Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Raiser's Edge: Why does one person like it and the next hate it?

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I have recently been talking to several charities who use The Raiser's Edge. And it seems to me that whenever you gather together a group of fundraisers, throw in a few charity DBAs (and a pinch of technology consultants), and start talking about The Raiser's Edge, then, almost inevitably, some of the group will sing its praises and others will slate it and tell you it’s rubbish. But why? It’s the same software being used at the different charities (possible version differences aside), with the same functionality (modules aside) and surely all organisations could use it the same way? So why then, if one person loves it, does the next person find it just doesn’t work for their charity.

At this point, I should offer a clarification and a caveat on this blog post: To clarify, I have used The Raiser’s Edge in the title of this blog because it is used so widely in the sector and thus you inevitably get more people discussing it and therefore liking and disliking it. It is one of the more long-standing products on the market and fundraisers have inevitably heard of it. However, most of the points in this article could equally apply to any other similar fundraising, membership or CRM database package.

Secondly, the caveat is that such a question cannot be answered truly comprehensively in a brief blog post. Each of the points below could justify their own post (or set of posts!) and far more discussion. And of course there can be specific reasons why a database does not work for a specific charity. But because I am asked this or similar questions regularly, and because I really want to encourage charities to consider and understand the fundamental issues so they don’t immediately blame Blackbaud or similar suppliers, I hope this initial post will provide a fair and useful overview and supply the start of the answer.

So here are a few suggestions as to why we love to love or have to hate The Raiser's Edge:
  • Data. I have been fortunate to have done quite a few data audits of Raiser’s Edge installations and the data in the system is one of the most important factors in the success of its implementation. Data Quality (accuracy, integrity, consistency, use of look-up tables etc) is key, the data needs to be up-to-date (a classic hate for fundraisers), the breadth of data (or lack of it) within constituent records affects data quality, as does the relevance of data and the trust which fundraisers put in the data which is stored on the database – all these are vital components. Too often I hear words along the lines, “we don’t believe the data in the database is correct or up-to-date”. The time which Raiser’s Edge has been used at an organisation is another factor in this - the data may well have been excellent when it was first implemented but over the years it has deteriorated. That happens, and often it is the poor database which is blamed. Data is the foundation of all good databases and if there are problems with the data then it doesn’t matter how good or bad the database software is.
  • Set-up and configuration for your charity – during initial implementation and thereafter. The Raiser's Edge is a sophisticated but quite complex database to learn, even more so to use optimally. And how you use it, how it is configured, where you store data, how you use the “cornerstone” codes and so on can seriously affect how good the implementation is. Codes such as Constituent Codes, Fund and Appeal codes, Action Types (horribly abused in some systems I’ve seen) attributes and so on all need careful attention. And continual attention – if such tables grow uncontrollably they can become unwieldy and unusable. And where you store specific data items - attributes or ‘cons codes’, Appeals tab or Actions, etc – can fundamentally affect the usability.
  •  Your Raiser’s Edge Database Manager. For a starter, you need one. Don’t try without. And a good RE database manager is worth their weight in gold: a good database manager not only understands the software, how to use it, what it can do and so on, but can also understand or learn your business, operations and needs and can apply all that information to the implementation so that it bring huge benefits to your charity. I don’t believe that Raiser’s Edge database managers need to be extraordinarily technical people (although a solid technical understanding is very useful) - far more important to me is that they can apply your fundraising requirements to your fundraising software. Give me a business expert with some database knowledge who can learn the system over a ‘pure’ RE database manager.
  • Training, procedures, user guides. Again, it doesn’t matter how good or bad your software is, if your users aren’t trained then how can they be expected to use the database to its best potential? And ideally, good procedures and user guides to back-up the training are a key element to the success of the database. (Anyone actually have a data dictionary..?) And please keep them up-to-date…
  • Hardware and IT infrastructure. Probably one of the most common complaints I hear about The Raiser's Edge, or any database is, “It’s so slow…” Now of course this could be how the database has been designed by the software supplier, but if one implementation runs fine and the next does not, even with similar record numbers, then that is less likely. Just as likely (more likely?) is that your server or PCs are not of the recommended specification, your network performance needs investigation/optimisation or the IT infrastructure for your remote offices is not sufficient for the database.
  • Applicability to your organisation. This is one area where it is feasible that The Raiser's Edge may not be the right database for you. If you are a small organisation with few records or a huge organisation with many millions of records, then The Raiser's Edge may not always be the most applicable. Blackbaud, understandably, will show that RE can help small organisations and that even RE7 can manage millions of records (although their next generation Infinity platform will be better for that), but it is feasible that other solutions could be more applicable. This is of course one point which is completely organisation-specific. It can also be the case that over the years your requirements have changed so that The Raiser's Edge may not meet your current requirements whereas it did originally.
  • Blackbaud-specific likes: The Raiser's Edge is generally good quality software, it has good querying tools, and is especially useful for non-technical users; and Blackbaud offer great longevity as a company and have produced many upgrades over the years and with exciting propositions for the future. Users like the software and the company for that. It has many charities using it so you get a good user community.
  • Blackbaud-specific hates: Hmm, this really can be a favourite topic for some fundraisers and database managers! (And I’ve certainly had my own gripes over the years…)  As mentioned above, The Raiser's Edge is sophisticated but complex software (in fact, “The Raiser's Edge is so complex…” is probably the number one ‘complaint’ I hear about it) and it does need time and dedication. So if you don’t have people who can put in the time, or that is not your organisation’s requirement then it can be understandable why people don’t like it. RE7 can be quite prescriptive and in some ways it is less flexible than other companies’ offerings in terms of screen layouts, customised fields etc (unless one uses their VBA/API tools), and I personally believe that for the first time recently, RE7 is starting to show its age in that way compared to newer alternatives on the market. Equally, Blackbaud themselves are a large company and not everyone’s cup of tea, support has been up-and-down over the years (it has many clients and some users complain of feeling a small fish in a big pond) and users do relate to previous bad experiences. And it is not cheap. It certainly isn’t the most expensive solution on the market but there are very good, less costly alternatives for small organisations.
So if you are using The Raiser's Edge and you are finding it is not doing what you want it to do, then do consider the above points before you look for an alternative.


Graham Hewitt said...

Hi Ivan, Nice work. This presents a well reasoned and balanced view and as you say many of the points could apply to any similar database.

Graham Hewitt
Sales Manager, ESiT

Paul Morriss said...

Those are some very good points about RE. I've been an RE database manager for 10 years. When I encounter a negative reaction I point out how complex it is. I think the problem in the UK market is that there is nothing mature that is a degree less complex, if RE is over the top for what one needs. There was something, which I can't remember the name of, but then Blackbaud bought them out.

I hear about other alternatives, but as I think RE fits what we need, I haven't investigated.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Ivan. I been a senior admin then onto database manager for an international development charity for the last ten years and I have worked with the organisation through two databases.

We started with Appeal Master which was sold to Blackbaud around 2002 / 03. As users / customers we had the option of Raisers Edge being given to us for free, which we took.

We had great support in the switch as we were one of 10 test cases and luckily for us it went fairly smooth although we were left with some redundant data we could not re-map, not a great loss but a pain no less.

I can happily say Raisers Edge has been an amazing tool for us. But I like your post saying every organisations needs a database manager, I agree being one. But due to cuts there plan is to do away with a database manager post and hope to manage Raiser Edge with a person doing public fundraising work.

I know this will lead to problems which I have tired to explain to them, not only time constraints but knowledge will be lost. Bad data, bad results.

Ivan Wainewright said...

Jason, thanks for your comment; that's a great shame to hear that your organisation is not keeping a dedicated database manager. As you know, in my opinion that is heading for "data disaster"...

Jason said...

Hi Ivan I thought I would post back after all these changes. We have had hours cut, I am now on a 4 day week. We have had staff reduced and I had a choice of going with the flow of losing a my job. Well work is not exactly flowing fast so I took what there was on offer. Still looking but the data is suffering, I am doing lots of basic work with fundraising and not really using my skills to the best. Currently finishing off the DD system I set up for so we can import and export this to a 3rd party using RE all going ok but this is my last big job as database manager, from now on I am doing database officer work really.

Best wishes


Lakura said...

My pet hates with RE?

- it doesn't necessarily does what it says on the tin. BB user forums are packed with tips on "how to make RE do what it should but it doesn't". Yet to my disbelief, these are normally accompanied by a "aw, such a nice software". Weird.

- it costs so much that any expansion could actually pay for a whole project. Not nice.

Lisa Lane said...

Hi Ivan -

This is a great summary of the love/hate relationship so many users have with RE and other Blackbaud products. Understanding what implementation, training and governance of these tools take is sometimes difficult to grasp. We offer a white paper that covers some basic points for nonprofits to consider BEFORE they sign on the dotted line. It's called 5 Things You Need to Know About Blackbaud's "Edge" Products: http://www.beyondnines.com/independent-voices/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-blackbauds-edge-products/

One of the most important ah-ha moments for nonprofits is that they don't have to have BB do implementation and training.

Unknown said...

Great post. I love highlighting the importance of the implementation and user guides/standards as a make-or-break to loving or hating RE (or any system for that matter). Poor implementation requirements and guides can ruin a system for years and be more costly in the long-run to "fix" what could have been avoided, and I think that a lot of the RE/CRM hate that has become so popular lately.

Paul Morriss, I believe the system you were thinking of is eTapestry, which is meant for the smaller nonprofs - it should still be available, though I don't honestly know if it is available in the UK.