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Choosing a Low-Cost Donor Management System

Laura S. Quinn

Donors are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. You need them to survive. But how do you manage your donors' contribution information -plus all the personal details key to maintaining successful relationships -for a price that won't break the bank?

Donor management systems abound, ranging from the basic tools to ones that offer all sorts of additional features and functionality. Costs vary as well -you'll find systems for every budget size. There are so many choices, in fact, that the challenge is not so much to find one that might work but to understand which one is likely to be the best fit.

Idealware, in partnership with NTEN, recently took a detailed look at 33 lower-cost systems -defined as under $4250 for the first year -in their Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems. This guide encompasses a vast range of systems and prices. Some of these systems cost the full $4250 per year; others cost only a few hundred dollars. Some systems are full-featured; others are stripped down and simple.

Below, you'll find an excerpt from the guide's section on selecting the best system for your needs. You can download the full report for more detail here.

Seven Tips for Choosing the Right System

How should you narrow down the choices and focus on the packages likely to work best for you? There are a number of important considerations:


1. Don't over-prioritize price.

First off, don't let minor differences in price be a big factor in your decision-making. Saving money is important to every nonprofit, but a few hundred dollars shouldn't dictate your fundraising future. Instead, factor in the time you'll save by using a more efficient system -for instance, simply being able to more easily print customized letters and send emails can save a lot of time. And better communications, more information about your donors and campaigns, and more support for effective prospecting -paired, of course, with an effective fundraising strategy -can help bring in thousands of dollars more a year even for small organizations. Which means the system pays for itself over time.


2. Make a plan for all your constituents and interactions.

Donors are just one piece of the puzzle. Think through all the people your organization interacts with on a day-to-day basis -and all the ways you interact with them, both online and off. Then make a plan for how you'll track data about them. Ideally, you'd be able to see an all-in-one-place overview of everything a person does with your organization. This might mean tracking all the data in one system, or being able to integrate data from multiple systems together. But don't purchase a donor management system without understanding how it will fit into the larger picture.


3. Understand your own donor processes.

Some organizations use very specific fundraising processes. Others are more experimental. It's important to understand how you work in order to assess a system's fit. Do you want to be able to move prospects carefully through a series of stages and priorities? Is it important to be able to flexibly query to find any set of potential prospects under the sun? Do you need a lot of prepackaged reports, or would you rather be able to create your own? There are lots of good systems, but better understanding your own needs can help you find the system that's best-suited to you.


4. Identify your communication priorities.

The systems vary considerably in their support for creating mail-merged letters and sending email. Some are only really good at one of these. Others fare poorly at both. Think through your needs in this area and determine what's important to you. (Keep in mind, though, that very few of these systems support broadcast emailing as robustly as even inexpensive specialist systems in these areas like VerticalResponse or ConstantContact. It may be more cost-effective and efficient to use such an external program in tandem with your system.)


5. Estimate your numbers now -and in the future.

How many donors do you plan to store in the system? How many staff members will be using it, now and three years from now? The cost structures vary a lot between different systems, so one that is cheap now might not be if you double your number of donors. One that's a bit of stretch now could turn into a wise investment if it easily scales to support many more donors and users with little extra cost.


6. Weigh flexibility versus complexity.

It can be tempting to prioritize a system that allows you to continue to work in exactly the way you always have -and the flexibility to add custom fields and custom interactions can be useful. But often, a new system provides a great opportunity to rationalize and streamline your process, and potentially bring it closer to existing best practices. If you can map your process to standard practices, you'll likely be able to use a cheaper and less complex system.


7. Consider the priority of accounting control.

Some of the systems offer very little in the way of features to reconcile your gifts with your accounting systems. Others require you to consider accounting batches, or even accounting funds, every time anyone enters a gift. Some offer a mix, or can be set up how you want. What will work best for you?


A Solution Tailored to Your Needs

The tips outlined above, along with other information in our detailed Consumers Guide, will help you understand the available tools and narrow your search to a handful of options. As we note in the guide, you'll want to take a careful look at those systems yourself before making a final decision. Think through your needs carefully -which of the features described are critical for you? Which are only nice to have, or not useful for your organization? What other features, which aren't discussed here, might be useful?

With that list of important features in hand, contact the vendors and ask for demos. Ask them to show you exactly the features you consider important. Consider giving them a script which walks through the tasks you'd like to see demoed -for example, "I add a gift to the system, and then create a thank you letter." This can be very useful to help compare different systems to each other.

Study the system carefully -does it seem like something your staff can, and will, use? Does it mesh well with the type of fundraising you do? If it feels like the system or the vendor just doesn't "get it," that's an important sign that the system isn't the right fit for you.

There are a lot of good products available, and each option has its own strengths and weaknesses. It doesn't matter how good a particular system is if it doesn't fit your organization's needs. With these considerations in mind, and some careful research, you can find a system that will help you be more efficient and effective fundraiser.


*This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to

** Image: Money Coins Donate Moneybox Cash Metal, Pixabay