What do you need  - now and in the future?

Before you start seriously shopping for software, make a list of the minimum set of requirements you need in order to run your organization efficiently. This can include things like voucher programs, on-line licensing, on-site clinic operations, employee/volunteer management with timesheets and reviews, Asilomar/Maddie's Fund reporting, daily statistics, and so on. If your operation is growing, also include the features you will need in the future. Lastly, add your "wish list" items. This will give you a solid basis of comparison between the packages you'll be looking at

Do you need Web-based software?

Because of our increasingly mobile lifestyles, Web-based software is often the most practical solution, particularly for organizations with multiple facilities, or with staff who may be out in the field or working from home. Web-based software has many benefits: you no longer need an IT staff or expensive computing infrastructure, your data is accessible 24/7/365, and it can feed data to your public Web site so that your adoptable animals and other information is updated in real time.

What are your short- and long-term goals?

Setting out your goals as an organization is a good way to figure out what you need in an animal shelter software system. Your goals might include things like reducing your euthanasia rate, greater public transparency, and streamlining your scheduling processes. For each goal, ask how the software will help you achieve it.

Do you have someone who can spearhead the project?

With any new software, a learning curve is involved. Assigning a primary "point person" - an employee or volunteer tasked with getting to know your new software and putting it into action - is typically the most efficient way to ensure a successful transition from your old system to the new. This point person should have a thorough understanding of the processes within your organization. S/he will work with the vendor to get questions answered and to determine the best way of implementing your procedures within the software, and will be the "go to" person for questions from staff.

Make a commitment and follow through

Making the time to train your employees and volunteers, and ensuring that the data they enter is accurate and complete, is critical to a successful implementation. If you want your data to be reliable and useful, you have to make sure it's done right the first time. If you've established a point person, s/he will be in charge of reviewing data entered and making adjustments to procedures or training when necessary. The need for this will lessen as time goes by, but these steps are essential to capturing usable data and being able to act on it.

Your data is also a powerful tool for educating the public about your day-to-day operations: who you help, how, and why. The better your data is, the better your ability to be a transparent and collaborative member of your local community.

Engage your employees, volunteers, and community

The best way of making sure your data is collected accurately and completely is to involve the people actually working with the animals on a day to day basis. They'll be more likely to enter data consistently and thoroughly if they understand how and why it will be used. Additionally, shelter staff will usually have valuable insights about data collection and use in their areas of responsibility. For the community, shelter software gives you a great way of gathering data and showing it to the public, along with a platform for explaining the "whys" behind it. The more familiar you are with your data you collect, the more effectively you'll be able to address questions and criticisms.