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Should you build Membership or Donor software internally?

It's not likely a good idea to build software inhouse. Nonprofit can find good solutions.

Recently we have fielded a resurgence of questions from clients evaluating new association membership software options who want to know why “buying” software is better than building it in house. As a result, in this article I wanted to pose some questions to ask and ideas to contemplate before an organization ventures into this type of project.

Should You Build vs. Buy Nonprofit Software?

Software Terminology:

Let me clarify our terminology first. The term “Off the shelf software systems is typically reserved for software which is developed and specialized for specific applications (like associations), maintained, and supported by a software vendor that can be used with little or no modification. The software tends to be relatively less expensive as the cost of development can be spread over a large number of users.

The term “Bespoke or Custom Software” references building custom software from the ground up based on the unique needs of the organization in mind. Granted, whether using Access, WordPress, or a combination of various software tools, if it’s not developed by a company with the same source code and scheduled releases it’s usually considered “Bespoke“.

The Case for the Discussion: 

Certainly, the larger the nonprofit is in size, the tougher the decision will be to opt for “Off the shelf software systems” versus “Bespoke or Custom Software” .  The smart way to approach this verdict is possibly through a series of questions. Here are 5 important questions to discuss and items to ponder before a verdict is made:

  1. What do we need the system to do?

  2. What are the cost and time limitations?

  3. Does the existing system need to be scrapped entirely, including institutional knowledge with the staff of using the existing system?

  4. Is what we need now what we will need in a few years?

  5. How do we avoid the huge expense of another overhaul in another seven to ten years?

Top pitfalls of building membership or donor software: 

You are starting from Ground ZeroIf you consider finding the right nonprofit software a daunting task, how would you like to undertake the project to actually develop one from scratch? A large investment in your time is required during the development process and a bespoke application will take longer to implement.

Your Not a Software Development Company: Once you decide to develop your own membership software database using Access, for example, you’re taking on the responsibility for not only the initial software development needs but the ongoing needs of the organization. The initial scoping out of the project, testing the software, updating the software, training your staff, and documenting the software are all items you must be capable of doing. If you pick the wrong developer you could end up with an application that is unstable, unreliable and full of bugs.

If you build custom software, you may feel like Gilligan!

You will be isolated so don’t be like Gilligan: We believe there are valuable benefits in a community of software users with like-minded scenarios, feedback, and use cases. Think about the following benefits of being among a group of users rather than on your own software island like Gilligan and his faithful crew! A strong industry focused software system will likely have an active user group, like NiUG, the international association of iMIS users, which can help your organization find better ways to do things within the software, push for enhancements, & collaborate with others using the software.

Ongoing IT staffing needs: We have countless stories about associations hiring a developer (either internally or externally) who has left them without support, retired, or wrote the program with no documentation for the users or staff. When you buy a standard Association Management Software package it is specifically designed for the nonprofit association management space and you are entitled to the support from the company behind the product. That means you’ll have access to training, consulting, and research and development (i.e., new features and functionality) that you’ll never find in a custom program.

But, we are unique! I know there are exceptions:

Of course, there are exceptions. I have run across some associations that have been successful in developing their own in-house database software. And, I believe there are some situations where that makes sense. The idea that it could be customized to your specifications across the whole organization is compelling.

The consensus is “NO”!

Building software today internally does not make sense in most cases!

In our opinion, there are very few cases where building internally makes sense anymore. Therefore, we believe leaving it up to Bob (using Bob to refer to leading industry software developers) is a better approach than trying to go it alone (like our friend Gilligan and his faithful crew). There are simply too many good nonprofit software options for this market to go at it alone.

We founded SmartThoughts because we believe that there are no doubt challenges in finding an “exact fit” software solution for your association today. However, thorough due diligence up front it will make the difference between selecting a truly upgrade-able software solution that will grow with your organization‘s needs, and a long-term commitment with a custom software developer (internally or externally) that‘s constantly bolting on new functionality to a patchwork quilt that never quite fits your organization‘s expectations or budget. We believe there are some good options!

If you would like to discuss this topic or review the list of options together, please contact us.  Until then keep SmartThoughts in mind. 

If you are looking for new software to buy? Call SmartThoughts!


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