With this post, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Although the process is not done, we at last have narrowed the field to three very solid contenders who we believe are well suited to meet our needs. All in all we had phone appointments and online demos with eight companies. Those demos ranged from one hour to five hours (!) and seemed to average about three hours each. Beyond the actual time on the phone we spent time going over the features, discussing what we had seen, and writing up summaries and notes to keep things fresh. It is amazing how difficult it is to keep eight distinct software solutions clear in my mind...
You might notice I have been saying "we" and that's because I brought Judy Caffey, my director of office administration in on this phase of evaluation. Her insight and understanding of how we use the database proved extraordinarily helpful as we evaluated all of these solutions. She also provided someone to bounce my thoughts off of, and to hear her thoughts as well. The great thing was that at the end of the day, we were on the same page with each of the solutions.
After two solid weeks of meetings, we have narrowed the field to three. Each of these solutions has its strengths and its weaknesses. At this point there is no clear leader. We now have to dig as deep as possible into each solution to figure out who offers the very best solution for our particular needs. Although I'm sure everyone reading this wants to know which company we finally end up with, I am fully confident that if your needs are similar to HDC, any one of these three companies can provide a fantastic solution.
Our next phase is to meet with the rest of the staff team, discuss their database needs, and line those up with the solutions set before us. You might wonder why we did not do that first. It's a fair question, and one that I can answer. I spent five hours with a vendor looking over their solution with only our current needs plus a general sense of where we wanted to go. If I had to try to keep dozens of other requirements in mind as well, it would be completely overwhelming. I needed to know what our options truly were before we could get down to the fine level of detail of trying to meet everyone's needs. As a second point, people who don't understand what this software does may want things that simply cannot be provided. With the knowledge we have now we are very clear on what can be done, and what cannot be done. Finally, sometimes people want things that aren't necessarily the best idea. It's easy to focus on "how we do it now" rather than what is the best way to get a task done. We are well aware that we will have to revamp our processes in order to take full advantage of a new database. I didn't want a huge list of requirements to get in the way, or to distract us from our focus of finding the best solution to our particular problems.
So, the three companies that we are going to select from are (in alphabetical order):
Don't be fooled by the website for Arena, it's a fantastic product. Their website does a brilliant job of concealing the power of Arena from potential customers, obscuring it in a sea of marketing and irrelevant talking points. Arena is unique in this comparison in that you can host the server in your own server room if you wish, although that is not required (the _vast_ majority of the customers host it personally). It also offers something that nobody else does in Asterisk integration. Asterisk is an open source VOIP telephone system that we are moving to, so I was very excited by that prospect.
Beyond hosting the product myself, I really like the fact that Arena offers a developer program that allows our staff to do some customization, and has thought through the issues to make that work. The product has a beautiful interface, and it seems very intuitive to me. One of the very coolest unique features is tracking mission trips, which appears to take the administration out of mission trips, allowing your staff to focus on preparing the team instead of little details like who has their money in and did they get a passport... Beyond that, it nails the basics, which is obviously critical. Arena is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.
Connection Power has the most impressive volunteer management and assimilation tools of the group. It's checkin module works offline and will upload the data when the internet connection is restored. CP sends text messages to volunteers to let them know of time sensitive assignments, recognizing that many people rarely check their email. Connection Power also nails the basics, which is most important. Connection Power is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.
Fellowship One has the most impressive user community of all the various software companies. I love the way they work to get information from their users, and information to their users. It seems that Fellowship One is working very hard to insure that the churches that use their product get the most out of it. Address information is verified against USPS records, making for very accurate database information. The new people screen interface provides quick access to many little details that we are seeking, and is very attractive as well. Fellowship One is not perfect, but we'll get to that later.
There are far more things to love about each of these products than what I have listed here. I have only shown a few things that really stood out to me about each product. Now it's time to get back to work, to narrow the field again to a final company that we can partner with to provide our database needs. I'll keep you posted on our progress.