Early conversations with software vendors can make or break your nonprofit technology project. Knowing the right steps to take can help you select the appropriate software—and avoid timeline and budget surprises in the implementation.
How can you encourage the most valuable software demo and information-gathering process possible? How does the RFP factor in? What are the best ways for you and your future software vendor to get on the same page?
Note: this post deals mainly with mid-to-large complexity software selections. If you’re investigating smaller turnkey software for your nonprofit, simply taking the software for a test drive might be sufficient to learn if it is right for you.
As we’ve guided nonprofits in their technology strategy and software selection projects, we’ve helped set them up for great results with software vendors. And we’ve learned many lessons in the process.
Tips for successfully navigating first vendor conversations
1) Communicate clear expectations. Your advance preparation internally will be critical here. You lay the groundwork for a great first conversation, an RFP response, and/or software demo by determining and prioritizing your organization’s top requirements. Communicate these highest priorities to the vendor, and be as specific as you can. This advance prep can also help narrow the competition early on—if a potential software solution doesn’t support one of your organizational must-haves, don’t consider them further.
Our article Selecting Nonprofit Software: Technology Comes Last lays out a strategic process to pursue before settling on software.
2) Use the power of competition. Gather multiple bids if possible to get a range of project estimates. Having several bids is especially useful if the software you want is implemented by multiple consulting firms. They may use very different processes and configurations, which will result in very different costs to implement. But don’t take more than 2-3 vendors to the proposal and demo stage—carefully reviewing more options will result in an exhausting process and provide little additional benefit.
3) Be respectful of vendors’ time. RFP responses (proposals) take a lot of work, and good, comprehensive demos tailored to a specific nonprofit’s needs can last a few hours and take even longer to prepare for. Only ask for a demo if you think a software vendor or consulting firm is a legitimate contender that meets your requirements. If you’re on the fence about something, it’s okay to get a brief demo beforehand. But make it clear you will want a more in-depth demo later.
4) Let vendors show you something unexpected. Ultimately, a nonprofit technology implementation, especially a complex one, is a partnership. Make sure any demo focuses on your top features and capabilities. But be open to vendors showing you something related that you may not have thought of. Let them show off a little, while still clearly prioritizing what’s important to your organization. You may discover some valuable additional features. But watch out for a demo that is all about extra bells and whistles. If it can’t meet your main requirements in a straightforward manner, added complexity isn’t going to help your users adopt it.
5) Be wary of “boilerplate” software implementations. Some software vendors recommend what’s called a “best practice” or “boilerplate” implementation. They will ask for you to fill out a worksheet to explain your needs, then they will fit you into what their software can do. But most of the time, it’s hard to address your organization’s specific needs with this type of software implementation. More likely it’ll be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
6) Be prepared to collaborate on estimates. Be aware that the total cost of ownership (TCO) is typically not just software implementation, but also initial and ongoing training, licensing, and support. Have a frank conversation with the software vendor about these elements as well as other possible costs. Vendors can also underestimate the amount of time it takes to make decisions during implementation. If you think they’ve underestimated some factor, call it out. The more detailed you can be about your organization, staff experience, and timing, the better. However, vendors still won’t be able to anticipate everything: see the bonus tip, below.
Discuss the licenses needed during the early part of the implementation when you will have only a few users in the system (for design and testing purposes)—or when rolling out to user groups in waves. Purchasing licenses right before they are actually needed can save your organization big budget costs. See our article on licensing costs on how to be assertive with a vendor who may be used to selling all the licenses at the very beginning of the implementation. If you don’t need the full set of user licenses until launch, don’t buy them ahead of time.
Bonus tip: after you’ve made your selection
7) Expect a vendor discovery process, and budget accordingly. To develop a fully accurate estimate, the software vendor you select will likely need to go into greater depth with your organization to take your requirements to the next level of detail. This happens in the first phase of your nonprofit technology implementation project, in what is typically referred to as the “discovery” or “design” process. For this reason, it’s critical to have a significant contingency fund, as total estimated costs often expands within this phase.
Working with a software vendor and/or technology consultant requires a lot of give and take. Look at it as a potential partnership and a conversation. And look for alignment in their work style as well as their product.
Our recent webinar Ask the Experts: Selecting Nonprofit Software has even more tips to guide your organization’s technology selection.