4 tips for minimizing risk when selecting a donor management system

Infrastructure. For most folks, the topic is about as exciting as underwear. No one wants to talk about infrastructure, let alone pay for it. But ignore infrastructure, and you doom your best laid plans for fundraising success to failure.

Topping the list of infrastructure essentials – just after budget and staff – is your donor management system. By this I mean something other than a stack of index cards stuffed in a development officer’s shirt pocket or purse. Or more than an excel spreadsheet – as cutting-edge as that technology seemed a few decades back. I’m referring to a software package or web-based product designed specifically to help fundraisers raise more funds.


The right donor management system facilitates your understanding of donors, their giving patterns and preferences, and their responsiveness to various fundraising strategies. With a few key strokes, you can segment, analyze, and communicate with whole groups of supporters. The right system keeps you in touch and on target with your best prospects. In short, a donor management system is essential to nurturing donor relationships and growing givers’ hearts.

However, finding a system that’s right for your organization can seem an overwhelming task. All the more so if you’re short on time and worried about costs — and what nonprofit leader isn’t one or both these days? But procrastination won’t get you to your fundraising goals. For that, you need easy access to reliable information — now.


There are no sure-fire shortcuts to selecting a donor management system, but following these four tips can help ratchet down your stress and reduce the financial risks in the choosing.

1. Define your needs. The first step in the selection process isn’t a Google search or frantic calls to other nonprofits. Begin instead by bringing together everyone who has a stake in good donor information — including your CEO — to discuss what a donor management system can and should do for you. Compile the comments and then invite a hard-nosed assessment of the listed features. The goal is to separate the essential from the would-be-nice.

Questions to ask in defining needs:

  • What information do you seek most often about your supporters?
  • In recent contacts with donors, what information did you wish you would have had, but didn’t?
  • When preparing for a mailing, what’s the process of list creation and/or retrieval?
  • Are you able to track donor giving patterns within a given fiscal year and longitudinally?

2. Shop to your needs. There’s no end to the bells and whistles that can come with a donor management system, but  I’ve yet to meet a development team that maximizes all the fancy stuff. For the majority of small to mid-size nonprofits, it’s enough if the system tracks contact information and call reports, records gifts, pledges, and correspondences, and lets you run basic reports.

Hint: If off-site access to the database is important to you, a hosted online tool might be a good choice. These packages, available to users over the internet for a monthly fee, are built to work “out-of-the-box” without a large upfront investment. And good news — these programs are typically easy to learn.

3. Think about the future. The donor management system you select is for today and tomorrow. In addition to the needs of your fundraising as it now is, you want a system that will support development efforts yet to come. So think longer term, using your organization’s strategic plan and long-range fundraising ambitions to guide you. Look for a donor management system that lets you add features, modules, and training as you grow.

Questions with a future focus:

  • Is there the possibility of a capital campaign in your future?
  • Do you hope to introduce a planned giving program within a few years?
  • Can the system you are considering grow as your fundraising program grows?

4. Invest in training. The value of a donor management system is in the using. Sounds obvious, I know. However, I regularly bump into otherwise smart people who pay good money for their right product, only to skimp on training.  It’s essential that you include staff training in the implementation calendar and budget. Unless learning the new system is a priority, you might as well stick with what you’re using.

Look for vendors who offer online training modules (and almost all do). This is an especially helpful feature as new staff join your team. Look, as well, for companies that have a reputation for excellent customer service and tech support (not all do).

If a donor management system is in your organization’s future, I hope these four tips help you in the choosing. And never mind if some folks yawn when you mention the topic. They’ll thank you later for taking time on infrastructure now.

For more on the topic of infrastructure:

Betting long on donor acquisition

Can I have a cheer for (appropriate) overhead?

Conventional wisdom or self-fulfilling prophecy

Is your fundraising program punching above or below weight?









  1. Rebekah, this is a great job of summarizing some of the important considerations in choosing software. For organizations who must raise funds, specialized software is becoming an imperative. Part of the challenge is that, for many organizations, managing technology is difficult. Knowing what to look for in order to identify good software is not obvious, and many organizations lack expertise in this area. The marketing strategies of software companies understandably emphasize what’s good about their products, and sales persons and company web sites know how to promote the positive and avoid the negative. You can find out a lot about the “real story” by doing web searches, but to tell the truth, there is so much vested interest in web search engines, and so much bias in the content you find, it is difficult to get a good picture of a particular software solution that may interest you.

    These kinds of decisions are important. They are often costly, and the functionality they represent can often spell the difference between paying for themselves or not — and sometimes spell the difference between the success and failure of an enterprise.

    If you can afford it, and you don’t have the in-house expertise, your organization should consider finding an independent party with experience in selecting software. Specific experience with donor management software is a plus. The main goal is to augment your in-house strengths with external, unbiased advice using someone who is strong technologically, who can help you sort out the issues that may not be obvious.

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