We’re Answering Your FAQs on System Selection

Shannon Abitbol


Shannon has over 15 years of experience working with nonprofits in areas of operations, technology solutions, and fundraising. Her areas of specialty include system needs analysis, systems assessment, systems selection, business process documentation, and change management.
March 16, 2023

In our recent webinar, System Selection: Find the Right Solution for Your Nonprofit, my colleague Kate Mead and I shared some important considerations in the decision to replace a system, or set of systems, and why it is important to have a process. Having a process helps to ensure that you keep the end goal in mind and stay focused on getting there. Most importantly, a defined process can help team members feel included, increase their buy-in to the decision, and keep everyone on track.

We made the analogy that selecting a new system is kind of like choosing a house—you want to make sure you get what you need, and aren’t distracted by the shiny features. To help with this, we’re answering some of the most frequently asked questions we received.

How long does a system selection take?

Ideally, an organization would plan ahead for a system selection. You don’t want to be forced to make a shift because your system isn’t working. In this ideal scenario, there is a benefit to advanced planning. An ideal timeline would look like this:

  • Start with assessing your needs and documenting the requirements. This will take one to two months to refine, then turning it into an RFP can take another few weeks.
  • It is best to give the vendors four weeks to respond to your RFP. You’ll need to leave at least two weeks to read their responses and consider who to ask for a demonstration of their product.
  • Demonstrations and selection may take another month.

From start to finish, the process can take up to four to six months total, depending on the size of your organization, and whether you have planned staff time to focus on this project sequentially or need to spread out the tasks over a longer period.

What should the RFP include for a system selection?

The RFP document is the place to describe yourself to the vendor, what you really need in a system, what systems you currently have—and most importantly, why you are ready to make a change. We recommend including:

  • An introduction, to give an overview of your organization—your mission, vision, and strategic goals.
  • An overview of the process to include timing, deadlines, contacts at your organization, and the window for vendor questions about your request.
  • A detailed requirements list, including a thorough description of your system needs by department, and overall requirements for database administration and general use of the system. For example: Do you need the system to work on mobile devices? Do you need a system that has single sign-on (SSO)? Do you need to process gift acknowledgements within 24 hours? More detailed requirements might relate to the ability to communicate with your constituents from the database, storing communication history, and tracking related follow-ups.
  • Requirements for submission is your chance to be clear about what the vendors need to include (pricing summary, detailed response to your requirements) and how they need to submit the response to you.

What are some examples of translating a business need to a system requirement?

Translating a list of the things you do in a day at your organization into a system requirement is an important step in the system selection process. It isn’t enough to say you need the system to be able to email your constituents. Be more descriptive about exactly what you mean to make sure that you stay focused on getting the best system for your needs. You’ll also want to make sure that you aren’t losing any functionality that you already have, while also thinking clearly about the functionality that would better support you. Thinking about communications in a system, here are a few examples of a system requirement:

  • System must provide a master calendar of all scheduled campaigns that is visible to all users.
  • System must provide the ability to preview emails before sending.
  • System email tool must support A/B testing.
  • System email tool must support the creation of personalized communications through conditional content.
  • System must store the interaction date, type, and details of the specific contact.

After you write the requirements, create a column to categorize them as “must have,” “should have” or “could have,” where these categories denote what you cannot live without, and what might be on the wish list. You might end up with somewhere between 20-100 requirements for each department, depending on their needs. Don’t underestimate the importance of the clarity that outlining these requirements will bring. It might open the conversation about functions and tasks, but most importantly, it will make sure that you are clear about what you need before you are distracted by the details in the RFP responses.

What are some demo script examples?

Continuing from the example communication requirements above, this is how you might ask a vendor to demonstrate what you need in a system:

  1. Demonstrate the email marketing tools within the system, or how the CRM integrates with third-party email tools.
    • Give an overview of the master communication calendar. Can it be segmented and viewed by communication date and type?
    • Demonstrate the creation of an email to all volunteers, including scheduling the send for a later date and A/B testing capabilities.
    • Demonstrate how to incorporate fields from the CRM system to insert into email messaging for personalization.
  2. Demonstrate how staff can set up automated emails, which can be sent regularly without staff intervention.
    • Two days prior to a program, email all ticket buyers a reminder about their upcoming program.
    • The day after a program, email all attendees a survey asking how they enjoyed it. Show how the system can identify registrants who did not attend and send them a different follow-up email saying, “We’re sorry you couldn’t attend.”
    • Show where the communication is stored on a constituent record, including date and type.

As we said in the webinar, clarity is important in your process. The demo scripts help you stay on track and not be distracted by the functions that you do not need, saving time to view the functions that are most critical to you.

What are your favorite systems that won’t break the bank?

The important thing to know about systems is there are numerous on the market that could meet your needs, and no two organizations are the same. Much like choosing a house, selecting a system is a matter of choice based on need. Your best friend might be able to downsize to an apartment downtown because her kids are in college, but if your kids are younger, squeezing your family of six into a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city might not be ideal.

With systems, you’ll first need to know your budget. Vendors typically don’t offer an estimate until they know more about your size, use, and needs. You might have to spend more than you had planned to get what you need, so be prepared to revisit your budget.

At JCA, while we have worked with over 25 platforms and tools, we are system agnostic. This means we help you find options that are specific to your needs and guide you through the process of evaluating those needs against the vendor’s solution(s), and ultimately choosing the best fit for you!

What are some ways to help team members resistant to change?

Everyone handles change differently, and you might find that some team members are more resistant than others. We recommend that you have clear and authentic communication with everyone on the team, start early, and build buy-in.

Need a new system? We can help you make the right choice in your system selection.

By defining your organization’s strategic priorities, we’ll help you find the right fit. If you are unsure about next steps in your system selection journey, let’s chat.

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