CiviCRM a Year Later

Just over a year ago I posted this item on how the Evangelical Press Association is using CiviCRM as its association management software system. To my knowledge, CiviCRM is the only open source product on the market that directly addresses non-profit/membership organization data management needs, so I’m always interested to hear how it’s being used.

Doug Trouten, who I quoted in the earlier post, had some more to say about his experience with CiviCRM. I’m quoting him here, with his permission.

CiviCRM is pretty powerful, and you can make it do most AMS tasks (database, event registration, dues, e-mail blasts, etc.), but it’s not specifically designed for association work, so you’ll need to bend it to your needs. For instance, when I upgrade to a new version of CiviCRM (and there’s an update every month or two), I have to go into the PHP by hand and change “contribution amount” to “annual dues.”

I’d also say that CiviCRM is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not a very user-friendly system. In fact, in some ways it’s almost user-hostile. For instance, there’s no easy backup-and-restore for your member database, in part because things wind up being scattered over a number of MySQL tables. I’ve suggested the addition of a simple back-and-restore function, and the

developer say, “Why don’t you just use phpMyAdmin to dump all of the MySQL tables to your hard drive?” And of course you can do that, but the fact that they believe this makes a simple “backup” command in the program unnecessary shows the hacker/hobbyist ethos that drives the project.

Having said that, it should also be noted that CiviCRM integrates very nicely with Drupal — better than with Joomla. If I was redoing my site in Drupal, I’d definitely take a hard look at CiviCRM. It’s open source (free), which is nice, and you can pick up and move your whole operation to another server easily — you’re not locked into a proprietary software-as-a-service kind of deal.

If you make the move to CiviCRM, you’ll need to have a tech-savvy person on your staff to oversee everything on an ongoing basis, or you’re going to wind up hiring a developer/consultant every now and then to help you with things.Just last weekend I upgraded our CiviCRM installation to the latest version, and in the process “broke” some of our search and registration forms. It took an hour or two of digging around to find the settings I needed to change to fix the problems. But on the bright side, I was able to find it and fix it myself, rather than waiting a day for a vendor and then paying for the work. There are plenty of trade-offs, but for an organization with a small budget and a tech-savvy staff member, open source can be a great way to go.

I think Doug makes some pretty good points here, especially that even “free” open source is not free (i.e., either you do the work yourself or you pay someone else to do it, neither of which is free).

As always, I’d love to hear from others who have had experience with open source data management systems.

About Wes Trochlil

For a quarter century, Wes has worked in and with dozens of associations and membership organizations throughout the US, ranging in size from zero staff (all-volunteer) to over 700. In that time Wes has provided a range of consulting services, from general consulting on data management issues to full-scale, association-wide selection and implementation of association management systems.

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