From User to "Investor": Why we help fund CiviCRM

2015-07-03 08:23
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In the summer of 2007, I was in my fourth year of volunteering for a very small organization, Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites.   At the time, the organization had about 20 chapters statewide and just around 1,000 members.   The spreadsheets that managed all these names and addresses had become too cumbersome and, as a tech-head from HP, I was asked to see if I could do anything about it.  Like many small non-profits, the budget for the project was extremely limited.

After a few possible home built options (Access Databases, etc.), I came across CiviCRM.  Still in its early years, CiviCRM seemed to have everything we needed right out of the box.  Donor management, member management (the big key for us) and online sales options were all included and completely customizable to fit our requirements.  A quick install on my home computer, a quick demo for the board and a very inexpensive hosting contract were all we needed to get started.  The price was certainly a good fit too!

Eight years later, I am no longer just a volunteer and that same organization has grown to 25,000 annual memberships and almost $2 million in annual revenues supporting 55 chapters and 6,000 volunteers statewide.  The needs of our organization have changed dramatically since those early years and, fortunately, CiviCRM has grown with us.  

One significant change for us is that we no longer refer to CiviCRM as “free software.”  As I meet more and more users in this incredibly dynamic and diverse community, I’m still surprised when I encounter people who say they can’t afford to invest in Civi development.  Our organization simply can’t afford not to.  Here are just a few reasons that we have chosen to invest in the product and in the community.

1.  Open Source investment is a great value.

Over the past few years, we have invested over $30,000 in development and community participation in CiviCRM.  Most of that has been supporting CiviVolunteer as volunteers are at the heart of our mission.  Some of that has been travel to participate in CiviCRM events and training, a surprisingly good use of time and money.  The return on that investment has been astounding.  We have been able to help guide the development of CiviCRM so that it better meets our needs and, in turn, the needs of many other organizations like us.  Having come from the technology sector before transitioning to non-profits, I know what $30,000 will buy in the commercial space: not much.

2.  Investing in CiviCRM gets us what we need.

Of course, it is not all altruism and value that guides our CiviCRM investments.  The fact of the matter is that we need new functionality to support our mission.  CiviVolunteer is a prime example.  With 6,000 volunteers, we absolutely must have a robust volunteer management system.  With commercial software, we would be forced to choose from what’s available, pay someone to license and install it and then figure out how to link it to our member/donor database.  With CiviCRM, through Make-It-Happen initiatives and other investments, we can help guide development so our specific needs are met and our overall CRM system is more effective.  

3.  Investing in Civi is the most responsible use of donor funds.

Our donors trust that we will use their donations to fund our mission and to do good in the world.  While we are able to keep our operational expenses to a minimum, we also try to spend those funds in responsible ways.  Our investment in CiviCRM provides us with what we need to reach our goals.  Additionally, it provides world-class software to starving non-profits that are just getting off the ground.  Eight years ago, there was no way we could afford this level of software from a commercial provider.  We are grateful to those who paved the way before us and helped provide us with a very affordable option when we desperately needed it.  Our choices are to pay $30,000 to a huge corporation so they can increase shareholder value or provide $30,000 to benefit a broad community of non-profits that are feeding the hungry, caring for our environment and making the world a better place.  I know which option our donors would prefer.  I bet yours would feel the same.

It is my hope that many other organizations will find these three reasons important enough to invest in CiviCRM, not only because I would like to see the software and the community grow but also because, at the end of the day, my organization will benefit from your investment just as your organization may have benefitted from ours.   

Here are a few funding lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • Put CiviCRM funding in your annual budget.  You already budget for printed materials, rent and other necessities.  Your contact management system is one of your most important tools.  Your budget should reflect that.  Even if you can only afford a few hundred dollars to start with, make sure there is something in your budget.
  • Remind your board members of the value of CiviCRM.  When we went into the marketplace to find a replacement product a few years ago (after we could finally afford to pay for something) we received quotes ranging from $40,000 to $80,000 to install their system and to configure it for our unique needs.  Your board will appreciate how much you are saving the organization through the use of well-developed, Open Source software.
  • If you hire a consultant or support team, make sure they are heavily involved in the CiviCRM community.  Look for their names in the forums.  Look for code fixes and submissions they have created.  Make sure they are giving back to the ecosystem.  There are lots of very skilled folks that can help you with CiviCRM.  However, you need to make sure they are also helping the community.
  • Even if you don’t contribute on a major scale, find at least one Make-It-Happen initiative to contribute to.  Our very first CiviCRM contribution was $250 to a Make-it happen initiative.  Even a few dollars can make a difference.