For years, this hasn't been such a relevant question, at least when purchasing packages as opposed to bespoke systems, because most new fundraising database systems were supplied by companies who either specialised in the sector or who at least had a dedicated department who did so. Of course one would find companies and individuals with more or less knowledge or experience but nearly all had some. And also you could see the evidence of some of their claims with their software.
But now with the prevalence of the newer CRM systems, this is a more poignant question. Now, in theory, any company who sells Salesforce, MS Dynamics and the like, can at least promote themselves as a partner who can provide a fundraising solution. So does that matter? What are the problems with that? Or actually, are there even benefits of using a supplier with less sector knowledge?
The reasons that a supplier's knowledge does matter are comparatively easy to identify:
- Charities are different to commercial organisations. That might sound an obvious thing to say, and in some ways it isn't 100% true for fundraising - after all, we're managing contacts, building relationships, running events and "selling" in the same way as a business is, just philanthropically. But there are of course many distinct differences and approaches - and one of the most significant is that several commercial CRM suppliers I have worked with have been amazed at the sheer breadth of activities which charities manage in comparison to their size. And thus their internal complexity increases. This isn't always a good thing of course, but it's a fact.
- Any supplier in any sector who can bring experience of working with your peers will surely add something to the project. They won't just be implementing software, but should be able to suggest ideas and approaches that have worked for other charities.
- You don't have to explain what Gift Aid is, how direct debits work, why relationship fundraising is important, who JustGiving are and so on. They will know that already. And why should you have to pay a company to teach them all that?!
- They won't try to take you down a route which isn't right for a not-for-profit organisation, or overly try to enforce their concepts from other sectors which they might believe are right but which they don't actually have experience of doing in the NFP sector.
- Many of the traditional fundraising database suppliers have ex-charity employees in their implementation and support teams, and that can be a great benefit as they can bring real-life and hands-on experience of using that system.
- All this should hopefully increase benefits, reduce risk, reduce the project timescale and as a result, keep costs down.
On the other hand, I also have to say that one of the great things which has happened primarily as a result of the newer, generic CRM systems now flooding the charity sector, is that we are getting a whole new view and different insight into charitable activities. I have been saying for years how insular we can be as a sector (myself included on occasions!) and so surely I should celebrate newer entrants with fresh thoughts and ideas?
So what can a company with less fundraising experience bring to the table?
- They can challenge a charity's pre-conceived ideas that the only way to do something is how they do it now. Okay, a fundraising-knowledgeable supplier should be able to do the same, but as more of an outsider, a company with less knowledge can ask what might seem like basic questions - and some may well be! - but some might just make us think that little bit differently and hence start to get a whole new advantage in an area.
- They will bring good business practises which some of the sector may not have followed before.
- They could bring commercial ideas to the table. This may be something of an anathema to some organisations, but for others, it might even help fundraising.
- They will have a wider knowledge of multiple sectors and industries, and be able to provide input in all sorts of ways which we might never have thought of before. I have always thought that the fundraising technology sector should be able to learn more from other businesses so this is an opportunity to do so.
- They should - the ones you invite as a possible supplier - "get CRM". And that's definitely a good thing.
I am a bit torn. I already embrace new CRM systems into the sector and I really want to embrace the suppliers with them. And some are good - some very good. But some have their issues too.
Not that the traditional fundraising database suppliers are perfect - I've worked with enough to see holes and problems with their approach, fundraising knowledge and understanding of technology.
But on balance, I still need to be shown by any "non-sector" supplier that they do know, have knowledge of or can learn about fundraising and the charity sector. I will always remain open and encourage suppliers to provide that to my clients and me, and if they can do, fantastic, they're in the melting pot. But if they can't then I need to question if working with them is going to help or hinder the fundraising database implementation.