The short version:
For those who just want the minimum, we've teamed up with a group who is developing a Church Management solution based on the Microsoft Dynamics platform. I'm not at liberty to share all the details yet, but the quick take is that we get to help design a system that is being developed by a Microsoft partner and Microsoft is picking up most of the costs. This is just too good an opportunity to pass up.
The long story:
Until just a few months ago, we were looking at a lot of products, but the choices narrowed to two: Blackbaud and Fellowship One. Getting down to those two was very difficult. For years there just weren't any exciting products to choose from. We've been with Shelby for EIGHT years, and despite some complaints, it really was the right choice from what was available. In the last year we've seen new plans from ACS, Shelby, and others that make it pretty clear this market is changing, and for the better. Fellowship One is continuing to push the envelope, and companies like Blackbaud are trying to enter the field. Others are on the horizon that will keep this market interesting for quite a while. But I digress. Back to our situation -- two candidates, and we had a lot to like about each of them.
Why we like Blackbaud:
Blackbaud is a fascinating company. They are top quality through and through, from the first entry into their building, to meetings with their business analysts, to the way they maintain their APIs across product versions, and on and on. The people and company are all first class in everything.
I've known of Blackbaud for years, but never looked at them as a Church Management vendor. Early this year, they contacted me, having been reading my blog and said, in effect, "we can do what you want." I didn't believe them, but figured it didn't hurt to visit. Several of us made that visit in February and we came away impressed, to say the very least. For the first time, we were beginning to think maybe we could have *everything* we wanted in a Church product!
We've had multiple follow-up meetings with Blackbaud. Each meeting, they continued to impress us with their quality and processes. It's very hard not to like these people and this company, a lot! Even when we did real price discussions, knowing that Blackbaud was going to be way (repeat multiple times) more expensive than anything else we'd considered, we were still interested.
Why we like Fellowship One:
I've been following Fellowship Technologies, well, since before they were Fellowship Technologies! The story of Fellowship One is somewhat the same as our story -- a need for something that didn't exist, the desire of Fellowship Church to not be in the software business, and the ultimate decision to create the right answer and spin the product off to a new company. There had long been a void in products that suited large/growing/progressive churches and it was inevitable that sooner or later, somebody would step into that void. Fellowship One was the answer, or at least a very good start at the answer.
We've have many conversations with Jeff Hook, Jeff Pelletier, and others, and we always come away from those conversations encouraged and impressed. Fellowship's desire to do things "right" and to focus on ministry is clear. I love how "business" meetings with Jeff are always relational meetings, with a clear spiritual bias.
Fellowship One doesn't cover all our needs. But, they have APIs, they have developers, and they're very open to new ideas. There is every reason to believe that they could step up to meet our needs, given time and money.
So, we had a tough choice. Go for the very expensive product, custom tailored to our needs, or go with the existing product and enhance it to our needs. The price difference made the latter the apparently easier choice. Yet we also wanted to see what Blackbaud could do. During the last few weeks of our evaluation, we'd sometimes have conversations where one of us would say something like "Well, I think we know what our decision is." Then another would say "me too." Then we'd compare answers and they were not the same!
Fitting things into circles
Quite a while back, Whitney had done some graphics that showed how various products fit "in the circle." Those graphics had been so well received that Whitney decided to do it again. Here's what the Blackbaud diagram ended up looking like:
Let's just say, this is a pretty convincing argument. Still, convincing doesn't mean easy!
A difficult choice, Whitney's prayer
As we were coming closer and closer to a decision (still not sure which one!), Whitney had an interesting prayer about clarity. In her prayer, she made mention of something like "if there's something else we should be looking at, make it obvious."
The surprise message
I'd made a couple of posts to my blog last year that referenced MS-CRM. In particular, on December 29 I'd made a post that included this paragraph:
I'm also still holding out a little hope that someone will jump onto Microsoft's CRM and build a church-oriented package. Of course, the cost of entry would be pretty steep.
Well, a few months back I'd received a message that indicated something was happening that might interest me. As it works out, we got to see a presentation and early demo of this package right as we were in the final stages of our decision process. Oh my! Suddenly, everything changed. One of our biggest ongoing ChMS challenges is that our staff is inclined to put stuff into Outlook that really should be in the ChMS. Well, if the ChMS is based on MS-CRM, that is actually built on top of Outlook, then all of a sudden the "problem" of using Outlook becomes the opportunity -- putting stuff into Outlook really is putting the data into the database! (Yes, I know that's over-simplifying, but the concept still fits).
CRM as a Platform
As we started digging in to CRM, a lot of those benefits we'd considered possibilities began to look like realities. Since CRM (or Microsoft Dynamics) represents some core technologies, and there are many development companies building product for CRM, then the opportunity to start plugging pieces into the platform becomes significant. There are lots of developers. There are lots of Microsoft partners working with CRM. (With either Blackbaud or Fellowship One, our choices, although good, would have been more limited) As part of the new evaluation process, Whitney did another circle diagram. Wow!
This is NOT easier!
Having three choices is certainly not easier than having just two! Yeah, I know, that's kind of obvious. Saying 'yes' to any one of the choices really means saying 'no' to the other two. And clearly, there are a lot of things we liked about all three.
In the end, there were two factors that tipped the scales. First, being MS-CRM based, the connect with Outlook is a big gain. For most of our staff, Outlook is the application they spend all day working in. CRM lets the staff continue to work in a single application, but now that application includes access to the database. The second big factor was Microsoft themselves. They are behind this project, they want our input, and they're covering the costs. So, somewhat like the Blackbaud approach, we get to be tightly involved in the specification of the product, but in this case, the price is much more affordable.
Is there a risk? What if something goes wrong?
Of course there's risk. Although the vendor has been in the business of supporting churches for many years, they haven't been specifically a software developer, so there are additional partnerships involved. Microsoft is not particularly well known as being a highly spiritual company (although I know a lot of Christians who work there). This is a very different venture for all the parties. Things could go badly. But even if they do, the core CRM offers so many church-oriented features, that it's almost useful without being customized. And, with as many CRM partners as there are, there are always ways we can "change horses" and keep the basic functionality. Kind of interestingly, some of the first things we'll do to prepare for CRM are the same things we'd be doing if we had selected Fellowship One. Interesting how that works out.
I'll be glad when I can announce who the vendor is for this. Until then, I just have to say "more info to come."