Several years ago Tony Dye posted a blog musing about the lack of Innovative Church IT, and then developed a wish list for a ChMS. His comments were helpful in our search for a new database, and I wanted to step back and see how Arena today meets, or does not meet, the ChMS wish list Tony created. Note: Tony uses the term "CMS" which was more common in 2005, but was changed to avoid confusion with content management systems and contact management systems. Also, I use the term database interchangeably with ChMS.
(1) Trusted - The general principle here is that people must trust the data and count on the ChMS being the best source of current information. I give Arena a 5 out of 5 here. Our people use it and trust it, and it is always available (virtually no downtime).
(2) Consistently Used - If a ChMS is not used, then it is worthless. Our old database was used infrequently by a few staff members. Arena is used everyday by almost all of our staff members. Again, a 5 out of 5.
(3) Easy - A datatbase should be easy to use. Tony broke this down into five sub-points:
1 - No training required
2 - Simple things are simple
3 - Discoverable
4 - Work flow oriented
5 - Easy to do the right thing
I'll let you read Tony's post to get detailed breakdown of what each of these mean, but I think Arena nails all of them except possibly workflow oriented.
(4) Consistent - Does the product work consistently, in other words do menus work as you'd expect, is the user interface consistent, does the product feel like one well designed whole. This one is not where it needs to be with Arena. There are lots of inconsistencies throughout the interface, terminology and so forth. The product out of the box has three windows apps (check-in, contributions and bulk mailing) rather than being entirely web based (to be fair, so do their competition, but that doesn't make it right). I'd give Arena about a 2 out of 5 on this one. Lots of room for improvement.
(5) Available & Reliable - A database should run with near 100% uptime, be available on many platforms, and be available to more than just staff. Arena hits the mark here in spades. The server is rock solid and being browser based Arena is always available and ready to go for our people when they are at their desk. But beyond that, the iPhone client (the official one isn't so hot, but the HDC one rocks), the mobile site (works on iphones, blackberrys, and even android if you are desperate), and even from an asterisk phone if you set it up right. There are ways for volunteers and small group leaders to get access to what they need and to assist the staff as well. I believe Arena nails all of Tony's points here, 5 out of 5.
(6) Comprehensive - As with easy, Tony has several areas he identified here:
1 - Contact Management
2 - Engagement Factor
3 - For the members, too
4 - Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out
as well as two open ended questions:
5 - Financials as well as people and groups?
6 - What about all the add ons?
I'm going to take these one by one, because they are all pretty important.
Contact management - Arena is an ok cms, one that could be better. We haven't had time to do the Asterisk integration to provide click to dial on our phones, but once we do I think people will be more apt to enter notes and such in Arena when they talk to people. We can't do the incoming call record linking because our PRI doesn't properly provide us with callerID (go figure, something is borked at Verizon and we are tired of arguing with them). I would give Arena about a C- on this at this point. The basics are there, but it could be a lot better.
Engagement factor - The tools are there to track this really well (if you have no idea what this means, click on the link to Tony's post), but we aren't using them all yet. This is pretty key, and I believe Arena does this pretty well, although it could be better. I give Arena a 4 out of 5, and our implementation of it about a 2 out of 5 at this point. Definitely need to improve here.
For the members, too - Arena has made strides here, but still needs to come a long way to have compelling members functionality. I'd say a 2 out of 5 again. The basics are there, but they feel a little half hearted and unfinished. Online giving works pretty well, but they could do a lot more here.
Easy to get data in, easy to get it back out - Arena is SQL, and you can build monster complex queries if you want. The lists functionality is pretty good for getting dynamic data, and the fact that you can hand tweak the sql on them before execution is awesome when what you want is just a touch beyond what it can deliver. I give Arena a 4 out of 5 after the latest updates, but they need a really easy sql generating query builder before they can get a 5 out of 5. Also, Arena gives you quick and easy ways to export almost everything to word and excel, which is cool.
Financials as well as people & groups? - I have blogged about this before. I do not believe that financials (not contributions, but actual financial management) should be part of a ChMS, but rather a separate product. I'm glad Tony phrased this as a question.
What about all the add-ons? - Registrations and event management are built-in to Arena as is work flow to a limited extent (some of the community churches have made great strides here and built really awesome stuff). Arena can take payments as part of event management and registration, so I think that tag's Tony's "Web Store" base as well, although it is not setup out of the box to handle things like selling t-shirts or books or other such stuff. The only item on Tony's list that is not included is facility management, which shouldn't be included anyway...
(7) Extensible - Arena has a web services API that can be used to access arena data, as well as taking advantage of other API's for complementary data. For example, the Planning Center integration is almost done, and another church is working with ShadeTree to be integrated with Arena. These are just two examples (integration with facility management has been underway as well), but I think Arena does extensibility pretty well. That said, it's not perfect. Nobody has figured out how to properly integrate facebook into a ChMS yet, and the API has a lot of holes, but I think there is a good start. I like the fact that Arena is open and willing to work with people to connect rather than trying to stay a walled off little world. Arena is probably a 3 out of 5 right now, and it's getting better.
(8) Robust & Scalable - I have been very impressed with Arena in this area. In the research for my post entitled "What do the big guys use?" I found that three of the top ten largest churches in the country were using Arena (tied with FellowshipOne). Our own experience (weekend attendance is around 4500 adults) has been that Arena is very robust and stable at our size. In talking with the guys at Willow Creek and Southeast Christian, it seems like it is a solid product at their size as well. I think this is a 4 out of 5. It could be better, but it's pretty good as is.
(9) Secure and Integrated - Arena does a good job here. Database activity is logged, and history provides a convenient way to see who did what. Security is setup through templated security roles, and the default is no access. Arena can utilize active directory authentication if you have that setup and running. Other than the password complexity requirement (which we set, not Arena, so we are good) it almost feels as if Arena was designed while reading Tony's post on this topic... I really like the way Arena also allows notes to be set with private security, meaning they can't be read by anyone else at all (including the administrator). This allows pastors to place counseling notes and such and know they are secure. The security templates make ease of use for end users setting security on notes simple as well. Definitely a 5 out of 5.
In 2005 Tony lamented that there wasn't a product on the market that addressed these needs, and this was his wishlist. Five years later, I think it's pretty clear that Arena fits the bill pretty well and this no longer needs to be a wishlist. I can't help but think that Tony had some influence here.