Jul/Aug 2007

Ask the Expert: Why should a nonprofit choose a Software as a Service (SaaS) model for its online constituent relationship management (eCRM) needs?

by David Hart, Vice President, Operations, Convio

Q: We're hearing a lot about Software as a Service (SaaS) and are deciding whether to build on our homegrown system or look into purchasing from a vendor. Why should a nonprofit choose a SaaS model for its online constituent relationship management (eCRM) needs?

A: Many nonprofits do not have staff expertise in IT, nor the resources to keep up with the technologies needed to maintain accessibility and accountability. Many organizations don't want or aren't able to handle the ongoing challenges of upgrades, development, and deployment that can accompany "home grown" systems. Using a SaaS partner protects nonprofits from losing technical expertise due to staff turnover or changes in applications from other vendors or multiple providers.

Transferring cost and accountability to a SaaS provider is one of the most compelling features of the SaaS model. The vendor hosts critical applications and the associated data on central servers at the vendor's location(s), where the software and necessary hardware are supported by dedicated staff. This relieves nonprofit organizations of the responsibility of purchasing and maintaining the hosted software and server hardware. When SaaS providers upgrade their systems, expand bandwidth, or make other improvements, all their clients benefit incrementally, without the incremental costs.

SaaS applications have the additional advantage of being deployed on an external server. Unlike traditional software installs that rely on internal security to protect sensitive materials, SaaS applications reside in server farms where they are monitored and protected 24 hours a day. These servers automatically back up materials and applications, ensuring that, even in the worst situation, information is not compromised. Best of all, this entire process is seamless to the client organization, which no longer needs to assign staff to ensure operational security.

Since SaaS vendors serve multiple clients, they can typically allocate additional computing resources on the fly when organizations experience peak demand situations associated with campaigns or current events. While nonprofits may not need industrial-strength performance a vast majority of the time, that small percentage of time when it is needed could be mission critical. The SaaS model gives nonprofits access to that capacity on demand.

Using a SaaS vendor, the client organization "subscribes" to software that is running on third-party servers. If the client organization stops subscribing, the software goes away, though the client organization still owns the data.

SaaS vendors also handle the third-party relationships required to operate a complex online fundraising, marketing, and advocacy system, and bring economies of scale there as well. This means nonprofits get more than simply bandwidth and applications; they get a partner to help leverage the investment.

The true value comes from selecting a SaaS partner that is not just selling a software package, but can also help the nonprofit organization achieve the results needed to fulfill its mission. In addition to software and expertise, look for a vendor with a service and support team committed to client success. Ensure that the vendor provides broad and deep training programs, dedicated client account management, and access to support personnel without hidden costs.  Then get back to your business of changing the world.

Ask the Expert: Why should a nonprofit choose a Software as a Service (SaaS) model for its online constituent relationship management (eCRM) needs? | Convio