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Local or Web-Based Church Management Software?
By: Marla Becker

As you research software companies, one of the issues you need to address is which of these two broad options might be best for you:  1) Locally installed software, accessed both internally and remotely, or 2) Web-based software. A very basic difference between these types of church management software applications is where the software will actually be installed and stored. Software that is installed and run on the customer's local computer has been the standard, but over the last five years, however, a new platform has come available, which is Web-based software.

Typically, these two different types of software offer similar features, since the work of the church requires the same tasks to be completed regardless of the software selected. Most reputable church software packages will offer, at minimum, a member database, a method of recording and acknowledging contributions, and a system of accounting for the church finances.

Locally installed software and Web-based software each have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. One type of application is not a blanket solution for every church customer. In making the decision between desktop-based and Web-based software, it would be helpful to be aware of a few of these advantages and concerns.

Desktop-Based Software
A common misconception is that the ability to work on the church database remotely is limited to Web-based systems. Most desktop-based programs are licensed to the church itself, not by individual computer, so that you may legally install the program on as many separate computers as you would like for use by your church. Therefore, an option for working remotely would be to install the software on the additional computer and work offsite by systematically backing up and restoring the data to and from the main church computer. This option for working remotely removes the requirement for a constant, fast, and reliable Internet connection, since the remote computer is using only local programs and data.

Another option for working remotely with desktop-based software is to use a third-party service, such as PCAnywhere or GoToMyPC, both of which allow an off-site computer to log on and work on another computer across the Internet. This option requires that both the main church computer and the remote computer have a constant and fast Internet connection, as the remote computer is actually using the resources on the church computer. Only some supporting files actually run on the remote computer. In fact, some church software companies that offer "online" church management systems are actually using this technology to do so; the software is not truly "Web-based" software that runs in an Internet browser—it is desktop-based software, but the program and data are housed on the software company's computers, and the church users connect and run the software directly over the Internet. This is exactly the method church customers could use to access their own desktop-based church software remotely.

One advantage to desktop-based systems is that everything is stored where the program is installed. You purchased the product – the software – and you own the application and your data. All you need is a consistent and reliable procedure for backing up your data to protect against disaster, which is advisable for all components of your computer, not just the church management data. Then, in case of computer failure or events such as theft or fire, you can reinstall the software on your new computer, restore your backup, and be back to full functionality.

This is also an advantage when it comes to the software company itself. It is important in any purchasing decision to ask some tough questions about the company reliability and longevity – even in a worst-case scenario and they go out of business, you still have the program and your data and you can continue your work as usual. Your day-to-day tasks do not rely on the health of the software company.

While desktop-based software typically has most of its costs paid up-front, this represents a stable investment, since your monthly costs typically are lower than Web-based software. Any other ongoing fees might include a support contract, which is usually optional, and possible monthly fees for remote access using a third-party provider, which is again optional and often lower than that of Web-based systems.

Disadvantages to desktop-based programs are, again, typically higher up-front fees upon purchasing the software, and since you own the software, you are usually responsible for installing any upgrades or patches on your computer, as well. Since desktop-based software is installed and runs directly from your computer, it is also advisable to purchase larger, faster computers than might be necessary with Web-based systems.

Also, while it is possible to work remotely with both types of systems, desktop-based systems may have fewer features that may be more inherent to Web-based systems, such as the ability for members to update their own records online, or the ability for the church software to communicate directly with the church Website.

Web-Based or "Online" Church Software Systems
The ability to access the church database from anywhere at any time is a very popular feature, and it is a large reason for the growing popularity of Web-based systems. This characteristic is appreciated, if not required, by larger church organizations that have many staff members routinely working away from a main church office.  Some systems can offer attractive and convenient features, such as the ability for members to update their own membership records or view their giving history from home.

Another advantage to Web-based systems is that they can be used at any computer with an Internet connection and a browser regardless of operating system. If the volunteers and staff members using the church software are equally split between Windows fans and die-hard Mac users, Web-based church software can usually accommodate both.

Web-based systems are attractive to some because there are no worries about installing or maintaining the software itself. The program is hosted on a remote server, and the church customer simply accesses the software remotely, so the software company itself installs patches and upgrades, not the end-user.

Taking away the responsibility of data storage and backup is another feature that makes Web-based systems attractive. These companies typically store each of their customers' data on their own server computers, not on the local church computers, and the maintenance and safety of the church information is the company's responsibility, not the customers'. In some cases, Web-based software has a lower up-front cost than that of desktop-based software, and the potentially low monthly fees can be attractive.

Many of the advantages of Web-based software can be disadvantages, as well, depending on your viewpoint. All Web-based or "online" software solutions, by definition, require a consistent, reliable, and preferably high-speed Internet connection in order for the church customer to use the software. Interruptions in Internet service, on the part of either the customer or the provider, can cause your work to come to a full stop.

Also, because the church data typically resides on the software company's servers and is communicated across the Internet, the security of that data can be a concern. While data encryption, firewalls, and other defensive procedures are a prerequisite for offering Web-based systems, nothing is 100% effective 100% of the time, and as these protective systems become more sophisticated, so do the hackers who would be trying to steal information or wreak havoc. Security is always a concern when communicating across the Internet.

Another consideration is access to your data itself. With some Web-based software providers, you cannot have access to your raw data files, either for your own data backup purposes, or for the purpose of exporting your data elsewhere.

While the cost for Web-based software is typically a monthly fee, the fee structure can vary widely from one company to another. Some charge based on church size (and be sure to know how your fees may grow as your church grows), some costs are based on the number of users who will be accessing the software, some charge based on the features the church would like to use, and so on. Over time, even the most affordable monthly fees can eventually add up to a higher cost than the price of a desktop-based system, and while some companies have little to no startup fees, some others have startup fees that can far surpass the initial cost of most desktop-based programs.

With a Web-based system, since the church does not own a copy of the software itself, it is important that the software company be stable, reliable and not in danger of going out of business, since typically, once the company is gone, your software is gone, as well.

Factors to Consider
There are major considerations that pertain to all types of church management software, as well. With both platforms, you, as the customer, are still required to own and maintain your own computers, ensuring that operating system updates are installed, security updates are installed, and firewalls are maintained and updated with latest virus definitions.

Also, regardless of the type of church management software you use, the church customer needs to ensure that all staff members are trained in the use of the software and know how to contact the software company for support.

Marla Becker is a vice president at Computer Helper Publishing, home of Church Windows church management software, www.churchwindows.com.







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