Christopher Whitlatch of the Pittsburgh Foundation explains how community foundations and nonprofits can choose a giving platform that meets their needs when they need it most.
There are more than 1,000 online giving platforms, but only one matters for your giving day – the one you chose. The Pittsburgh Foundation and 47 other foundations found that out the hard way during this year’s Give Local America Day when technology ground giving to a halt.
Technology is increasingly ubiquitous and always evolving, so it is important to constantly evaluate your giving day platform and other tech tools. A yearly evaluation can mean the difference between a successful giving day or a crisis that can severely impact your organization and those you serve.
As a starting point, we’ve complied a list outlining the key areas that we recommend organizations analyze and compare when choosing a tech platform, including corporate stability, features and benefits, hosting architecture, capacity, pricing, and policies. Click here to view and download our evaluation tool (PDF).
Technology companies are not nonprofits. Take a look at the companies that provide giving day platforms: they all are 15 years or younger. Even with 15 years of experience, they have had to reinvest in their technical platforms to stay abreast of advancements in the field. This requires capital, and that capital most often comes from investors who require results.
When evaluating a tech provider, take a look at their structure. How dependent are they on revenue from a giving event? Do they have other revenue? How strong is their financial position?
If cash is running short, a company might make a decision more focused on revenue generation than technological stability, and that could impact a giving day. If you can determine this risk, then you can make a better decision before a failure might occur.
Features and Benefits
Technology companies are naturally filled with people that enjoy creating new solutions. You can expect new features and benefits to be added on a regular basis, as companies respond to requests from their clients and study what other platforms are offering in order to be competitive.
The best place to begin in defining the features and benefits for your foundation is by asking your donors and nonprofits what type of experience they are looking for in online giving. Their feedback will shape what you look for in a platform.
Remember that the transaction is the most important process for any donor. You need to get this right and the experience must be simple and secure. “Gamification” features, such as leaderboards, recommendations, and other experiences, can increase donations during an event, but should never be at the expense of the transaction process.
Select the features that match your event needs and your audience. And remember, if you plan to offer prizes or golden tickets, test the functionality before you select a platform.
Let’s address the buzzwords that too often make a foundation or nonprofit believe they need a degree in information technology to feel comfortable understanding and evaluating a potential tech partner.
Hosting comes first. Put simply, hosting architecture refers to how the technology platform manages a giving day and ensures that all of the features and benefits will work as they are designed to during the event. Let’s demystify this process by defining the terms most often used related to hosting.
Scalability means that the platform can add more capacity as more people access the site to perform functions such as making a donation. Look for a technology platform that can add additional public facing servers without interrupting the process.
Redundancy means the technology platform repeats a process elsewhere if the main process fails. This will reduce the length of time the platform is down, should an issue occur, and it often involves the database and files that serve to perform functions in the platform. Look for a platform that contains redundant processes for key performance functions.
Backup can refer to many things. For a giving platform, check for a failover system, which means that the entire platform exists on a server in a completely separate location in case the primary location experiences an issue. In addition to failover, look for backups to the payment processing gateway – again the most important process of a giving event platform – as well as a backup solution for any database and file server activity.
Lastly, review the platform’s catastrophic event policy. The key question here is if everything fails, likely because the hosting provider had a complete failure, does the company have a process that could keep your event running in a different format?
Remember, there are no fail-safes when it comes to online platforms. Look to see that there are systems in place to minimize the risks of failure as well as quickly restore an event when an issue occurs.
Capacity is related to hosting architecture and defines how much traffic (or how many users) the technology platform can handle before any of the processes break. The important measure here is a “load test.” A proper test checks how many concurrent users can be in the system performing successful processes through completion of a transaction at one time.
Ask your technology partner to share this information as you make a decision. As part of your agreement, ask your provider to load test your event site before every hosted giving event. Even if you’re working with a provider you have used before, I can personally attest that it will give you more comfort if the testing is performed before each event.
There are many different pricing models in the market ranging from set up or development costs that are collected upfront to various configurations of transaction or technology fees collected on each donation. Each organization will need to select the pricing model that best suites their unique needs.
That said, it is okay to look for a partner who will lower fees wherever possible, including negotiating with merchant providers on your organization’s behalf. Just remember when negotiating that these companies are for profit and are making large investments in their platforms, many with investors also looking for returns. The nonprofit sector itself has not invested heavily in technology, particularly for online giving, and therefore pays for it on a software-for-service basis.
This area is very much a catch all for everything else your organization should consider in order to come to an agreement with a technology partner. This includes locking in effective contract terms, defining the work process, and identifying roles and responsibilities.
Make sure to identify the data retention and use policies, which determine if donor or nonprofit lists will be marketed to entities outside of your event. Ask for the company’s critical communications plan so you know what to expect if an issue arises. And remember to review the company’s security and privacy policies, which should be public on their website.
Finally, ask your peers about experiences they have had with a technology platform. Whether you have had a good or bad experience, share that information so that foundations as well as the technology providers themselves can learn and improve. Together, we can build a comfort level with technology and steward the growth of online giving for our nonprofits and our communities.
Special thanks to Christopher Whitlatch and the Pittsburgh Foundation for sharing their evaluation tool for online fundraising platforms.
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