When Is A Good Time For Nonprofits To Evaluate Their Online Tools?

When is a good time for nonprofits to evaluate their online tools?

Chances are pretty good that you’ve been using the same set of online tools to create your donation forms, email messages, and advocacy alerts for a while now.  Settling down with a set of online tools is comfy, like wearing a pair of sweatpants. Familiar. Easy. Sure, you’ve got your pet peeves about the system but you know each other pretty darn well.

It’s silly to pack up and move just in the name of change – and it’s also a mistake to stay where you are if your tools don’t meet your needs. At Firefly Partners, we guide our clients in an effective tool evaluation process that can shed light on whether it’s time to pack it up and move to a new platform.

The Best Time to Evaluate

It may be a great time for you to start a tool evaluation if:

  • You’re about to start making annual budgetary decisions.  Knowing if there is organizational capacity – both people and dollars – can make your evaluation time worthwhile.
  • You’re adding tools that aren’t present in your primary suite.  While it’s tempting to add one-off functionality, this approach can result in a patchwork ecosystem.
  • Your online programs are stagnant.  Ok, this isn’t only a result of using the wrong tools.  That said, there are some pretty swanky tools out there and maybe a move can kick start your results.

How Much Time Will You Need?

Tool evaluation projects can become the initiative that ate Cincinnati.  Setting out to do an exhaustive search of every tool out there is bound to cause frustration and confusion as you forget which tool did what cool thing.  We recommend that you plan on dedicating three hours per week for about 12 weeks to keep your vetting lean and focused.  Going longer can mean losing the ‘oomph’ that got you started as new priorities move in.

Setting Evaluation Criteria

This is my favorite part of a tool eval project!   Think long and hard about the functionality you need in a set of online tools right now.  Check out other nonprofit websites – what do THEY have online?  Think about next year – anything new in the works that requires something that your current system doesn’t support?  Write them all down – from budgetary constraints to the need for sophisticated integration.
Once you’ve got them all on paper – categorize them into three groups:

  • Must Have – These are the core requirements.  Keep it to 10 items or less.
  • Nice to Have – This category is for things that are not core, but if you had them you’d use them.
  • Don’t Care if it Has – Don’t get distracted by functionality you may never use.

Next Steps

Now you’ve got yourself a road map to use as you look at other online tools.  Set up some demos.  Don’t expect to find one tool that does everything – document the things you know you need and find a tool that does most of them.  Don’t forget to check with your current tool provider – they may offer functionality you weren’t aware they had.

Have you helped your organization move from online Platform A to online Platform B?  Got tips and war stories to share?  Use the comments section below.
Need effective tool evaluation help?  Contact us!


The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.


  1. Hello Maureen,

    Another indicator that it is time to evaluate your tools is the degree of customization you are considering (or are currently living with). Many organizations incrementally bend their tool – a JavaScript here, maybe some CSS there, or build full-blown customization to meet a key requirement. Over time the challenges associated with maintaining custom solutions can grow significantly.

    My advice would be to periodically evaluate the whole system (quarterly is often a good practice). Also, to put in place a technical review process where the long-term costs associated are evaluated in addition to the immediate development work. The group (or individual) responsible for this review will have the most visibility into a “stay-or-go” decision. At some point you might be bending the software to such an extent that a more reasonable path would be just move to another solution that better meets needs out of the box!

    • Maureen Wallbeoff

      Hi BJ! You make some excellent points! I really like the way you have called out the need to consider both the costs and the question: “how far out of the box have I taken this thing?”

      In a perfect world, I think an annual review is about the best we can expect – and for most nonprofits it might not happen until contract renewal time. Many organizations (rarely/never) perform this type of evaluation, and quarterly might be more frequently than the typical organization can sustain.

      Another good time might be when an organization is creating a 3-5 year strategic plan. It’s often easier to get the right internal stakeholders on board when they have some skin in the game with regard to online tools.

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