Wednesday, October 29, 2008

flying the unfriendly skies

Flying used to be fun and reasonbly pleasant. Not any more. Now the nickel and diming is so severe it feels like I'm being nibbled to death by a duck. $15 to check the first (!) bag. Want a seat not designed with a midget in mind? It's an Additional $78 each. When you get on the plane they will sell you the better seats at a discount. It used to be you could just move. Food? Extra. I expect that they will charge you not to sit next to a flatulant guy soon. Hmmm, now that's a job could do. Break wind to entice passengers into paying for upgrades! I swear, with where the airlines are right now that wouldn't surprise me.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

And so it begins

In those boxes is our new server, and a backup. The backup will serve as redundant hardware for both the asterisk server and for the Arena server. The idea is that if either of those fail, we can drop the hard drives (RAID 6) into the backup server and be back up and running instantly. This is important for Arena but even more important for asterisk, as that runs all the telecommunications on this campus.

We have been using Dell hardware for linux servers for a while now, so these will fit nicely into our environment. They are very fast. Eight cores and 8GB each, although I think we will steal some of that RAM to make the primary even faster. Now we have to get to installing the hard drives, the operating system, and sql server. With that in place we will be ready for the Arena install.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

ChMS - The Summary

There has been a huge sigh of relief now that the database selection process is over. Of course, now the hard work begins. One of the things I've realized as I shared my blog with people is that it's very difficult to follow the process as it spans over such a long time. Here's my attempt at a summary:

In July of 2008 HDC began a search for a new church database. We started with the Church Management Software Finder from capterra. From there our process began, although I did look elsewhere to be sure I didn't miss anything.

My first round comments I called "A Serious Technical Detour"

The next thing I posted was a quick summary of our needs.

I selected 22 solutions for further investigation. I then spent some time on the web learning as much about them as I could. The solutions evaluated in the second round (links are to my posts about them): Church Growth Software, Church Management Solutions, EzRA Church Management, Connect Our People, E-Church Essentials, Five Talent Church, IconCMO, Kingdom Tools, Excellerate, Member Systems, Arena, CDM+, Membership Edge, People Driven Software, Church Office Online, and Member Connect.

The next phase was picking which companies to contact and schedule demos with. I initially chose six, which expanded to eight. The round of six was announced in "And the finalists are..." After that I had some further conversation with People Driven Software.

It was around this time that I started chatting with the folks at Arena and found that I had really missed the boat on what it was and what it could do.

From there I did live demos (on the phone and over the internet) with each of the companies. These demos ranged from one hour to five hours each. Afterwards I recorded my comments on PurposeWare, myFlock, Ascribe, and Church Community Builder.

At the end of the third round we had three solutions that each seemed flexible enough and solid enough to be HDC's choice of database. I talk about each of those in "Three Great Solutions"

One of the first steps to evaluating these three solutions was to ask them each the same 26 questions.

In a small detour, I discussed the idea of integrating accounting with membership and contributions.

In early September I posted a status update on the project and some details of our process.

To help HDC choose between the three finalists, we created a directed demo that would show us how each database handled functions that were important to us. We also created a bogus dataset that we requred each vendor to use so that we had commonality and could notice when things weren't right.

Finally we announced that a company had been chosen. This includes a good summary of the overall process (better than the one here, but without all the links).

Lastly I announced the winner of this whole process, as well as providing my analysis of Connection Power and Fellowship One, the other two finalists.

In 2010 I evaluated MinistryPlatform to add this important new player in the ChMS world to my research. In 2011 I saw a demo of BVCMS and met with David Carroll of, another significant product that you should consider in your research.

On the whole I put hundreds of hours into the selection process, spanning over four months. We are excited to be moving forward, and excited about the ways in which our new database can help us to minister to our people more effectively. I blogged this whole thing to share my work with the church community as a whole, I hope it has been some help in your selection process.


PS - To read "post install" comments about Arena, click here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New Laptop

My laptop is old, and it is dying. This year I've replaced the hard drive, the CD drive, the bluetooth, and found that my wifi was forevermore history. I rely on this machine quite a bit, and so I was waiting for this round to be released as I like to keep machines as long as possible. I bought my current laptop in January of 2004 and used it all through seminary. It has been a wonderful tool and I've gotten great use out of it.

I was targeting the new Macbook, and at first glance it looked really cool. The price point was good, I liked the new features etc. Except one HUGE omission. It has no firewire port. Huh?

No firewire port.

A big deal? Well, let's see. First off, my wife's video camera (I hate video) uses firewire to import video. It has USB, but you cannot import video over that, only still photos. Ok, well at least USB 2.0 is faster than firewire right? Nope. File transfers take over twice as long on USB 2.0 as they do with Firewire 400. Firewire 800 is as much as 4X faster. Ok, how about target disk mode, something that has saved my bacon more than once. Nope, that would be "FIREWIRE target disk mode" my friends.

So, I could "upgrade" to a laptop that can't import video, can't do target disk mode, can't use firewire hard drives, and operates half as fast when copying files to an external device. Hmmm.....

Apple's desire is that guys like me who care will happily pony up the extra $700 for a MacBook Pro. Except that the features of the MBP over the MB are not worth $700 to me. What to do, what to do. I'm not about to run Vista--I'm not desperate here. Linux is cool, but my hair isn't long enough and I didn't spend last night optimizing my TCP/IP stack by hand for maximum speed, so that's not really an option either. Keeping my current laptop is an option, but I'm getting tired of replacing parts, so I have to do something else.

I mulled this over for a day and finally landed on this: a refurbished last generation macbook pro. It was only $200 more than the new macbook, and vastly superior. It has a faster processor, 2x as much L2 Cache, a larger display, DVI instead of the goofy display port, 512MB of dedicated video memory & a real video card, a real mouse button and both Firewire 400 and 800.

It seems weird to be buying the last generation rather than the new one, I'm generally a cutting edge guy, but in my opinion Apple really blew it with the new macbooks.

I'm looking forward to the experience, it should be a good one.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ChMS - Fellowship One

And now the other two finalists. You know that these companies made it all the way to the final round, but until now I haven't posted much about them. Here goes:

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you.

Fellowship Technologies - Fellowship One
Internet-based church management software for the dynamic church.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Kicks butt...

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - 69
How many customers? - 900
How long in business? - 2004
Are they profitable? - Yes
Technical Details - .NET 2.0, MS SQL

Volunteer Management - F1 was the database that showed me how this could work...
Web Integration - All inclusive
Attendance - Some issues for HDC
Assimilation - Meets the needs of HDC

Level 2 Summary - F1 offers an excellent solution. Their website brags that they have 19 of the 50 most influential churches in America, 31 of the 100 largest churches, and 24 of the 100 fastest growing churches. I believe them. It’s a great product, but last time it wasn’t the right fit for HDC due to the attendance issue (something they offered to address contractually if we signed with them this time around), and it is expensive. Still, it’s top notch and deserves to be at the top of the chart for consideration.

Level 3 Analysis - Fellowship One is the gold standard in this industry, IMHO. It was very clear when we did our demo that Fellowship Technologies had the best overall organization and planning. That doesn’t mean; however, that it is the obvious choice. Still it is the market leader and could be our solution.

Comments after final round:

The F1 community, is exceptional. It provides a way for users to vote on new features, provides status of F1’s servers, average page load times, etc. It also has videos with Curtis talking about new features of the database and how they will benefit the clients. F1 also fosters regional users groups and tries to send representatives to their meetings to gather information and provide assistance.

The F1 interface hides items that you don’t have access to. Thus, if you don’t have access to giving info, you wont’ even see a tab for it. Incidentally, the giving access provides exactly what we want in allowing pastors to see only giving events, without seeing numbers.

Attendance data can be viewed by household if desired, not just individual, which was important to us. I really liked that data entry is verified against USPS records, making for more accurate addresses. The report library is extensive and has 1500+ reports. You can create a favorites list so you don’t have to hunt through all of those every time.

I also think that Fellowship One has the best check-in application of all the vendors we looked at. It seemed to be the most flexible and well designed of everything we looked at. The new interface that Fellowship One is developing is also very exciting, and has some features that nobody else offers in how things like giving and attendance can be displayed.

If it seems like I'm very positive about Fellowship One, you are right. It's a fantastic solution. I really have very little negative to say about Fellowship One. At the end of the day the choice between Arena and Fellowship One was very close, but Arena won the day with its flexibility and some unique features that connected perfectly with the needs of HDC.

In my opinion Fellowship One should be part of every church's database search. It isn't right for everyone, but they are the market leader for a reason, and they've earned their position through hard work and perseverance. Fellowship One got me to think differently about what a church database could do, and how technology could be used to really enhance our ability to minister to our people. For that, I thank them profoundly even though we didn't end up choosing them. Although we aren't a customer, I am definitely a Fellowship One fan.


ChMS - Connection Power

Important! ConnectionPower has been acquired by ActiveNetwork and will be rolled into the ActiveNetwork | Faith product. Read about it here.

And now the other two finalists. You know that these companies made it all the way to the final round, but until now I haven't posted much about them. Here goes:

If you haven't already, you MUST read the summary of what we are looking for. This is critical to understand my comments. The vendors being reviewed work hard to provide a good product to serve the church, and they should be commended for that. Our needs are very specific, and just because a product isn't right for us does not mean that it isn't perfect for your church. By the same token, just because we didn't like a product does not mean it doesn't meet needs or provide genuine value to its clients. The blurb and "target market" are taken from the capterra list I referenced in my first post. Finally, my thoughts are my own and not an official position of my employer. Thank you. 

ConnectionPower - Church Ministry Software
Church ministry software that integrates contributions with your visitor assimilation and member care ministries.
Target Market: Small - Large
Quick Summary - Worth Consideration

Level 2 Analysis:

How big? - 30
How many customers? - 1000+
How long in business? - I’m guessing 2004.
Are they profitable? - Yes
Technical Details - MySQL + PHP

Volunteer Management - The best.
Web Integration - Completely. 
Attendance - Solid, will meet our needs. 
Assimilation - This is the forte of ConnectionPower. It’s all about calling new people and following up with them.

Level 2 Summary - Some things I like, others not so much. One comment I found online was that at least a couple of years ago they didn’t have a way for couples to have different last names, but that has been fixed now. I think they deserve to be considered further. I'm excited about this solution after hearing from Dominic Silla, VP of sales.

Level 3 Analysis - ConnectionPower has a few oddities, but might be the very best solution out there for HDC. The whole philosophy behind the product seems to be what we are trying to accomplish. Although the overall interface isn't as attractive as the competition, it offers the very best volunteer tracking and management out there. Conclusion: ConnectionPower is an excellent solution that could work for HDC. It has the very best volunteer management and assimilation tools. This is a finalist and could be our solution.

Comments after final round:

ConnectionPower is an interesting product, and a very solid church management software solution. ConnectionPower's primary focus is on assimilation, that is, taking people from an unattached visitor to someone who is fully plugged in to the ministry of your church. This is something we need to do better, which is why ConnectionPower was part of our process to the very end.

CP was the least expensive of the solutions in front of us, and is an amazing value for what it offers. The downside of that is that CP has the least extensive process to get your church up and running with their software. The other companies in this comparison have implementation teams that come on site to assist you in making the decisions necessary to setup and begin using their software. This, of course, costs money. CP is designed to help you through this process without bringing their staff to your site. 

CP did well in our "26 questions" comparison and in the references, but did not fare as well in our guided demo. While their check-in application is very nice, it does not meet the specific needs of HDC in how we check in kids, particularly in our pre-school department. Our preschool does not use class rosters of any kind, but is very flexible in which rooms kids land in. Likewise, our people have a tendency to attend different services each week and are very difficult to pin down. Although Dominic states that CP can handle "no-roster" check in, our kids team did not feel that the check-in would work for HDC's needs.

ConnectionPower handled "inactive" people better than some of the other solutions, requiring you to specifically include inactive people in searches and queries. This makes moving an account to "inactive" far superior to deleting people because you still have access to the information if you need to get it, for example if they are looking for a giving statement years later.

Another feature that Connection Power offered over the competition was that the check-in works even without a stable internet connection. The next time the stations sync with the internet they will upload the data they have collected. Very nice!  I was also quite impressed with the calendar, and the forethought that went in to scheduling an event. Unfortunately when I looked at some of the "real world" sites that use CP, it seemed like people too often left everything blank when scheduling events. Not really CP's fault, but unfortunate. Overall the calendar, event scheduling, registration and followup was really good-another strong point for CP.

ConnectionPower is very good at assigning tasks to people. For tracking visitors and assigning volunteers to help connect them to the church they have an automated process that is _far_ superior to what the competition offers. It matches visitors to volunteers by sex, age, location etc. This matched up perfectly with questions we had during our first round. The assimilation type tasks are where connection power really shines, but for HDC we had some specific needs that CP simply couldn't meet. 

Although in the end Connection Power wasn't the right solution for HDC, it is a great solution that deserves your consideration. 


Friday, October 3, 2008

And the winner is ...

And the winner is ...


If anyone has earned the title of "comeback kid" in this comparison, it would have to be Arena. Based on their "worst in class" website I wrote them off during the round of 22. Which is what really makes this process so remarkable.

When I decided to blog this, I did it in order to help other people who were undertaking the same challenge, and I honestly never considered that by making this public, my own process would be affected, but that's exactly what happened. The only reason Arena even knows they were considered by HDC is because I put the process out there for public comment. Jeremy Hoff of Shepherd of the Hills saw my post and told the Arena guys about me and suggested that they contact me because Arena was not portrayed favorably in my review. Those contacts lead to Arena making the final three, and at the end of the day, Arena is our choice in this whole process. That simply would not have happened had I not made this effort.

I am very pleased with our choice. After the long (6-9 hours each) demos with these companies, Judy and I sat down and compared the answers to the 26 question company survey, the references we received back on the companies, and how each vendor did with the 91 question demo. As we looked over those three elements the choice became very clear. Arena stood out above the competitors for HDC in the areas that were important to us. Each of the other two solutions was very solid, and I will post a full review of those shortly, but in the end Arena won the day for the following reasons:

(1) Arena is tops at tracking and identifying non-obvious relationships among our people. One of the difficulties in ministering to a large flock is trying to figure out who knows who. Too often we struggle to figure out how people are connected and often times we find out after a crisis that "person a" knew "person b" and if we had known that we could have ministered more effectively right out of the gate. Arena helps us identify those relationships based on the activities, groups, programs, and ministries that people are part of.

(2) Arena is more customizable than the alternative solutions. Every church has its own unique ways of doing certain things as the culture arises over a period of time. Arena provides HDC with the most flexible platform for us to make those small changes that we require culturally. A great example of this is that there are several check-in solutions for Arena, including one church that is developing a mac version of the check-in software. One size doesn't always fit all, and Arena is built and designed to work with those who beat to a different drum. Arena was the only company that provides a developer program that encourages an open source model of development of their software including access to alpha and beta code of the core software.

(3) Arena is hosted locally. Although I am confident in the hosting solutions offered by the other companies, I am more comfortable having my data located in my own datacenter and backed up offsite. I already have a server room, high quality racks, extensive battery backup, dedicated air conditioning, and a highly competent IT staff. These resources are paid for and an integral part of my operation now, although I will have to add some hours to my IT staff in order to setup, use and develop for Arena. Also, no matter how fast my internet connection is, it doesn't hold a candle to my gigabit network and a totally dedicated server.

(4) Arena is more "geographically aware" than the other products. If you want to know who lives within a mile of someone in your database, Arena will tell you. The others will not. There were other ways of getting at some of that information, but not to the level and sophistication of Arena. This is a heritage of the CCV origins of the product, as those guys focus a lot on neighborhood small groups and such.

(5) Arena met the requirements of our guided demo better than the competition. Of the 91 questions there were five that none of the solutions could accomplish. Beyond those five, there were only three that Arena did not meet. Those three break down into two business purposes, and one of those areas could already be addressed in Arena but the interface for it was not acceptable. During the demo the Arena team expressed that they would be willing to solve that problem for us as part of our implementation. Thus, there was only one business task that they did not accomplish, and we were told it was part of their development plan. We tried hard to focus on the databases "as they were" and only looked to "future development" at the end of the day. Arena wins either way. The other two solutions had 12 and 27 non-acceptables for us (after removing the five common tasks) in our guided demo.

(6) The references for Arena were overwhelmingly positive. Arena, like any company, has unhappy customers and former customers. I talked with two of those. But at the end of the day the churches that were using Arena effectively seemed more positive about their choice and their solution than the references of the competition, and their satisfaction is something that we hope to emulate :-) The churches that seem to be most positive about Arena are the churches that are part of the developer program and the churches that want to work with Arena in moving the product forward. That fits the attitude of HDC and my team, and we look forward to being part of the Arena developer group.

It's important to realize that we were evaluating three great solutions. Each of the products considered at this level has many satisfied customers, and is working very hard to serve the church as a whole. There was a point (well, three points actually) in this process where I thought we would be choosing each of the three companies. Each of the salesmen in this process is absolutely convinced that they have the right solution for HDC, and two of them are convinced I made the wrong choice :-) That's a good thing. These guys are passionate about what they do, and they are working hard to put their product in the hands of as many churches as possible.

I again want to reiterate my appreciation for Mark White of Arena, Steve Drechsler of Fellowship Technologies, and Dominic Silla of Connection Power. Each of these guys worked very hard, and took the time to answer all of our questions and be available to us in every way possible. The work they did allowed us to get a full understanding of their product and how it connected with the needs of HDC. Without their hard work our process would have been a lot more difficult. HDC owes a debt of gratitude to each of these guys.

At the end of the day, Arena was the right choice for HDC. It may be the right choice for your organization, it may not. You can only decide by putting the companies in front of you through your own process identifying what features are important to you and your organization, and then see who meets that criteria the best.


ChMS - A company is chosen!

We Have a Database Company!

It's been a very long process, spreading over four separate months, but yesterday we reached our decision. We have chosen a vendor.

The process has been grueling. I started with an open mind and a list of every church software vendor I could find. In all there were 147 choices on that list, and based on the information presented there I looked a little closer at 46 solutions that appeared to be appropriate for large churches.

Just in case that list wasn't complete I looked around for other solutions as well. I found one or two that also deserved some consideration, but nothing that cleared the hurdle for the second tier. It was during this time that I realized how little information was actually out there, and decided to blog the search in order to provide some good information to those people who are doing the same search we are.

From that list of 46 I narrowed the field to 22 solutions that I felt deserved further research. I spent anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour on the websites for each of those companies. I tried to find out everything I could about the company, the product, and the suitability for HDC.

From the list of 22 I narrowed the field to six companies that I was willing to invest the time into to talk to salesman and go through a demo of the product. After posting the entries I got a very nice email from Chris Rivers of Arena Software telling me a bit about their product. It was very clear that I had not gotten a good picture of the product from his email, so I offered them an hour in the interest of "accuracy and fairness" to show me what Arena could do as I don't like having inaccurate things written with my name attached to them.

That hour demo showed me that Arena was much better than I thought, and so I added them to the list of six. I also heard from Kingdom Tools and did a demo with them to be sure that I left "no stone unturned" through this process. If there was a solution out there that was a viable option, I wanted to be sure we evaluated it. So the field went from 147 to 46 to 8.

I was prepared to spend as much time as necessary with those eight companies to learn as much about the product as possible. I also felt that it would be foolish of me to continue alone, so at this point I brought in Judy Caffey, HDC's Director of Office Administration. Judy supervises all of our secretarial staff as well as the counters, so she would have insight into the database and be able to spot things that I wouldn't recognize as being a problem. In the end, bringing Judy in at this point proved to be a fantastic decision.

With two of us involved we installed the conference phone in my office and spent between 1 and 5 hours on the phone with each of the eight vendors. Those conversations were very illuminating, and at the end of "round 3" we had narrowed the field to three very solid vendors (Arena, Connection Power, and Fellowship One). The problem was that our field was three vendors, not one. Each vendor had strengths and weaknesses. Each vendor had reasons why we should go with them. So we had to look even closer.

Thus the final round was born. First I sent each vendor a list of 26 questions about their company and their product. I asked for 12 references each, including their largest church. I emailed each of those references and talked with people who used each of those databases. Finally I spent a great deal of time creating a bogus database and then a set of 91 questions that would put each database through its paces with the kind of tasks that HDC uses its database for.

Each of the vendors chose to do the demos in person for this final round, and we had a great time getting to know them. Many thanks go out to Dominic Silla of Connection Power, Steve Drechsler of Fellowship Technologies, and Mark White of Arena. Fellowship One also brought out Jeff Rice, the director of delivery services at Fellowship One. Each of the vendors put in a lot of time preparing for our demo, and they all did an excellent job of presenting why they offered the best solution for HDC.

After each presentation Judy and I sat down and harmonized our notes on the each product. We found that our comments were very similar, and we both had similar impressions of each products strengths and weaknesses. After the third presentation (and a little rest, I was sick as a dog by the end of this process) Judy and I sat down and evaluated each vendor based on the demo, the "26 questions" related to the company, and the references. Judy put together a comparison of the "acceptable/not acceptable" responses to our 91 question demo which we also utilized in the process.

I could not have been happier with how the final round went. At the end of the day, we both agreed on which vendor we thought was the right one for HDC. The choice, for us, was clear. We have found our database.

In my next entry, I'll tell you what it is :-)