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The Best Things In Life Aren’t Free – You Get What You Pay For

Shortly after I started as CIO of Citizen Schools (a national educational nonprofit) in 2008, I ran into a problem that’s common for most nonprofit executives (whether in technology or other parts of the organization): I had a long list of projects that needed to get done, a minimal team to work with and not a lot of budget.  I quickly hired a developer and we set to work.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that the more work we did, the further behind we were going to get; our maintenance burden alone would quickly consume my resources’ capacity and we’d never be able to take on the next set of projects.

As with many nonprofit organizations, our systems landscape was a hodgepodge of different applications, some donated (Sharepoint), some purchased (Raiser’s Edge) and some home-built. Regardless of how we got the system, they all took people and time to use them effectively and to keep them up and running. We were too big to try and rely on volunteers to build and support these systems – they were too critical to everything we did.

I’d also inherited a Salesforce instance that a business user had set up, and I was intrigued by the potential of what I saw – ‘Clicks not Code’, ‘No Software’ were the taglines and they hinted at a way out of the resource trap in which I found myself.  It wasn’t a panacea, to be sure – Salesforce offered us 10 free licenses, which was great for a small department to use, but to roll it out more broadly was going to cost us.  At the same time, knew that I was going to have to spend somehow – either hiring more staff to do development or to rely on consultants to do the work, so it was worth investigating.  I went to Dreamforce that fall, became a convert, and never looked back, ultimately using Salesforce for our volunteer management, student and program management, fundraising, IT help desk and other needs. We were able to do this because of the power and extensibility of the Salesforce platform.

The point of this story is twofold – the first, as the title of this post suggests, is that there is no such thing as a free lunch – it’s just a question of how you pay for it.  With free, open-source or donated software, there is still an implementation cost, whether it be in time, money or reduced/limited functionality.  This is true whether you’re talking about Salesforce, a phone system or a web-site.  Ultimately, your organization should be making its decisions based on Total Cost of Ownership and relative value for that cost.

When I chose Salesforce, that was the calculus I used, and it was based on the following factors:

  • Cloud-First: Salesforce has been built from the beginning to be a cloud-based platform, and with that come some fundamental advantages, such as the multi-tenant architecture, ability to scale, and perhaps most importantly for a nonprofit, no servers to manage.  Not having to focus on server upgrades, backups or disaster recovery or paying to have the necessary skills to do those things, you can rely on Salesforce to take care of them, secure in the knowledge that a small non-profit is getting the same level of service that a Fortune 100 company is.  Additionally, because Salesforce is managing data security, it’s their job to ensure that their systems meet PCI, HIPAA and other regulatory requirements.
  • Platform: As mentioned above, we were able to expand our use of Salesforce across multiple business areas because it’s not just a CRM application, but rather it is a platform that has multiple core functions (CRM, Case management, etc.) that can be extended and customized to meet specific business needs.  In many cases, that customization can truly be done by an Administrator without having to rely on programming support.  This both reduces the time required to make changes and allows users who best understand the business requirements to make those changes.  Additionally, as Salesforce has matured, the platform has extended to include features such as the Marketing Cloud and the Analytics Cloud as add-ons that are tightly integrated with the core platform.
  • Ecosystem: The Salesforce AppExchange and ISV ecosystem consists of a wealth of pre-packaged solutions, ranging from simple utilities to full-blown applications and everything in between. Continuing on the theme of extensibility, most of these will plug seamlessly into your existing Salesforce organization and any customizations you may have made, allowing you to harness the power of best-of-breed solutions alongside your own work.  I was able to leverage a number of applications off of the Salesforce AppExchange to support the work we did, some free and some paid.  When we reached the limits of the customizations that we could support, we were also able to tap the ecosystem of consulting partners, who bring deep knowledge of, and experience with the platform.
  • Innovation: Salesforce has a history of innovation, starting with Marc Benioff’s original question of ‘Why can’t using enterprise software be as easy as using’ and continuing through today.  A few weeks ago, at Dreamforce, Salesforce showcased Einstein, an AI tool that will bring machine-learning and predictive-analytics into the core platform.  Salesforce also provides three major releases a year, each bringing a wealth of new functionality – and you get them automatically as part of your license with downtime measured in minutes.  If you’ve ever been involved in upgrading software, then you’ll understand just how revolutionary that concept is. Ultimately, it’s this commitment to innovation that is what sold me about Salesforce; knowing that our organization could benefit directly and (relatively) easily from all the great stuff that gets rolled out during the year.

When I left Citizen Schools in 2013 to join Cloud for Good, it was because I was convinced that it was, hands-down, the best technology platform that nonprofits could use to deliver their mission.  More than three years later, I remain convinced.  Check it out for yourself and see if you don’t agree.