristics, profiles, demographics, and other segmentation data.

    If you don’t know a piece of information that may be relevant to a donor’s record, attempt to find the information online or ask someone who may know. Filling in a donor’s profile when it is open is much easier than completing the profile later.

  • 2. Log all interactions with constituents

    Log all interactions you have with donors including contacts, conversations, communications, donations, pledges, soft credits, and volunteer work among others. Logging every interaction produces a historical record of your engagement with a donor.

    A donor’s history is important because you can go back and review a donor’s account in your database if you forget about your relationship with them. Logging a history of interactions also gives others in your organization, who may not be the primary contact, the opportunity to learn about a donor’s relationship with your organization.

  • 3. Take notes in the database

    Completing standard data entry for a donor profile and history aren’t enough. It is also important to add context to a donor’s profile and history. Add context with notes and comments in the “free-form text fields” of your donor database.

    Log notes when the notes are top-of-brain. It is easiest to add a note when your memory is fresh. For example, save time by taking notes directly in the software during a phone call, meeting, or other interaction with a donor. Taking notes in the database guarantees that donor data is in one central location.

  • 4. Review past interactions before future interactions

    Review a donor’s history to learn what happened in the relationship in the past. With historical details, you can talk with a donor about the their favorite sports team or answer a question they asked in a previous conversation because all of the information is tracked in your donor database. Picking up a relationship with a donor where you left off is the best way to show the donor that you care and that you were listening during the last conversation.

    In addition to one-on-one interactions with donors, you can also use historical interactions to segment donors for mass communications and engagements. Whether you are sending a mass email, letter, or event invite, you can target your messaging to donors with past interactions like volunteering, event attendance, or clicks from a past email campaign.

  • 5. Import data from external sources

    Most donor database systems have tools for email, online donations, and letter merge. But there are some technology tools that may not be included in your donor management and fundraising software system.

    Position your donor database as the hub of all fundraising and development data to ensure that every donor profile is complete and all interactions with donors are logged in the database.

    If your database has a direct integration with your other technology tools, use the direct integration as a first option for data entry. If an integration isn’t available, import the data using the database’s standard import functionality. Manual data entry is the last resort if integrations and imports aren’t available.

  • 6. Use the database frequently

    Use your donor database frequently. Run reports, enter new data, update existing data, and use the database as a tool for 1-on-1 and mass engagements with donors.

    Using the software frequently will help users build confidence in the software. In addition, consistent use guarantees that data will be put into the database and not stored someplace else in the organization.

    If the software is mobile-ready, get used to accessing the system on the go. Using the mobile version of the software will be a major benefit when you are away from your desk interacting with constituents one on one.

Sustain new donor software long term

Achieving the five wins and implementing the six best practices in this article increase the value of your donor management and fundraising software. You can expect the following outcomes if you invest time and energy in your new software.

Outcome #1 – Complete data and living record

With complete data, your organization can generate cleaner reports, implement more robust development strategies, and increase the sophistication level of your relationships with donors.Complete data enhances the value of your database as an organizational asset, which can yield greater return on fundraising and development strategies.

If you use a donor database frequently by logging all interactions, taking notes, and updating donor profiles, you are also documenting a living record for each donor. Keeping donor information up-to-date increases the health of your database.

Outcome #2 – Transition-ready knowledge base

What happens when a primary staff member leaves your organization? It is likely that the staff member’s notes, knowledge, and donor relationships go with them or are lost altogether. That isn’t the case if you sustain your donor database.

By keeping up-to-date records, adding detailed notes, and filling in all information, another staff person could easily review the donor database and quickly get up to speed. A healthy donor database is a transition-ready knowledge base, which mitigates the risk of any staff member leaving your organization.

Outcome #3 – Donor engagement focused

A donor database can help your organization focus on donor needs, likes, dislikes, and expectations. You can build personalized relationships with your donors, which create a service-focused internal organizational culture.

Donor database best practices help your organization become more responsive, attentive, accurate, timely, courteous, and donor-focused. A healthy donor database can help your organization put the donor first, so you can provide them a more valuable donor experience.

Match excitement with realistic expectations

Donor management and fundraising software is a powerful tool. A donor database is a valuable asset to your organization because it is a driver of revenue and stores the living knowledge of your organization’s donor relationships. Not only that, but a healthy donor database that you sustain over time can help your organization improve donor relationships and provide better service to donors, which are both steps toward improving fundraising performance.

The excitement for new donor management software can be high, and the excitement can include feelings of anxiety, nerves, and fears. It is important to match your enthusiasm for the software with realistic expectations of what can and should happen as you get started with new software.

There will be hurdles. There will be challenges. All of this should be tempered with realistic expectations of what the software system can be for your organization and how the software system will help your organization save time, improve service workflows, and increase the overall efficiency of your fundraising program.

If you can match your organization’s excitement for the new software with realistic expectations, you have the best chance to get staff buy-in for the software and integrate the software with your organization’s operations.