What do you need now...and what will you need 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 being able to issue receipts or print documents with intake, on-line licensing, clinic scheduling, employee/volunteer management, 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 software packages you evaluate.
Do you need web-based software?
Because so many of us now work from home or out in the field, web-based software should be considered a requirement for every organization. Web-based software allows sharing of data between multiple facilities, users, and sites. You will also not need an IT staff or expensive computing infrastructure, your data is accessible 24/7/365, and data can be automatically fed to your public website so that your adoptables, lost and found animals, and forms are always showing data in real time.
Does the software save you time by automating repetitive tasks?
If you spend time registering microchips or posting your adoptable animals to various sites like Petfinder and Adopt-A-Pet, look for software that automates those processes for you and lets you concentrate on other tasks. Additionally, if you run similar reports regularly, look for software that lets you save and rerun and/or automatically e-mail those reports to your choice of recipients.
Can you get your data out?
Will your software let you create reports and download search results and other data based on criteria you set? Will you be able to show your adoptable animals, forms, and lost and found listings on your public website in real time with no intervention on your part?
Who owns your data? Is your customer privacy protected?
As they say, you get what you pay for. Many low-cost or free software packages harvest data from your customers and contact them without a specific opt-in. Others require purchase of microchips and other items, making the true cost of the software...well, not exactly free. Take care to ensure that your software fits into your budget and financial goals without penalizing your organization for adopting more animals or adding staff and users.
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 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.
Keep in mind that 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 concerns and answer questions.