Choosing the right tools for a job takes careful planning. In the crowded space of online, Software as a Service (SaaS) nonprofit software, making the right decision requires a clear understanding of you what you need your tools to do, how you will use them day-to-day, and how they fit into the broader goals of your organization or business. Today, I’m writing up a recent experience helping a nonprofit organization research and select a new set of tools, and summarize some of the important decision points along the way.
Step 1: Understand Your Needs
The nonprofit in question is a national organization that conducts advocacy and independent journalism around civil liberties, with a focus on holding increasing transparency and accountability in government and law enforcement. Core activities include sending email newsletters and action alerts to a modest-sized email list, receiving donations, and running online petitions or letter-writing campaigns targeted at state or federal legislators.
The list of needs
Our first activity was to build a detailed list of requirements for a new tool:
- Build and maintain an email list, and send mass email
- Host online advocacy actions, including petitions and letter campaigns, with targeting and delivery to state and federal legislators
- Collect one-time and recurring online donations
- Serve as a supporter database, containing records of all supporters and their history of donations, interactions with email, and participation in online actions (essentially a customized customer relationship management system or CRM).
There were a few other that-would-be-nice extras, like tight social media integration and the ability to tweet-your-member-of-congress, but we decided those would be icing on the cake, rather than core requirements.
In conversation I try to find a more positive way to frame this question, but asking “what are our constraints?” is an important part of this process. It’s important to know your limits because as you go into Step 2 and test out potential solutions, it’s easy to get blown away by flashy demonstrations when in reality may not be a great fit for you and your organization. In this case, budget was a significant limiting factor, as well as knowing the technical skill set of the staff that would be working with the tool, and understanding the amount time that would be needed to manage and maintain the tool.
In addition to having a clear understanding of what you need and any constraints that are in play, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why you’re looking for a new tool. Perhaps it’s because your mission has changed, or perhaps you’ve outgrown your current provider. Maybe your budget has changed, or the needs of your audience have shifted. For this project, the search for a new tool was triggered by a realization that the current provider was priced above the organization’s budget and could not provide the flexibility and ease of use that many competitors were offering.
Step 2: Market Research
This is the fun part. Personally I love digging into new products, exploring feature sets, and watching demo videos. It gives me an opportunity to learn about exciting new products that are on the market, and inevitably leads me off on tangents, thinking about how we could implement new feature X, or make use of cool new technology Y. (This is where the list of needs and constraints comes in; it will help you stay focused on the core requirements for this project.)
If we summarize the list of requirements as 1. Email, 2. Online Advocacy, 3. Donations, and 4. CRM, we quickly realized that there are plenty of strong options for Email, Donations/Fundraising, and CRM, including many options that specifically target nonprofits.
Requirement #2 — online advocacy — however, is tighter niche, with fewer providers offering really smooth systems for launching petitions and letter campaigns that can be embedded (or at least tightly integrated) with your own website. The challenge for this project was to find a tool that would take a supporter’s address and select the appropriate legislators to target, both at the federal and state levels. The need to be able to run advocacy actions targeting state legislators really narrowed the field, to the extent that we stopped and asked ourselves whether we really needed that feature. We decided that because the ability to run local (state-level) campaigns is highly valued by the organization’s supporters, it was worth it to try and retain that feature, even if it made the search more difficult.
We wound up with the following shortlist of providers that offer state and federal advocacy actions:
I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list, but these are the offerings our research generated. I’d encourage you to check any of them out if you’re considering a similar project.
Step 3: Demonstrations
We reached out to the sales team for each of these products to request a demonstration, which in the case of EveryAction, CQRC Engage, and SalsaLabs was offered in a video conference/screen-share set-up with a sales rep. Action Network is a little different, as I’ll explain in a moment.
And a quick note: my intention here isn’t to provide a full review of each of these products – I would want to use them rather than just demo before feeling qualified to review 🙂
EveryAction pitches their product as “a unified CRM for digital, donor management, advocacy, email, outreach, and much more.” As we were conducting this search, EveryAction 8 was released, which was a big upgrade – at least from my perspective – which seemed to bring significant UI improvements, and new features like an integration with Twitter for online advocacy, and improved fundraising tools. My quick takeaway from EveryAction is that it is a fast growing, fully featured product, backed by a strong sales and marketing team that produces some excellent free resources and online content. I recommend signing up for their email newsletter whether you become a customer or not. You’ll have to talk with a sales rep to get any pricing information, and as you would expect for a high quality, all-in-one package, it is at the higher end of the prices that we saw as part of this process.
Engage, by CQ Roll Call
Engage is just one of many services offered by CQ Roll Call, which is rooted in legislative news and advocacy tools. This option is also heavily focused on legislative advocacy, and offers a fully-featured set of tools for running petitions, letter campaigns, tweeting officials, and more, with strong social media integration. Again, you have to reach out to the sales team before you can get any insight on pricing. The range of features, bundles, and products on offer can be confusing, and it seemed like there was considerable flexibility in the way the different pieces could be combined to produce different feature sets and price points. Similarly to EveryAction, this Engage came back with a fairly hefty price tag for a small nonprofit, but would be well worth it if legislative advocacy were the core of your work.
SalsaLabs is focused specifically on the nonprofits, and divides their product offerings in fundraising, online advocacy, and marketing (read email-marketing) packages. Unlike the two options above, pricing is available on the SalsaLabs website, and is structured according to how many features you choose from their bundles. While fundraising, advocacy, and marketing are presented as three separate options, you are encouraged to combine them using an “add-ons” model, which was fairly complicated to get our heads around, so ultimately you will want to talk to a sales rep to get a clear understanding of the price for the tools you need to access. Part of the confusion here comes from a recent restructuring in which Salsa (traditionally an online advocacy focused platform) merged with DonorPro (a nonprofit CRM).
Our final selection is a little different to the others – Action Network makes a set of online organizing tools available for free to individuals and local grassroots organizations, and Action Network itself is a nonprofit entity which receives foundation funding. What makes it a viable option for this project is their “partnership” program, which provides access to their ful set of advanced features to larger organizations in return for a monthly donation, based on the volume of sent email. For this project, Action Network would offer email, online advocacy, and fundraising tools at a really reasonable rate – a much closer fit with the organization’s desired budget than any of the alternatives discussed above. It should be noted however that Action Network does not aspire to be a CRM – instead of trying to be a all-in-one solution, it seems they have taken the integrations route, with an API available that pushes/pulls data to/from Salesforce (in addition to several other services). And while you may not have heard of these companies, you probably have heard of Salesforce 🙂 They are a powerhouse CRM provider, and offer a free version to qualified nonprofits …
Step 4: The Recommendation
We entered this process expecting to find on a single tool that would meet the needs described at the top of this post. However, we came away from our research and demonstrations with a strong preference for using Action Network in combination with Salesforce.
Now normally I would shy away from having to implement and then manage an integration between two tools when there are other options that would achieve the same results on one platform. But in this instance, the magic of an API connection would enable us to use a super-powerful, customizable CRM like Salesforce AND a really clean, affordable advocacy platform like Action Network all for a significantly lower monthly cost than the price tag of those features from any of the other platforms we looked at.
We fact checked this idea with some friends – I put out a call to see if I could find other similar organizations using the Action Network+Salesforce combination, and a few phonecalls netted some positive feedback. As I expected, it takes more work to set up the integration, but once it’s up and running you have a pair of powerful tools running side by side, with supporter and donor records kept in sync by the API.