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Selecting the best software for your development needs

For the last 15 years, Peter Graber has helped to lead the fundraising work of Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessors. Mission Network works from the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Ind. and Newton, Kan. Prior to that role, Graber spent 10 years as a computer consultant and programmer. Given his expertise in both fields, we asked him to share what he considers the most important functions of fundraising software.

If you manage a nonprofit, someone has certainly tried to sell you one kind of fundraising software or another. As the capabilities of computer hardware have expanded, as the “web” has become ubiquitous, and smart phones nearly so, fundraising software continues to adapt and offer new capabilities. With so many choices–and each with a price tag—it takes some careful consideration to determine how you want to use fundraising software in your organization.

The primary task of fundraising is to build a relationship of trust and appreciation between the organization and its supporters. And the gold standard for accomplishing this task is personal one to one interaction. Since that is only possible for a limited number of people, we engage in many other relational strategies to maximize the connection between supporter and organization. The strategies you use will depend on many factors including the size of your organization, the nature of its work, the size, demographics and geography of your supporter base and the participation of volunteers in your organization. Fundraising software can be used to enhance your productivity and increase the level of personalization you can provide in almost any situation.


At a minimum, fundraising software provides a place to store information about each donor in a way that it can be easily retrieved. Much of the time you will be working with this information in an office environment, but because development work happens at all hours of the day, sometimes across a large area, you will need access to your donor information from remote locations. As mobile devices become more capable, remote access is becoming even more robust. There is a cost, but when you are on the road half of the time, it is important that you are able to stay well connected.

While development principles remain constant across organizations, each organization is unique and often requires keeping track of special bits of information about donors that other organizations would not need. The more customizable the software, the more likely you will be able to use it effectively for these unique purposes. It is also important to consider what kind of security systems are required. Often, almost everyone in the organization needs access to the “name and address” information, but only a few need to see gifts, and fewer still, personal information.


Because you want to personalize your relationship with each donor, especially major donors, it is important that your fundraising software allows you to develop a broad and deep profile of donors through recording notes of personal visits, information about relationships, education, employment, etc. This information will be especially useful at times of staff transition when new staff members must learn to know donors quickly.

Contact records

Keeping good records of each phone call, letter, or personal visit will provide valuable information for your own reference on future contacts or for other staff members when you are gone. Contact records can remind you of the names of your donor’s children and what you talked about a year ago. They are also an excellent way to track development office productivity. Only a very limited number of people should have access to these records and they should not contain information shared by the donor in confidence.

Contact planning

One of the most important questions development people ask themselves is, “Who should I visit or call?” Out of the pool of possibilities, which contacts are most likely to result in increased funding for my organization? The answer to this question is a complex mix of factors including:

• the timing of the last contact,

• the history of giving,

• the size of gift,

• the potential for increased giving,

• the presence of a planned gift,

• etc.

A very good use of donor software is the ability to view this information on a range of donors in a way that the most important potential contacts are apparent. At my organization, we select donors that meet a set of criteria and export a large set of information to a spread sheet. Logic within that spreadsheet then categorizes donors based on the information supplied. In addition to automatically highlighting key contacts, it allows the user to look more closely at the donor’s attributes and history to make a judgment about the need for a contact.

Recording and receipting gifts

Another major purpose of fundraising software is to record gifts. Of course the finance office can easily record the date and amount of gifts, but for effective tracking, much more needs to be included. You will need to be able to track memorial or “in honor of” gifts, gift designations, pledges, recurring gifts, matching gifts, on-line gifts, estate gifts and gifts of stock or other assets. None of this is simple and all of it requires the participation of finance staff as well as development staff.

Whatever system you use, it must be capable of receiving and receipting a gift within 48 hours so that a timely acknowledgement can be sent to the donor. If practical, I recommend that the receipting be done by development staff who is more in touch with donor communication issues than the finance staff. Finance staff often records the gifts and makes the bank deposits and the development staff uses these records to produce the receipts and other acknowledgments.


You will often want to communicate with your donors as a group rather than individually. Good use of software will allow you to do a mass mailing (electronic or paper) in as personal a way as possible. It will allow you to:

• select and combine groups based on a variety of characteristics,

• format names as donors have requested,

• mark records as to who has received what mailings and

• include personal information such as recent giving.


Once you have collected a significant amount of information in your database, you will have many options for reviewing this information. Most systems come with 100 or more standard reports and you can usually customize many more. One of the most difficult decisions will be to decide what information you want to track on a regular basis and how often you want to review the reports. While many different reports are interesting, not as many are actually useful. You should ask yourself what will actually make a difference in your decision making and when is that information needed?

Action tracking

Most fundraising software now has action tracking as an option. This lets you make a note about what needs to happen next with each donor, usually as part of recording the contact. That note can then be stored and you will be reminded at the time you have selected for that next step to be initiated. You are also able to look ahead and see how many calls, visits, and other follow up steps you have scheduled for yourself in the next week, month, etc. If the software is well integrated, the planned action can easily be turned into a contact report when it is completed.

Other uses

In addition to these primary uses of development software, there are many additional uses that may apply to your development environment.

• Events – If you plan donor events, there is software to help with invitations, registration, nametags, etc.

• If you use volunteers, there is software that helps you to manage volunteers by recording their skills and availability, hours worked, leadership tasks, etc.

• Donor research – Many companies now provide donor research, giving you information about people’s interests, past giving and capacity. Some of these are separate services and some are integrated into donor software packages.

• Planned giving – Encouraging planned giving is one of the most important tasks of development staff. Planned giving software allows you to produce illustrations specific to the people you are visiting. It is not a substitute for understanding planned giving, but an excellent tool that has proven effective in moving people towards planned giving decisions.


Once you have fundraising software installed, it is important that you make good decisions about how to use it. Without a good training program, you are likely to never really use your investment to its full potential. Training will allow you to explore the ways you can search and sort and manipulate information. It is then up to you to choose how to use the software to best enhance your relationships. Some of us are tempted to get lost in all the nifty things we can do and lose focus on our primary objective, building relationships. Training doesn’t end when the software is installed. Users need regular training to keep expanding their knowledge and proficiency. New users need hands-on training so they can become productive as quickly as possible.

In conclusion

Using fundraising software well is a complex undertaking. I have a few rules that help me deal with this complexity:

• Start with the most important functions and add more as you go.

• Remember that people are the most important resource and have no patience for software that wastes their time or fails to provide them with good information arranged in a usable way.

• Don’t scrimp on training. It does not save money in the long run.

• Insist on great training by people who know the business, not just the software, and who are good teachers, not just good salespeople.

• Keep reevaluating how you are using the software, that the information you record is truly useful and that you are actually using it to inform your work.

• The cost of software is not necessarily an indication of its quality.

Those of us old enough to remember the days before computers realize that while it would be more difficult to do development without our computer systems, it could still be done, and done well. Fundraising software should not require you to compromise good practices in order to fit into the requirements of the software; rather, it should enable you to engage in good development practices in an efficient manner.