At a recent seminar, a member of the audience, a nonprofit staff member, was
visibly angry that “none of the discounted databases on TechSoup come with
free technical support”. While I can understand how frustrating it is to
try to learn how to use the mostly non-intuitive database programs out there, I
was struck by the thinking behind that comment. To me, it is like being angry
that a car someone donated to you did not come with free gas and repairs for

Change Graffitti

Like a car, a database (and most technology for that matter) needs regular
care and maintenance. It requires resources, both human and financial, to
maintain it in good working order. Like a garden, there is planning to ensure
you use your space well and get out of it what you need, weeding to remove
undesirable elements, watering and feeding to provide needed inputs, as well as
appropriate harvesting to glean what you need. All of those tasks require spending
money on human resources to carry them out. It may also require spending
resources on tools, education or consulting. The point is, if you have no
resources to put into managing a database, you will get very little out
of it that is of use.

Many software programmers out there donate hundreds if not thousands of
hours to make free and open source software, like CiviCRM, Drupal and many others.
Those folks could be making lots of money working for commercial operations but
instead make less money and contribute to the nonprofit community in some powerful
ways. Providing technology tools that work for nonprofits is a difficult job
that comes with very little tangible reward. As I’ve heard many well-respected
nonprofit software experts like Robert Weiner and Allen Gunn say, free software
is free like puppies. The puppy might be free initially, but the vet visits,
shots, medicines, food, time spent training and caring for the puppy are all
not free – just as it is with software.

So, if your organization does not have the resources to both acquire and
maintain your database, the problem is not with the software providers and
their lack of free resources. It is the responsibility of every nonprofit to
raise the proper funding to properly maintain the organization, and to me the
lifeblood of an organization is its data and the systems used to manage that

As I have often said, “after people, data is your most important
resource”. You’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you don’t’ have
the resources needed to do a good job of maintaining it in good order, then the
first order of business is raising more or reallocating funds. The more
realistic organizations are about the costs of technology and software, the
more appropriate they fund those tools, the happier they will be with their
tools and the more benefit they will derive from their use.

  Category: Nonprofit Technology, Resources


  5 Comment

5 Responses to “Nobody Owes Your Nonprofit Software”

  1. SteveHeye

    Rock on John! Well said. As Beth or others would say, “Free like Kittens, not Free like Beer.”
    My other question back would be, Have you documented your processes enough to know you are using the software correctly and matching your business needs?
    Often our software problems stem from either not knowing what our existing tools can do and not having strong business practices.
    Anyway, nicely done.

  2. John Kenyon

    Right on Steve! Documenting use and needs is a very smart thing to do – how many times have we heard “we can’t do that” when the software can, in fact, do that! Great point, thanks!

  3. Brendan

    (have been sharing this link furiously as of late!)
    Adding to Steve and John’s point, all too often there are times when the software providers are the last ones to find out that an NPO is in need of a tool that already exists in the current software, but the NPO looks elsewhere before asking their current software providers if that tool is already in their arsenal and at their disposal.
    It seems keeping the lines of communication open between internal staff of a nonprofit organization and the software providers needs to be more of a priority. This allows for the all-important ‘client needs management’ as a necessary piece to establishing a mutually beneficial partnership between the NPO and their software provider.
    Also, beyond the topic at hand but related, a quick or abrupt loss of staff/leadership continues to be an Achilles heel for so many NPOs in managing their efficiency — both operationally and technologically. It would be great to see more content developed by the community stressing the importance of NPOs developing their own internal processes and procedures guides according to how they use their software.
    In most situations, it is best to do this from the very beginning when staff encounters these types of organization-specific processes for the first time. This will allow the process to be duplicated the next time around with minimal (or at least less) effort. No need to re-invent the wheel every time that gala event or annual campaign comes back around each year.
    As always, looking forward to the next post. 🙂

  4. John Kenyon

    Thank you Brendan for sharing and for your comments! I agree about nonprofits having a way to not loose a process when they loose staff. I am always preaching about the “rule of three” to never have just one person that know how to “X”, i.e., do a segmented email blast, pull out a lapsed donor list, etc. Great points!

  5. DCSLsoftware

    Hi John
    Firstly thanks for putting this out there , we have been involved with people that have just had no idea about these things.
    You are right steve about documenting your process – this can and will make a big difference


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