Sept/Oct 2008

Nonprofit Technology for Today's Changing Global Village

by Gene Austin, Chief Executive Officer, Convio

Change can be positive, if it leads to a better way.

I'm not running for president or even making a political statement or endorsement. I am, however, making an observation about the rate of technical innovation we live with, the expectations of the constituents you're trying to engage, and the vast array of channels through which you need to reach them.

Let me explain: We've helped nonprofit organizations for years with online marketing and fundraising tools that help them mobilize and inspire people to support their mission, and so people often expect us to focus all of our attention on the Internet as a communications channel.

While Internet-based communications continue to be the growth engine for many nonprofits, it's traditional direct response approaches combined with the evolving world of social media, mobile technology and web services, that are changing and improving the nonprofit sector's ability to reach the "global village." You need be agile, social, and connected if you want your organization to thrive. But, we are also seeing that beyond a communications channel, the Internet is the most cost-effective and flexible way for nonprofits to use technology to manage their organization more efficiently and effectively.

Using the Internet to deliver applications that keep you more agile, social and connected is one of the most significant changes that is driving a better way for nonprofits — in the tech world it's called "Software-as-a-Service" or SaaS.

The changing technology landscape

Nonprofit software has traditionally been synonymous with donor databases and, more recently, online fundraising and advocacy. Other than a few innovative nonprofit professionals, consulting firms and software vendors, the nonprofit sector has not been known for its cutting-edge applications.

Legacy challenges

Legacy software vendors created applications on technology platforms that simply weren't built for today's multi-channel communications environment. They never anticipated innovations that would allow nonprofits to openly choose the applications and vendors that best meet their needs, and have them work well together.

This innovator's dilemma makes it hard for vendors, such as traditional donor database software providers, to accept change and relinquish control. By acquisitions and claims of becoming more open, they acknowledge that they cannot create a single unified suite. A better focus for nonprofits would be for these providers to make decisions and take development positions that give their nonprofit customers the freedom and flexibility to choose and tie together applications they need and want with real-world business scenarios. For instance, many of today's data integration challenges with legacy, on-premise donor databases could be solved if the vendor provided their APIs (application programming interfaces) to their customers and their partners for free and without limitations. This open approach would enable nonprofits to effectively use the innovative solutions of others — including FacebookTM, GoogleTM, and YouTubeTM — to create solutions and benefits across people and programs.

A better way

Open platforms and SaaS are better positioned to meet the needs and wants of modern nonprofit organizations and their constituents. These open, service-oriented architectures make it easier for different software and applications to connect, and are critical to the future of nonprofits.


Multi-tenant (having more than one organization running on a single unit of software) SaaS provides significant advantages to the client. The provider has to tune the infrastructure to provide the best combination of performance, economy and management, while the client can focus on getting the maximum use out of the service. Another advantage is that the nonprofit can use policy and operations, rather than code, to modify the application. This flexibility enhances the nonprofit's capacity to deliver the results the organization wants to achieve.

Community of partners

Leading-edge SaaS providers, such as Convio and salesforce.com, use the Internet not only to deliver their software and services but also to create a community of third-party services and providers. This extensible model makes it possible for organizations to effectively use the innovative solutions of others to meet their unique needs, and to choose and tie together applications with organizational scenarios that extend the horizons of the organization and the software provider. The outcome: Organizational results rather than a software toolkit. Online user communities tend to thrive and provide a forum for organizations, partners and the software vendor to exchange ideas and information, and create discussions that drive success.

Performance, metrics and benchmarks

SaaS providers can leverage their global view of client usage to see what clients are using and then use those metrics to improve usability, performance and functionality. This "big picture" view also allows the vendor to provide clients with feedback on best practices and benchmarks so they can compare their results against those of their peers. In the SaaS world, the convergence of interest between the client and the vendor is more intimate than that of conventional on-premise software. This could be because the nature of the SaaS environment makes it easier to focus on making sure the product is working for the client in their day-to-day use. When you add the role and strengths of a partner "ecosystem" to the model, nonprofits have more choices than ever to assist them in achieving their mission, reaching their goals, and measuring their performance.


Not to be overlooked in the benefits of the SaaS model is constituent empowerment. By participating in the ever-expanding world of Web 2.0 and open-source technologies, you can connect people with your cause more efficiently and effectively than ever. You can also empower them to connect you with people that you could not reach on your own.

Use software that matches your operations, don't operate to match your software

The trend is to use the Internet to enable business and deliver value to the nonprofit's end user and the constituents the nonprofit serves. The software supports the nonprofit's workflow and operations, helping the organization be more efficient and effective, with fewer IT hassles and headaches. Through "clicks, not code" nonprofits can customize applications to better serve their needs and have them behave the way they operate, rather than the way developers think.

Software and channels aligning

The stars are aligning for nonprofits in regard to software and services. The SaaS model has not only changed how vendors deliver software to nonprofits, but also the total scope of work, benefits and success that nonprofits expect. It is a model we adopted on our first day of operations nearly 10 years ago. By creating networks of vendors and partners that combine to meet the common and unique needs of organizations, as well as by providing nonprofits with the freedom to choose and integrate the applications and systems that best meet their needs, everyone involved is finding SaaS to be a better way.

You are being asked to do even more in terms of connecting with and reaching constituents. There are lots of channels for communicating with supporters and all of them have to work together to maximize impact. And while nonprofits are always striving for efficiency, the current economic conditions stoke the need for even more effectiveness. More than ever, your technology partners play a crucial role in your success. As such, all software and technology vendors must provide clients a return on investment.

For a change, software and technology are putting nonprofits in control. The virtue of the SaaS model comes not only from what it leaves behind, but from what it gains in connecting people and causes — providing a better way.

Note: How to put software and services to work for you, lessons learned and success stories, as well as tips and techniques on how to bring online and offline programs together, will be among the many topics featured at the Convio Summit 2008.

Nonprofit Technology for Today's Changing Global Village | Convio