Nonprofits and ministries have more options than ever when it comes to managing their information. Gone are the days of paper ledgers and file cabinets full of member information. These days, most churches and nonprofits are utilizing at least some digital tools to track and collate all of the information that they’re gathering. But are they doing it efficiently?
At AM, we believe that every organization is unique and should be approached with fresh eyes to determine the best tools and strategies to meet their needs. That said, we’re finding that, in almost every case, the solutions that we create with our clients fall into one of two categories. We call them “Monolithic” and “Open D.O.R.” systems.
Monolithic software systems are created specifically for you from the ground up to do everything that you need. They are websites, member databases, donation systems, marketing platforms, and more. Whatever you need, a custom-built monolithic system does it and, maybe more important, it doesn’t do anything that you DON’T need. Everything is in one place. You don’t have to worry about compatibility issues or software upgrades breaking your system because everything has been created for you by someone who knows what they’re doing. Do you have unique reporting needs? Monolithic systems will take these into account and provide exactly the data that you need when you need it.
This type of system is incredibly powerful and extremely efficient. But that power and efficiency comes at a cost. Often with monolithic systems, everything is custom coded, line by line, which can get expensive. There’s also a complexity issue. If your system is doing a lot of different things for a lot of different people, it can be confusing to navigate the admin panels. There are ways around this, of course – custom views and user-level view/edit permissions are the most common – but they also come at a cost.
You may have heard of something called “micro-services architecture” recently. MSA systems use several, separate services to create a larger, pieced-together system. This allows you to use “best in breed” applications and services. This allows you to pick and choose the tools that best fit your needs and build your system from 3rd party, pre-built, or custom-built tools. What we’re calling Open D.O.R. systems work similarly but with the added security and stability of a central database of record (or D.O.R.). A database of record is a central repository of data – a sort of grand central station for all of your information. Open D.O.R. systems leverage a database of record to integrate and connect a wide variety of separate systems while ensuring data integrity across all platforms. With an Open D.O.R. system, you have an incredible amount of flexibility and scalability. Not happy with a particular piece of software? Have you outgrown a particular system? You can swap those pieces out without having to re-create or rebuild your system. Need new functionality? You can add on and integrate new pieces of software as well. You aren’t tied to a single vendor or software provider with an Open D.O.R. system. The sheer freedom of being able to flex and move like this is astounding.
There are some downsides, however. Not every piece of software out there plays well with others. In the non-profit and church software market, in particular, this is often the case. So integrations can be difficult, to say the least. Even when systems offer an API, you are often subject to the whims of individual systems engineers who have designed their API to work the way that they think it should be used – not how YOU want to use it. Companies may also change their APIs or their software periodically without warning. When this happens, we have to re-integrate the software (best case) or sometimes, we have to scrap it altogether and find another solution. Open D.O.R. systems often require that users log into separate programs to perform specific tasks. Everything is not all in one, central location as is the case with monolithic systems. Also, while the individual tools are often VERY good at their specific job, they aren’t customized for your organization so there may be features that you just don’t need. Unused features can often be confusing when multiple systems are integrated.
WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU?
To figure out which direction you should go with your new system, you need to start with an intentional strategy process.
First, you’ll need to determine your organizational goals related to getting what you need from your data. What does success look like for you? What metrics would you like to see? What do you need your system to do? What are some milestones that should be reached along the way?
After that, you can assess your needs. What holes exist in the current process? What tools or processes can be put in place to help your staff, members, donors, and website visitors?
Next, you’ll need to list your current capabilities. What tools are you currently using to track data? Do you have a donation platform? How are you communicating with members? Can your communication tools access and share contact information from your system (email marketing, text messaging, direct mail)? Can you track user flow on your website or across multiple platforms (social media, email, online giving)? What processes are your staff already using? What is your budget? What changes are on the horizon for your organization and how much flexibility do you really need in your system?
Once you have all of these details in front of you, you can decide on a course of action that will get you to your end goals. This is what a useful strategy process should yield, and with this plan in hand, you can create an infrastructure that really fits your needs.
Want to learn more and explore how either of these approaches can impact your organization? We’d love to talk with you.