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Greg Leith

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The ASP Advantage: Top Ten Reasons Your Non-profit Should Consider a Change to an ASP

Non-profits have sometimes been considered runaways from technology. But things are changing. Non-profits are joining the Cyber-Information Highway at a fast pace, is there one in your future?

ASPs reduce costs and increase the power of information

The latest technological breakthrough in this arena is with Web-based software management programs, better known as Application Service Providers (ASPs). Quite simply, an ASP is a technology company that develops and delivers software tools over the Internet, usually for rent rather than outright purchase. ASPs offer non-profit the benefit of powerful multi-faceted software without the cost of buying and supporting the software, or buying, maintaining and upgrading the hardware required to run such packages.

The number of ASPs has grown dramatically in the last few years, along with the Internet's importance in American life. If you've used Internet-based programs such as AOL or Yahoo! e-mail services, done online banking or booked an airline ticket online, you can count yourself among ASP users.

There are hundreds of ASPs offering services ranging from e-commerce and e-mail listservs to complete relationship management systems and donor tracking capabilities. Non-profit are most likely to benefit from broad-based relationship management systems, which is the subject of this guide.

Why would your non-profit want an ASP?

The key advantage of using ASPs is that they are accessible from the Internet, so your members and staff can work on your centralized data from wherever they are. ASPs don't require users to install bulky software systems on users' computers, and because they are Web-based, their information can be easily retrieved from any computer with Internet access. Security is ensured with passwords and encryption.

Another reason non-profit should look seriously at an ASP is to position themselves with the technology of the future. Investors Business Daily, in a recent feature article about ASPs, said, "There's a quiet revolution going on in the software field. It's a new form of software delivery where software is sold as a sort of utility, with users renting programs on a subscription basis. Industry insiders say it's only a matter of time before the idea becomes the norm."

Read on to find out how an ASP can benefit your non-profit.

The ASP Advantage: Top Ten Reasons Your Non-profit Should Consider a Change to an ASP

So, why should you consider an ASP for your non-profit? If you are currently using an in-house (server-based) system where you own the software, and your software and data reside on the computers in your building, consider some of the factors that are driving non-profit to ASPs in greater and greater numbers.

1. A leader's office extends far beyond the walls of the building. Server-based software can't leave the computer it's installed on, but a leader is frequently away from the building when the needs of the organization call. With an ASP, software and data can travel with them to wherever their day takes them.

ASPs allow non-profit staff and even volunteers to access vital information anytime, anywhere. All that's needed is a computer with an Internet connection, a user ID and a password. The work of a non-profit organization is not constrained by walls or office hours, so it needs to be supported by a database that's free from such restrictions as well.

2. The work of the non-profit is being done by more than just the leader or their team. In a server-based system, usually just a few non-profit members have access to the database and share responsibility for entering new information. This restricts the ability of volunteers to make use of the rich storehouse of information that resides in the non-profit's centralized database.

With a quality ASP, more people can share responsibility for the work and do the job their volunteer role asks of them. For instance, volunteers might add new members to a list from home on a Sunday afternoon while at the same time the non-profit's financial committee chairman sits in their boardroom and updates records of giving for the day on the same centralized database. As ownership of the database is distributed via an ASP, leaders and volunteers are empowered.

3. People are used to information on-demand. Now that we're used to paying bills on-line, getting up-to-the-minute bank balances, or ordering a book from our home computers, our expectation for personalized information on-demand is raising higher and higher. But it is the rare non-profit that can meet that demand when members want to find out their year-to-date giving record, or to see if they are registered for an upcoming event.

Some ASPs can be set up so that all non-profit members can view their up-to-the-minute giving history without having to wait for statements generated by the non-profit office. There are also ASPs that can perform tasks such as registering on-line for events, or submitting updates to their family profile information. Using the same security measures as the banking industry, ASPs can disseminate information to authorized members without requiring the administrative intervention of non-profit office staff.

4. Non-profit are full of multi-dimensional people. Perhaps your organization is guilty of propagating independent databases that see people in a single dimension. People are interconnected with each other and with groups, but if a non-profit is maintaining disconnected databases, leaders get frustrated because they can't get synthesized, reliable information about people.

Into this artificially-segmented, unconnected data structure enters the ASP. The ASP solution makes sense for the non-profit with multiple databases, because the most likely reason those databases sprung up in the first place is that the leaders could not access or rely on the centralized database easily -- so they started their own! Now with an ASP, any leader can access the central database from anywhere at any time. So, (assuming the ASP software has these capabilities) a non-profit member can be seen as a family member and as a committee member, and in relationship to his children and in relationship to the other similar people in the organization, and when he moves, his new address only has to be recorded in one place. ASP non-profit management software sees people the way non-profit see people -- multidimensional and interrelated.

5. Staff can get stymied by the old learning curve. Learning a new software program can cause anxiety for anyone. Traditional software companies offer, and sometimes require, formal training programs in the use of their packages. Such training is vital to staff members who wish to make the most effective use of the software in their particular environment. But this training comes at a cost. Not only can training courses involve registration fees, travel expenses, and per person add-on fees, but there are also considerations such as lost time, interruption of operations, and re-training for new employees or when new releases are introduced. It can be frustrating to have a new release or a new module waiting to be used, but to have to wait to be trained on it before the software company will allow users to go "live."

With an ASP, there should be only minimal training required, because most people have already used ASP-type software when doing their on-line banking or exploring the internet. Many ASPs give granular help messages for each field and function, and the more established ASPs even provide manned help desks to handle the most difficult questions.

6. Non-profit have limited resources. Traditional software packages must be installed and configured on a particular computer or network system, taking up large amounts of disk space. Even large-capacity computers often need to add disk space with each new software release. This can create a problem for non-profit with older computers or computers with small amounts of available memory. In addition, as a non-profit adds users to the system, traditional software licenses levy increases in user fees, and require expansion of hardware capabilities to handle new users. All of this is taxing on the limited resources of the typical non-profit.

But with an ASP, the software resides on large, powerful host computers, which have the capacity to run the most sophisticated programs at microspeeds. Need to add users? No problem with most ASPs. Increases in number of users, size of database, or software modules have no impact on the non-profit's local computers. The ASP absorbs the changes in activity, and non-profit do not have to create the technological infrastructure to handle such growth.

7. Non-profits are in the service business, not the computer business. Today's increasing demands for sophisticated information systems are often beyond the abilities of the non-profit staff to support. Acquiring a great computer system is only a fraction of the picture. Those computers need to be maintained and backed up and linked into networks and upgraded, and most non-profits are ill-equipped to handle such demands. So, they hire a computer consultant, or they rely on a technical-savvy volunteer. For many non-profit, the advent of the computer age has brought with it more complication, more frustration and more expense as they struggle to keep their systems operational and up-to-date.

The refreshing difference with an ASP is that the majority of the hardware and software maintenance and upgrade issues are handled by the ASP. Expansion of your database does not involve the addition of computer disk space, so you no longer have to call in the expert to install any more gigabytes of storage on your computers. Your data is backed up on redundant systems by most ASPs, so you don't have to fiddle with backup tapes or worry about a computer crash (and wonder if your loyal volunteer will be able to get there soon enough to help you recover). An ASP can get you back to the business of being a non-profit!

8. Non-profit have finance committees. And finance committees love to save money. A careful look at most non-profit computer budgets will reveal a shocking truth: computers cost more than you think they do. Factor in costs of hardware upgrades, software licenses, wiring installations, networking software, computer consultants, annual maintenance contracts, training courses, and in-house staff time, and your computer system could very well occupy a substantial percentage of your annual budget!

An ASP, on the other hand, could be the best bargain your non-profit budget committee has seen in years. When the software is being maintained and upgraded by the ASP and your data is being stored and backed up by the ASP, your non-profit will see a reduction in the amount of hardware support, professional support, and investment of staff time you need. Plus, you can start saving money right away by using email instead of postage to communicate with your constituents.

9. Waiting for a fix is frustrating. Major software upgrades are disrupting. Every user of a server-based software system shares a common frustration. If there is a bug in the system, or if you have requested a fix or a new feature, often you have to wait months because such fixes are only implemented when the next version of the software is released. In contrast, quality ASPs are continuously updating their software. Non-profits benefit almost immediately since such upgrades are often introduced as soon as they are completed. In addition, unlike the costs associated with upgrading traditional software to the new version, updates to ASP software packages are usually included with the monthly service fee -- at no extra charge!

Consider another common problem. The traditional software version upgrade involves hundreds of changes are made at one time. This often creates a significant disruption to the office, where major changes in procedure may need to be made to conform to the new software release. But in the ASP-world, small, frequent changes can take place regularly. This is how people naturally prefer to deal with change -- a little at a time, not in massive doses. Another benefit of the typical ASP update process is that every customer is on the same release, which greatly simplifies the process of providing quality customer support.

10. Non-profits are sensitive about their data. And well they should be. Non-profits are the repository for some of the most private information about people. That information needs to be handled with care, especially if the database includes checking account or credit card numbers or social security numbers. A common fear about ASPs is that the non-profit's data will be lost or its privacy breached. But consider the scenario in the average non-profit. Typically, non-profits do not have the technical expertise to store backups in a number of places in case of loss or theft, create redundant databases, prevent hackers from infiltrating their systems, and establish sophisticated levels of access to assure that only authorized people view private information. Even more basic is the common problem of unreliable backups because of inconsistently following backup procedures. When seen in light of the standard security measures taken by a reliable ASP, a non-profit's concerns about the security of their data on an ASP computer can seem misplaced. In comparison, a non-profit's records are likely far more secure with an ASP than when stored on an in-house computer.

ASP Guide: Features & Benefits (Top 10 Reasons to Consider a Change to an ASP)

1. No wallsAnyone with a password can work from any computer with internet access, unrestricted by office hours or non-profit buildings
2. Multiple user accessSave time and money by mobilizing volunteers; higher organizational productivity; work in new ways
3. Information on-demandThe general population can access their personal record; no waiting for office staff to be available to retrieve information
4. Contact managementTrack relationships; dispersed staff can access centralized, single-source information shared by everyone; customizable fields that organize information based on your needs
5. Simple to useNo long training curve; employs internet protocols for ease-of-use
6. Industrial-strength, scalable systems architectureGrows right along with you without having to implement new software modules or add expensive upgrades to your hardware
7. Web-based not non-profit-basedAlways up-to-date; less administration required; ability to release your staff from systems management; no need for Information Technology (IT) staff; no need for outsourced IT staff
8. Low priceLow, predictable monthly fee; no major software purchases; no software update costs or maintenance fees; no expensive hardware to buy; reduced need for IT professionals
9. Continuous updatesNo waiting for software upgrades; no cost for upgrades; no organizational disruption due to major, infrequent software upgrades; all changes and enhancements given to all customers simultaneously; enhanced quality of customer support
10. Strong system securityPeace of mind; secure data centers, data redundancy, data backup, and data encryption provide maximum protection for sensitive data


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