Ever had a promised “integrated systems” experience that turned out to be ... less than?
Unfortunately, the definition of "integration" leaves a lot of wiggle room. It’s used broadly to refer to any kind of connection or interoperability between different software systems.
This matters because poorly or non-integrated systems mean your staff operates inefficiently or in siloes. Data duplication, errors or gaps plague your efforts to manage people and events. Errors and delays alienate members and guests or cause friction among staff. (Source)
So before you sign on the dotted line, here’s what you need to know.
3 “Integrated" Church System Setups That Really Aren’t
There’s no official standard for what qualifies as integration. So be on the lookout for these counterfeits and variations:
Systems that require manual data transfer.
If you have to upload a CSV file from one system into the other, that is not a complete integration. That may unavoidable. But find out upfront how much manual effort will be required to keep the data in sync.
One very effective workaround that eliminates manual data entry is when a vendor creates a report that “maps” their data to the other system’s formatting. (For example, the giving data upload from your giving system is formatted to match your accounting system’s structure, reducing reconciliation time by 50% or more.)
Systems that use third-party integration tools.
Let’s say your giving software includes a built-in integration with your ChMS. If you want some functionality that isn't included, you could choose a third-party solution to custom create that integration (or create your own in-house - NOT RECOMMENDED).
While this is not a native integration, it can be beneficial. Be aware that it will add another layer of cost, service touchpoints and potential confusion if the various system vendors point to the others when there's a problem. Ask the questions below to fully understand the level of connection users can expect with any third-party integration tool.
Systems that are only partially integrated.
With a “partial” integration, you will see not only the need for manual data exports and imports, but also updates that do not occur in real-time (resulting in inconsistent data sync), critical data that only goes one way, and data sync of only some information.
For example, a giving solution may connect with a ChMS by sharing Name and Email Address, but NO Giving data (true story!). Partial integration is common, as not all vendors will give access to other vendors to create full integration with their system. This level of integration can result in data inconsistencies, unreliable reports, unexpected manual processes, a disjointed user experience, and potential customer service gaps.
To be fair, in some cases partial integration is unavoidable. But you always want to know in advance what these limitations are. (See Questions to Ask below)
When a Vendor's Own Systems Aren't Truly Integrated
We’ve been talking generally about integrating separate systems created by separate vendors.
But poor integration happens within closed ecosystems, too.
Lightweight, non-native integrations between a vendor’s core product and its ancillary products are common and can result in similar issues. (This can happen with acquisitions or products they've quickly spun up to produce what they call an "all-in-one" solution.)
Cobbled-together systems like this put your member’s sensitive information at risk. And they don't provide a seamless experience for front- or back-end users.
Integrated Systems: 9 Questions to Ask Every Church Software Vendor
Carefully evaluate claims of "integration" when selecting software or systems. Look beyond marketing-speak and evaluate the actual functionality and user experience of the software or system before making a decision. It’s a good idea to have your IT person handy to interpret the answers.
- Can the system be integrated with other systems or applications, and if so, how?
- What types of integration methods are supported (e.g. API, webhooks, middleware)?
- How easy is it to set up integrations, and what level of technical expertise is required?
- Are there any limitations or restrictions on the types of data that can be exchanged between the integrated systems or applications?
- What level of data synchronization is supported (e.g., real-time, batch, bidirectional)?
- Are there any additional costs associated with setting up or maintaining integrations?
- How is data security and privacy ensured when integrating with other systems or applications?
- Are there any performance or scalability issues that can arise from integrating with other systems or applications?
- What level of technical support or assistance is available for setting up and maintaining integrations?
By the way, here's what WE mean by "integration."