Volunteer Management System: Standalone or Consolidated?

This is an excerpted preview of Idealware’s “A Consumers Guide to Volunteer Management Software,” created in partnership with TechSoup Global. The full version of the guide is available here.

Guest post by Chris Bernard, Idealware

A Consumer's Guide to Volunteer Management SoftwareVolunteer-based organizations have to keep track of a lot of data – everything from contact info and schedules to time sheets and job sites – and the right software can help, freeing time for managing volunteers. When we found a number of products out there designed to meet these needs, but not much information about them, we set out to remedy the situation.

To write an introduction to volunteer management software that looks at what’s out there, what to expect, and how the different solutions compare, we began our research by talking to different consultants, experts and volunteer managers about what they wanted from the software and the systems with which they were familiar.

Then, reinforced by Internet research and information from volunteer management email discussion lists, we defined a list of the three standalone volunteer management systems (Samaritan eRecruiter/eCoordinator, Volgistics, and Volunteer Software’s Volunteer Reporter) and the three consolidated constituent management systems (Volunteers for Giftworks by Mission Research, Donor Perfect, and The Raiser’s Edge(i)™ by Blackbaud) most frequently mentioned. The vendors demonstrated the systems for us, and we spent some hands-on time exploring the software to better understand each system’s strengths and weaknesses.

Our report covers the basic features and functions that might be desirable in a volunteer management package, including Volunteer Profiles, Activity Tracking, Scheduling, Email, Print Communication, Online Features, Reporting and Exporting, Customizability, Ease of Use, and Affordability and Support. But when considering Volunteer Management Systems, the most important question we wanted to answer was whether it was better to track volunteers, donors and other constituents in a single database, or separate systems.

We interviewed consultants, experts and volunteer professionals during our research and asked for their recommendations. The results were mixed.

Of the six we reviewed, we expected the standalone systems to be strong on scheduling functionality, but weaker on back-office and general functions, like broadcast email, or the ability to mail-merge for printed letters or mailing labels. These expectations held true.

We also expected the consolidated systems to be strong on back office features and weak on scheduling – here, however, we were surprised. Through the addition of new modules, donor management systems like Giftworks have added a strong scheduling interface for volunteer management.

We also looked at online functionality. Can volunteers edit their own profiles, schedules and hours from home? While the standalone systems tended to be stronger online, the difference seemed to be based less on the type of software than on whether it was hosted online or installed.

What does this all mean?

Our research shows that the consolidated databases are adding and improving volunteer management modules, and that the two types of systems will converge in the near future. Currently, standalone systems still seem to have more functionality than most consolidated databases, and organizations with a larger budget and more complex needs can find more feature-rich options with standalone systems, but most organizations will be able to save money and meet a broad range of needs with a consolidated database.

As with most software decisions, start by looking at the software you already have. Does your existing system provide enough support for volunteer information? Could you buy an additional module to add this functionality? If you’re happy with the way you’re handling other constituents, but can’t get the efficiency you need in tracking volunteers in the same system, then it’s time to start considering standalone solutions.

To learn more about choosing a volunteer management system, or to read the free report, please visit http://idealware.org/volunteer_management.

Chris Bernard is the senior editor for Idealware, a nonprofit that provides thoroughly researched resources to help other nonprofits make smart software decisions.