Monday, January 05, 2009

Supplier Acquisitions: Should You Buy Into Them or Say Bye?

In the last few years, acquisitions have increased in the charity database market: Blackbaud have acquired eTapestry (and before that, Fund-Master and AppealMaster), as well as ticketing and gift-aid systems; Systems Group bought Minerva, and then CSG bought Systems Group, and also Consensus and Care, and then IRIS bought CSG... Then ASI Europe acquired Fisk Brett and IRIS bought Donor Strategy. (And I've lost track of who originally sold the product now sold as Affiliate by RedSky IT). Not that this is unique to NFP suppliers of course; Oracle, for example, has acquired several direct competitors including Siebel, JD Edwards and PeopleSoft.

But what did this mean for the charities who originally bought these systems, or for those who might buy them or others in the future? Well, the positive spin from any acquisition is of course that it will improve investment, product development, support and, where appropriate, provide what is often called an "upgrade path" to a "better product". On the downside, you might find that any meaningful development ceases on the product you bought. Or you are encouraged to migrate to a different system in the new company which you did not buy, you do not buy into and which may not be so appropriate for your needs - and you might even find costs increase, whether directly or indirectly.

One reason for such procurements is when a smaller company who has initially developed a very good system simply can't afford to develop a replacement system when new technology dictates they really need to. As such, although the "upgrade path" is what Fund-Master and AppealMaster users received when Blackbaud acquired them, a migration path to The Raiser's Edge would have in the mid/long term definitely have been a benefit, although some AppealMaster users may not have believed that initially. And as The Raiser's Edge could quite easily manage the functionality of both systems, commercially for Blackbaud, it would not have made sense to continue to develop multiple systems.

IRIS, on the other hand, have continued to sell and support all the products they have bought (the same path which Oracle has taken, incidently). Thus, you can still buy Integra, Charisma, Care, Donor Strategy, Consensus and Profile Concept. I am not convinced as to whether this was the plan when all these companies were acquired by CSG but it seems to be the way IRIS are heading at the moment. To be fair to IRIS, there are different parts of the NFP sector which could benefit from (some of) the different packages in their stable; although in practise, I would consider some of them to be "more flagship" than others. And there is no doubt that there is considerable overlap in functionality across several of the databases.

Donor Strategy is an interesting acquisition because, at least historically, it has been oriented at the small-medium NFP organisation. I do hope IRIS keep selling the package as such because there is no doubt that this part of the sector needs good, cheaper solutions, and to replace it with a Care or Integra would be complete over-kill for such charities. IRIS are at least saying the right words for this, stating that it will "specifically extend its reach in the SME charity and membership market" and Donor Strategy's ex-MD, Jonathan Air saying it will "provide a safe future for our company". I hope so.

Whether IRIS do continue to sell, develop and support all their systems remains to be seen. I could personally see some of them merging more easily than others, and some would probably benefit as such. Not that it is necessarily easy for a supplier to simply migrate a group of their customers from one system to another. Some years ago, one major supplier in the market seriously considered purchasing their main competitor, but they ultimately decided against it because they realised that, at the time, they simply couldn't offer the same functionality in their existing product but they would not have wanted to continue to develop both systems.

Similarly to IRIS, ASI appear to have made a commitment to Fisk Brett's ProgressCRM. In a recent interview on NFP Techno, Robin Fisk confirmed that "Both iMIS and ProgressCRM co-exist under the ASI global brand" and "longer term, we will be able to plan development so that users of both packages can benefit from the same developments." As with Donor Strategy, I do hope that this is the case. ProgressCRM is an excellent product with a confirmed user-base and it would be a loss to the charity sector if it did not continue.

But if acquisition seems a harsh route as a user then consider users of DonorBase, AKC or any number of other smaller suppliers, all of whom went bust without any supplier-provided migration path to another system. And there are many companies still selling their systems but who are failing to really keep up with new technological developments and/or provide good quality support (or, some would say, even provide decent software).

So what if you are about to buy a new fundraising or membership database? Well, who knows whether any company will be bought tomorrow, or, worse, who will go bust? I would not have thought CSG would be bought but they were. Key to good procurement are issues such as due diligence on company information, considering access to the data/database, open standards and support contracts as well as points such as Escrow.

There are of course many independent suppliers still, such as ESIT, Redbourn, Saturn and Centrepoint. Will they remain independent? Time will tell.


Anonymous said...


I agree with your comments, but here at JAC we have picked up the majority of AKC Clients and we are supporting the Fundraiser and Beneficiary product as it was initially designed by Alan Owen who was the founder of AKC. We will continue to support the AKC product range for as long as the clients want to use it and we are planning enhancements to the software to allow for continued development.

As a small supplier, although we now have over 80 clients, we feel it is essential to give customers personal support in this marketplace and not to fall into the corporate support options.

Alan Owen
Managing Director
JA computer Solutions Ltd

Anonymous said...


Interesting blog. There seems to be several effective databases on the market.

In order to keep up with the competition, out of interest, what marketing stategies do they usually perform to win new business/clients? Website subscriptions, mailings etc?

Ivan Wainewright said...

Yes, most companies do standard marketing such as web sites, email broadcasts, seminars, taking stands at industry events etc.