Choosing the Right Software for Your Chorus
September 13th, 2017
The right process can save your organization a lot of time and money as you select new software. But how do you get started?
For decades, the Choral Artists of Sarasota used spreadsheets for the organization's donor records. Each donation was entered on a new line and the information was stashed away on a computer making it very hard to see and analyze a donor’s history.
“Keeping the spreadsheets up to date was a nightmare,” says Susan Burke, the Florida organization’s executive director. “It was hard to keep track of who gave money.”
A couple of years ago the nightmare became very real when the donor recognition page in a CAS concert program came together late and wasn’t accurate. Longtime donors who were left off or credited with giving the wrong amount were upset. To avoid a reoccurrence, Burke says the CAS board immediately approved an initiative to identify a donor management system.
Is Software the Answer?
Raising money and selling tickets is hard for a chorus of any size, but if you aren’t sure who’s donating or attending concerts, it’s even harder. Maybe your chorus can’t recruit the singers it needs, can’t travel as much, or has to cut down on concerts or rehearsals. Missed revenue ultimately affects the music.
Reliable, easy-to-use software can help a chorus be its best by making its fundraising and operations more efficient. A donor management or constituent relationship management (CRM) system allows you to keep your donor records organized and up to date, and makes it easy to see who your most active and generous donors are. Most systems also help you to create more sophisticated, targeted fundraising appeals by showing you what kind of fundraising outreach works and what doesn’t.
While donor software offers clear benefits, there are dozens of products on the market, and the differences among systems are subtle, but important. Integrating them with existing systems and adding modules or applications your organization might need can often be complex, and doesn’t always work as well as advertised. Pricing also varies greatly. A chorus with fewer than 1,000 donors can expect to pay between $600 and $1,000 per year. Choruses with larger lists can pay $6,000 or more per year.
For many people, researching and selecting new software is a lot like scheduling a root canal—you know it’s going to be expensive and painful, so you put it off. Over time, your problems spread and burrow deeper until, eventually, the harm is irreparable.
To build a chorus that brings in more revenue and keeps the focus on the music, you have to do a lot of work to understand your needs, find and evaluate software that can meet those needs, configure it to track the data that matters most, and migrate old data so that everyone’s ready to keep working.
Defining Your Software Needs
Before you invest in new software, you need to know what you want the software to do. Imagine your chorus five years from now. What will it look like and how can software help it get there?
The first step is defining and prioritizing your software needs. Do you simply want to track donor history and be able to easily pull an email or direct mail list together? What about online donations? Ticketing? Membership? Listing and ranking all of your specific needs will help you get the most software for your dollar and will make it easier to let go of features that add a lot of cost, but not a lot of value.
At this stage you may want to create a small team to help you drive the process and add perspective. At the very least, make sure you consult with staff members and anyone else who might use the system. They will have insight into typical pain points with your current software and can suggest process improvements that will inform how you configure your new system.
Free Like a Puppy
A typical eight-year-old boy has a hard time standing still for five minutes, let alone for an entire choir practice. Ragazzi Boys Chorus in San Mateo, California, is an after-school program that teaches music theory, vocal technique, and practical musicianship to boys starting in the early grades and continuing through high school. “We speak boy,” says executive director David Jones. The top groups travel nationally and compete with the best in the country.
To keep hundreds of boys safe, learning, and singing, Ragazzi has to track a lot of data. It uses NeatSchool, a software system designed for private schools, to keep track of emergency contacts, insurance information, attendance, and evaluations. For email and direct mail fundraising, Jones uses FileMaker to pull addresses from spreadsheets. Ragazzi’s spreadsheets also track donor and parent contact information, recipients of fundraising appeals, and individual donation amounts.
“The dream is a single database or a suite of databases to handle all our needs,” Jones says. Ragazzi, like a lot of choirs, was caught between the past and its future. Jones was able to keep the spreadsheet data current, but he was the only one who knew how to do it. If something were to happen to him, Ragazzi would not be able to use its data effectively.
“Rather than be held hostage to one person’s expertise, we wanted to train people in a relational database to pull the report they want,” Jones says. Ragazzi also wanted a Cloud-based system that could be accessed anywhere. That meant the spreadsheets had to go.
Ragazzi decided that the most immediate, cost-effective choice was Salesforce. The Cloud-based CRM system offers its software free to nonprofits.
But the software is free the way a puppy is free. Salesforce requires a lot of work and knowhow to set up and keep running. It’s also pretty basic out of the box. Most organizations need to purchase “apps” that provide additional functionality, such as payment integration, email marketing, or data analytics. Jones and his small staff couldn’t get started by themselves—they were going to need help.
An Emerging Software Marketplace
Because many Cloud-based software systems charge according to the number of records in the database, Steven Bélanger, general manager of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, began to despair when researching software. Looking at tens of thousands of patron records, he found it hard to see how the VCC could afford a new system.
His professional chorus solicits donations and ticket sales via email and direct mail, tracking basic donor and patron data such as contact information, concerts attended, and donation amount.
Currently VCC stores donor and patron data on multiple spreadsheets, each managed by a different staff member for a different need. For example, email communications go out to one list, and direct mail to another. Each time someone is added or removed from the VCC’s records, an email goes around the office with information that must be updated on each sheet. As you might expect, it’s nearly impossible to ensure the updates will be applied evenly and consistently.
“Having all our data in one place would be a huge improvement,” Bélanger says.
A few years ago, Tom Metzger, a Vancouver software developer, told a VCC board member about Groupanizer, the system he’d developed for managing the membership needs of a chorus. The marketplace for chorus-specific software is relatively small and no system has yet fully combined chorus management and constituent management. Tessitura is typically viewed as the most feature-rich system used by choruses—it offers patron management, ticketing, and more—but starts at $8,000. Chorus Connection, a choir management system, plans to expand into patron management in the future, but those features are not yet available.
While intrigued by Groupanizer, Bélanger decided it wasn’t what VCC needed. But last year Metzger came back to him with an all-in-one choir and patron management software package called Choir Genius. Bélanger says VCC will soon be a beta tester, and in exchange will be able to use the software for free. He’s not yet sure whether Choir Genius is the right answer for VCC, but he’s hopeful.
Making the Shortlist
Susan Burke estimates that she considered 20 different systems when trying to select software for the Choral Artists of Sarasota. She simply Googled “online CRM” and kept track of which ones looked interesting.
“I cast a really wide net,” she says. “I really wanted to make sure we were getting something that was going to serve our needs.”
A few websites can help you narrow your search more quickly. Capterra.com allows you to search across more than 400 software categories and read user reviews on various products, although the information is often incomplete or missing for lower-cost systems. Softwareadvice.com offers similar information, but you have to register to see pricing or to watch a demo. Neither site specifically caters to nonprofits and the number of software systems under each category can be a little overwhelming.
Seven Data Migration Milestones
1. Talk to a consultant. Even a short consultation can get you on the right track.
2. Think through the logistics. Losing track of the details can slow down the process and increase costs.
3. Clean your data. It doesn’t have to be spotless, but the cleaner you can make it, the easier it will be to convert it and start working in your new system.
4. Develop policies and procedures. Document the data entry rules and enforce them. If data is entered inconsistently or haphazardly your system will quickly become useless.
5. Develop a map. Some organizations literally list out all of the data fields in their old system and draw lines to a list of data fields in the new system.
6. Test your migration. A conversion is rarely perfect on the first try. Or the second. Leave plenty of time to test and adjust so that all of the data ends up where it’s supposed to be.
7. Carry out the final conversion. Once you’re confident that the mapping and conversion are right, move the data over, flip the switch, and you’re ready to get to work!
Idealware.org publishes apples-to-apples reviews of software in more than a dozen categories. In its 2017 Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems, the nonprofit researched and reviewed 35 donor software options against more than 200 criteria. NTEN.org and TechSoup.org also have useful information specifically for nonprofits.
It’s also helpful to ask your peers for their opinions and experience. Ask other choirs what they’re using and find out what they’re happy with and what falls short of expectations. You can also go to nonprofit technology forums to ask those communities your questions—NTEN and TechSoup run active forums full of smart people.
However you get your information, you’ll want to narrow your choices to between three and five systems and ask the vendors to perform live software demos so you can see particular features in action and ask questions. During their demos, ask vendors to show you how their systems can meet your particular needs rather than simply demonstrating all the bells and whistles.
Burke decided to try out three systems, and ultimately chose Fundly CRM because it fit her budget and made it easy to get the reports she needed. She also liked the support offered by the vendor.
“In the end, I thought, ‘Oh, this was put together by people who had done [fundraising] work before,” Burke says.
One other system interested her, but she didn’t choose it because she didn’t like working with the vendor representative. Interacting with that person can be just as important as interfacing with the software. Remember, you’re making a big investment—one you’re going to live with for a long time. You want to work with a vendor you can trust.
A Few More Questions to Consider
While you can’t expect an off-the-shelf software package to be the answer to all of your dreams, don’t assume your needs are unique. One mistake many organizations make is in spending a lot of time and money on customization because they think the software has to fit their processes and terminology. In fact, new software presents a good opportunity to map out your processes and ask yourself whether the way you do it is really the best way. The new software might improve your processes.
The live demo where you get to see how the system works is important, but the follow-up to the demos is also crucial. Ask about uptime—whether the system is ever down due to bugs or maintenance. The vendor should be able to quote you a number that’s at least 99.9 percent uptime. Also, look closely at the contract because you can negotiate the terms. What does it say about your ability to extract the data if you change systems? Are there unfavorable terms or situations where the vendor is unwilling to take responsibility for keeping the software running?
And make sure you’ll have the support you need to learn the system, implement it, and keep it running when issues arise. Nearly every vendor offers these services, but often at an additional cost. If the vendor offers only minimal support, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the software is a bad choice, but it does mean that you’ll need to budget in consulting costs or find a highly skilled volunteer with a willingness to donate a lot of time to your organization.
Once you’ve considered these issues and found a system that matches your organization, then you’re ready to sign a contract and get started with the hard work of implementing your system.
The Great Migration
No matter how fastidious your chorus is at collecting data, moving it into a new system is challenging. Each database organizes information differently, and to make sure the data goes in the right place in your new system, you have to meticulously map the old data fields to the new fields and then prepare your data to import into your new system. For many organizations this can be a long and frustrating process, particularly when the data is inconsistent or sloppy.
“Thinking about it makes me want to pull my hair out,” Bélanger says. He anticipates a major cleanup effort before the data can be migrated to a new system. “Even something as silly as an extra space, when you’re printing something on gorgeous letterhead, is a detriment to our reputation of professionalism.”
Ragazzi has taken months to migrate its data. Amy Mendenhall, a parent volunteer with experience using Salesforce, is migrating piece by piece via .CSV uploads (a file format typically used to move large batches of data into and out of a database). She also updates records manually as donor information changes.
“We looked into apps for migration and deduplication,” Mendenhall says, “but they cost money and need expertise. They’re above and beyond what the staff and I are able to do.”
Migration is often a stage where organizations seek consulting help. Whether it’s a skilled volunteer like Mendenhall or a professional consultant, you can save a lot of time and headaches by bringing in an expert.
Imagining the Future
Choral Artists of Sarasota, Ragazzi Boys Choir, and the Vancouver Chamber Choir all have big hopes for their software. They all mentioned ticketing integration as a second step once their CRM systems are established and running smoothly.
For VCC, the process has only just begun, and still might not work out. As a beta tester, it might find out that the system is too buggy or that the software doesn’t quite match its needs. However, an undeterred Bélanger says that his chorus will not give up on finding database software.
“I don’t think the status quo is tenable for much longer,” he says. His board agrees. Last year it conducted a long-term sustainability framework review and found that technology was a top priority.
Burke is exploring the possibility of using Fundly CRM to manage choir members through a membership feature that she expects to try out soon.
Jones hopes that someday soon, Ragazzi will be able to manage both student and patron information in Salesforce, and do all of its fundraising and ticketing work in one place.
“We want to simplify our lives by not having to rely on spreadsheets,” he says.
Many choruses take the process slowly—partly because of limited people power, but primarily because they want to get it right. Ragazzi especially feels that pressure.
The data needs are deep, wide, and vital to the organization, Jones says. “We’re taking responsibility for other people’s children. If you screw up, you wind up in a heap of trouble.”
The selection process can take time, but six months or a year after implementation, you may start to notice that you and your staff are spending less time shuffling data around, you’re smarter about how to reach your donors, and you’re serving your chorus more responsibly. That’s when you’ll know your new software is truly singing.
Dan Rivas is the managing writer at Idealware, an organization that provides original research, insights, and assessment tools to help nonprofits make technology decisions.