February 20, 2021

What's the Best Software for My Nonprofit or Small Business?

If only we had a nickle for every time one of our clients asked "What's the best software for my nonprofit or small business?" We belong to several online communities for nonprofit and small business leaders. Some of the most common tech-related questions are:

  • What is the best software for task management (or accounting or tracking hours or online auctions, etc.)?
  • Has anyone tried [insert software]? What did you think?
  • I’m frustrated with [insert software]. What else should I consider?

Obviously, X could mean anything from payroll, accounting, volunteer hours tracking, board management, client data management, CRM, online courses, sales, inventory, document management, task management, project management, and grant management. Did we leave anything out?

Wine, anyone?

Asking what is the best software is like asking what is the best bottle of wine. You’re going to get many different answers at many different prices. You could ask the salesman at your favorite wine store, but he may try to sell you the most expensive bottle when the $10 merlot just might be the best fit for your palate. Asking a colleague might be helpful, but she only drinks rosé and that’s not your thing. You could just close your eyes and point to any $20 bottle and hope it’s the right one for you, but that’s risky.

The best option would be to call your friend, the Sommelier, who graduated from a wine school, reads wine books, takes numerous wine courses, works as a waiter, and tastes at least 10 wines a week. She can probably help you find the perfect bottle, right? And she’ll do so by asking you a few precise questions.

So, who is the best person to turn to when you need software product advice? It’s likely a computer science expert with years of practical experience. You may not know someone yet and that’s OK. We’re here to help you make the best decision by starting with a few precise questions. Grab a glass of wine, pen and paper, and let’s get started!

A Step By Step Guide to Choosing the Best Software

Software isn’t something you pick out for fun (most of the time anyway). Typically, there is a reason and that’s where we’re going to start.

Step 1

Ask Yourself: What problem am I trying to solve? What need am I trying to meet?

Write this down and fill in the blanks:
I can’t do _________ (function) because of _____________ (barrier).

Step 2

Ask Yourself: Why is it a problem or need?

Software is designed to simply store, retrieve, and process information. It doesn’t actually fix an inefficient process or problems created by people. For example, a software will not know whether errors were made by the person entering data into its system. The result is bad data that is not the fault of the software. If bad processes are not resolved prior to beginning your software search, you may end up wasting time and money on an unnecessary solution.

To get to the root of the cause of your problems, begin by writing down the following statement and filling in the blanks. Repeat this step 3 to 5 times until you get to the actual root cause.

  1. I have a problem because ________________________________________________.
  2. My answer to #1 is a problem because ___________________________________.
  3. My answer to #2 is a problem because ___________________________________.
  4. My answer to #3 is a problem because ___________________________________.
  5. My answer to #4 is a problem because ___________________________________.

Watch this YouTube video on the 5 Whys Explained for more information about root cause analysis.

Step 3

Ask Yourself: How will this software solve the problem? What MUST it do to make our lives better? What would we LIKE it to do to make our lives better?

Now it’s time to put together a list of “functional requirements” or things you need the software to do. Add to your list characteristics like price, nonprofit discounts, and whether it’s compatible with other software tools you are currently using.

Here’s a sample chart to help you get started:

SoftwareAnnual Price (including discounts)Can we easily import our data?Can we customize the dashboard?Does it work with Paypal?

Step 4

Make a list of potential software products that meet most of your requirements in Step 3.

This is where you can ask your Facebook buddies for help. Be specific, but keep it simple. This is also where sites like alternativeto.net come in handy. Gather 5 to 10 options. Then, visit each of the software websites and gather the information you need to fill in your chart. Likely, a few will fall off your list for obvious reasons.

Step 5

Of the remaining software on your list, pick your top three.

You can do this individually or get your team to vote. Sign up for a free trial for all three and run through a quick exercise of the most important items on your list. Test how easily it integrates with your current tools and how easy it is to add your team as users. Then, delegate some additional basic testing to your team. Be mindful of the skill level of your team and take note of any major learning curves. After about an hour of use by your team, gather their feedback.

Step 6

Out of those top three, declare a “winner” and do a one-week trial run.

This is where you really put it through the paces. You’ll import your data and begin using the software regularly.

Here are some follow-up questions to ask yourself.

  • Does the process fit well with the configurations of the software?
  • Does it match all the functions you need in a way that makes sense?

If you answered “no” or “kind of” to either of the questions above, begin the process of talking through issues with the software company or reach out to someone you know who is using the software in a similar way. If there is a feature missing, you may consider a customized solution. First, consider the value of having this feature added. For example, if a $1,000 customization means saving 20 hours per month of staff time, it’s probably worth it.

If at this point, you’ve hit a roadblock, let’s chat!

If you answered “yes” to the questions above, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Step 7

Commit for a defined period of time.

This is where you commit to using your new software for 1 to 3 months; no cheating allowed! After some time has passed, reevaluate with your team by answering the following questions.

  • What's working?
  • What's not working?
  • What should be changed?

If the issues are manageable, make some changes, and keep going. If you get the sense you are dealing with numerous impossible issues, it’s time to return to step 5 and select another software.

Step 8

Commit for 1 to 2 years.

At this point, you’ve ironed out many issues and are ready to commit for a longer period. Software should always be reevaluated with your team every couple of years because the industry and product lines change frequently. It’s important to also keep an open line of communication with the software company. Most software companies develop new features, based on the needs of their clients. So, just keep asking for that new feature you really want!

If your organization outgrows your current software (and it just might), don’t be afraid to start this process all over again.

Remember these quick tips when searching for a new software:
  1. Set up your organization for success by solving the process, people, and purpose problems first.
  2. Make sure the software integrates well or “talks to” your other software tools.
  3. It should integrate well with your team and require a minimal learning curve.
  4. It should hopefully reduce and definitely not increase your team’s workload.
  5. You and your team should feel confident about this new long-term commitment.

Finally, we want you to know we’re here for you. This is what we do.

We simplify the complex technology and software issues so you can quickly make an informed decision and get back to running your nonprofit like the superhero you are!

On the other hand, if you need help picking out wine, we’re not the right people for that.

Blue Tree exists to help nonprofits and small businesses set clear, life-giving strategy and turn it into action.

Lead From Hope  |  Delight in your Data  |  Grow Your Impact

Helping big-hearted organizations build greater capacity for impact since 2017.