CRM choices for USSF


There a number of crucial features of any modern conference/political process that uses the internet for communicating with participants. These features may be addressed by multiple technologies or by systems that try to ‘do it all.’

It is common for organizations to outsource the job of selecting the appropriate technologies to an ‘expert’, internal or external, who presumably will know what the ‘best’ tools for the job will be.

The ICT believes that such an approach is flawed on professional, political, and technological grounds. Our goal is to coordinate an open and transparent process that tries to meet the technical needs of the USSF while making sure that our decisions are thoughtful and in line with the mission of this enterprise and the technology pricinples that were adopted and approved by the NPC.

Basic Features – List

  • Credit card payment processor, often referred to as a gateway.
  • Database for financial information that comes from the internet.
  • Database for event registration
  • Mass email delivery system
  • Web forms that allow for people to add and remove themselves from lists and control their private data

Options - CRM Selection

CiviCRM is a free, open source program widely used within both the non-profit sector and the left in the United States. The project was begun many years ago to address a nearly universal need within the left for fundraising software. Prior to CiviCRM, the only available options for fundraising software was to hire a private developer to create a custom database or pay a for profit or nonprofit organization a monthly sum of money to get access to a proprietary software solution. CiviCRM was founded to provide a collectively shared alternative available for free to everyone. Over it's lifetime, hundreds of thousands of dollars that organizations would have spent on a proprietary system were instead devoted to developing this shared project, resulting in a remarkably mature program that is free and open to everyone.

The disadvantages to CiviCRM include: For organizations without technical expertise, constructing the system is relatively difficult. Maintaining the system will be the responsibility of the Social forum, including addressing issues such as: whitelisting outgoing emails, supporting all problems with payment processing, training new users.

  • Option 2: Other free software available: SugarCRM and vTiger

There are two other widely used free software alternatives to CiviCRM: SugarCRM and vTiger. Both, however, are more geared toward business use than organizing use. For a detailed report on using CiviCRM, SugarCRM and vTiger, please see a CRM Review written by Progressive Tech Project and May First/People Link that strongly supports CiviCRM as a better alternative for organizers than either of the other options.

  • Option 3: Salsa.

Salsa is a product of Democracy in Action (DIA). DIA is a nonprofit organization founded to provide a low cost alternative to coprorate fundraising software programs like Convio, Raiser's Edge, eTapestry and other high cost, profit-driven corporate solutions. Salsa is, however, closed-source software that is hosted with DIA (a nonprofit that is - not yet at least - participating in the USSF process as an organization). Using Salsa could cost anywhere from nothing to $6000. Setup and usability are easier, issues like whitelisting and credit card transactions are more easily solved. Salsa is a proprietary system with an open API. It is (probably) faster to implement, easier to use, more expensive, and less in keeping with our technology principles.

  • Option 4: Salesforce

Salesforce is a for-profit, proprietary tool hosted with the corporation owning the software. I only mention it here because many nonprofits use it since it can be used for free or very little money and is very user friendly. Given the USSF technology principles on the question of free software and involvement in the USSF principles for all major project partners, Salesforce is not a viable option for the USSF.

The ICT working group's discussion on which software to choose is available in our email list archives under the subject "Proposal on Donor Appeal and database software".

Extended features and decisions to be made

The choice of software is just one of the many choices that will need to be made regarding managing communications, donations, and registration. Below are additional issues that will need to be addressed.

The ability to process credit cards requires a c3 organization to serve as a fiscal sponsor, so that the USSF can set up it’s OWN systems, separate from those of the fiscal sponsor.

Email delivery systems sometimes offer ‘whitelisting’ a method that greatly improves deliverability.

Email delivery systems often have ‘link tracking’ a method by a hidden image is embedded in an email so that when a person opens that email, it can be registered. This technique can be useful in comparing how many people open different messages. It's also considered invasive and inaccurate by others.

The database(s) for online financial data, event registration data, and offline financial data are often separate but linked. The task of keeping data synched as needed between them can be complex, and MUST be addressed at the start of the process, before systems are chosen.

Event registration and payment requires that we use a particular data model that must be repeated across databases. For example, we must ensure that every attendee is registered as an individual in our systems, while allowing for large groups to register as a group. And, we need to be able to link individuals to the organizations they are part of.

Decisions about what kinds of mass emails should be sent must conform to a political process as well as a technical flow. Example: do we insist that access to the list itself be restricted, or do we give portions of it to others for future messaging? Different parts of the USSF might want to engage in online outreach, using USSF tools, for specific segments of the list. Example: New York might want to message all New Yorkers to raise money for a travel scholarship fund. A women’s caucus might want gender information on participants so they can communicate with messages addressed to ‘women attendees.’ Online outreach does tend to be more effective when targeted to niches and individuals. To what extent should the list be used to message on current, urgent political issues at the request of (for example) Detroit groups, key NPC member groups, or on issues that some feel merit extraordinary consideration? How are these political decisions going to be reached?

Other systems are likely to exist that fall slightly outside this discussion: choice of content management system and it’s architecture, and the kinds of democracy enhancing tools built in to the system. Still, there needs to be a plan for managing multiple systems that exist alongside each other.

Nonprofits and political organizations all send out email. But do they all engage in ‘online outreach’? CRM systems are designed in large part to facilitate online outreach behavior. Will the USSF engage in online outreach – to spread awareness, build event registration, encourage mass participation in the USSF process, and to raise donations from non-attendees? If so, we might need some guidelines that reflect the community’s overall concerns.

The systems we choose will require some mix of volunteer and paid labor, and payment for services. For instance, having to build a solution quickly might create pressure to pay experts to build a solution or to pay for a proprietary system that can be used with minimal setup. On the other hand, having a longer timeline might allow for a longer group process that relies more heavily on volunteer efforts. This calls for negotiating between the needs of the various working groups, and the NPC.

What happens to these systems when the USSF is over? There is a case to be made that local, regional and international Social Forums should have access to the list, to email announcements. How will this be handled? How has this been handled? Do we have guidelines supported by the community?

Last modified 9 years ago Last modified on 06/07/09 12:25:48