Published
Thursday, December 1, 2016 - 17:49
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An interview with the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology

The mission of the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology is the prevention of blindness through education and cultural exchange among ophthalmologists in the Western Hemisphere. The association strives to provide continuing education for ophthalmologists, programs on the prevention of blindness, and promote cultural exchange.
Cividesk recently spoke with Krista Jonas, Director of IT for the PAAO, about why they switched to CiviCRM from iMIS and the benefits the database brings to their organization.

Krista came on board as an independent contractor for the PAAO to help find a database solution for automating many of their tasks. Before the transition to CiviCRM, PAAO was using an iMIS database, although it was an outdated version that was in need of an expensive upgrade. The annual licensing fees for iMIS were quite pricey and since the association was running iMIS on their own servers, they had to contract with a tech company for server assistance. Initially, the staff members were not very receptive to the idea of switching to a new database, since the thought of starting over was daunting.  However, when iMIS announced they were moving to a new online system, change was inevitable. Krista knew it was time to choose a better database solution that would meet their needs and fit their limited budget.

Krista’s research of different solutions led her to CiviCRM which she liked since it was open-source.  She wanted to be sure though that it could handle the unique needs of their organization. The PAAO hosts many large events and their bi-annual congress can have up to 900 speakers who submit abstracts of their work. They needed a database that would be able to manage large events, but also offered the option to manage abstracts. After researching what other organizations do to handle the submission and management of abstracts, she found that many larger organizations have a custom proprietary solution.  Some also use abstract management programs that are separate from their CRM but at a cost of $40,000 per event, this was not a viable option.  At first she considered connecting another open-source abstract management program with CiviCRM, but instead she decided to manage abstracts using a Drupal database integrated with CiviCRM. 

Krista knew that a service provider who specializes in CiviCRM was the best option for PAAO to ensure continued maintenance and support.  Cividesk was the most responsive of all the CiviCRM service providers she contacted. “They were upfront and on the ball”, she explained, “and they work with you to make sure you understand the process, which is important for less technical staff. Cividesk is also extremely fair in their monthly service pricing and for custom development projects”. She also valued how internationally minded Cividesk was since the PAAO is comprised of members from over 35 countries. Cividesk has experience with the use of multiple languages in CiviCRM since they have customers in many different countries, as well as several international staff members. “I appreciated that Virginie (co-founder and principal of Cividesk) had run a non-profit in the past and she understood the bottom line of reporting to the board.”

One of the challenges of the transition to CiviCRM was importing the data from iMIS due to the amount and complexity of the data.  It took longer than Krista expected, but “Cividesk staff worked over the holidays to import more than 50,000 records and legacy data dating from the 1960s. There was a high volume of membership information and membership types to import, but Cividesk made sure that the data was where it needed to be” and Krista was very pleased with the results.

When they first started using CiviCRM, PAAO used the standalone version (that Cividesk maintains) for several months, however, Cividesk then integrated CiviCRM into the new Drupal website that Krista created. Before, potential speakers used to submit abstracts online that were stored in an Access database. The abstracts were then peer reviewed, and speakers were emailed and notified of the decision.  The use of the Drupal database, Drupal webforms and CiviCRM has streamlined this process: abstracts can be data checked, and it’s easy to search within the list and email speakers using CiviMail.

A Member Portal was developed as well as part of the integration of CiviCRM into Drupal. Contacts can create an account, sign up for membership, submit their abstracts, print out a membership card and membership materials. This portal has been very useful since the organization no longer has to send membership information internationally; new members print the information they need, saving the PAAO on postage and printing costs as well as the time involved in sending the membership packets.

Cividesk also assisted in creating several custom reports for PAAO, including a report that organized member data by country, something the board wanted to see in their reporting.  The staff uses many groups and tags to organize contacts that aren’t members, and to manage their sizeable board and executive board. They have also created custom relationship types, which are useful in linking the contacts. Krista likes the ability to customize so many features and tailor CiviCRM to fit what she is doing.  “There are a lot of great things in CiviCRM and lots of room for development and customization”, she notes. The staff uses the advanced search and custom searches quite a bit and the deduplication feature to help get rid of duplicates, something that was a big problem initially, but using this feature she was able to clean them up. Krista also finds the ability to integrate CiviCRM with other projects and software a huge benefit for their organization. 

When asked why she decided to use a service provider instead of managing CiviCRM on her own, Krista explained that self hosting CiviCRM could be difficult, even with technical expertise.  “When you have a lot of contacts, it can be overwhelming for a non-profit to self-host.  Cividesk is using great technology for their servers, they know what they are doing and have experience running a non-profit; it’s the best of both worlds. There are lots of options and different ways to configure CiviCRM. It’s way easier to have somebody who has done it many times. You can read all the documentation but nothing can take the place of experience. You are talking about your data, it’s the most important asset of your organization and you can’t take the chance of making mistakes! Even more for non-profits, since you are working to build relationships with others. Staff needs to be focused on their constituents’ needs rather than technical issues.”