Help us switch to Drupal
September 27, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe

The case for Drupal? Or, why we should ditch Kintera and not choose BlueState or Expression Engine, etc.

I work at a large non-profit umbrella group with 501(c)3, 501(c)4 and PAC subgroups. We've been on a ten-year contract with Kintera, and aside from the fact that Kintera's a mighty pain in the ass to use, it's costing us thousands of dollars per month.

We've been talking about a migration for a while now, but we're dealing with a board who don't know a lot about technology, and the communications director and operations director disagree about what to switch to. The coms director likes Drupal, the ops director likes … well, whatever his friends at different organizations are playing with at the moment. Expression Engine and BlueState are the big ones.

Our big needs are a) hosting and organizing content, b) taking contributions in a secure, robust way, and c) easy to train new people on.

So: I'd like to know what clear advantages Drupal has over other systems outside of being a free license, specifically regarding what we need, and why you would choose it over BlueState or Expression Engine, etc. (We do have a couple of contractors and designers who will do the install/migration and provide some ongoing support for Drupal, so support is less of a problem than it might otherwise be.)

What are things you'd highlight? What are (especially non-profit) sites that really use Drupal well? What advantages do Expression Engine and BlueState have over Drupal? Is there anything we should know or be wary of?
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Ignoring the fact that I'm a big Drupal fan (so it's what I know), if you work for a large non-profit, surely you have some IT people. All other things being equal, if you've got an IT department with a bunch Drupal experience, that would be something to consider.

Drupal as a CMS is fantastic, though I think it is more a CMF these days. So think more complex than just a blogging engine, but with that comes more power. (D7 has fields [née CCK] in core, D8 will have views.)

Drupal Commerce will handle payments, security is your problem (like any self-deployed software solution, especially an open source one). Think about PCI DSS if you're going to be handling credit cards.

Training is simple and 99% of day to day content management is straight forward. Any edge cases you might have where things get complex, if there isn't a simple, clean UI for that, one can always be made in a few hours with development time.

Read some Drupal case studies, specifically some of the non-profit Drupal case studies and ecommerce Drupal case studies.

In addition to d.o, check out g.d.o, there's groups for every interest.

Not sure if CRM is what you need, but there's also CiviCRM.

If you can post something more specific about your site (beyond the site will have content and we need to manage it, the site needs to accept donations and the staff need to be trained to use the site), you can get more specific answers.
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:12 AM on September 27, 2012

Ugh. Blackbaud. I hadn't ever even heard of Kintera, but I had to deal with BB back in the day when I worked for another *huge* NPO. I swear that BB's position is this: "Internets are hard, charge a lot!"

I also haven't used drupal since probably...2007? 2008? At that time I went with Mambo (now Joomla) and I haven't really looked back, except to add WordPress for folks who need life super simple.

I think your challenge is going to be that you're not going to get an "out of the box solution" like what BB provides, and you may (read: probably) have to kludge together some fixes.

Like I said, I can't speak to Drupal, but I'd give joomla a serious lookey-loo. It's 508 compliant by its very nature (unless you're silly), and has no problem interfacing with server-provided SSL/etc for cc processing, and there are extensions to suit pretty much your every need. Sites like rentacoder ( give you access to a plethora of highly skilled, CHEAP developers if you need something that doesn't exit. Here's a page of extensions that match the search criteria "donation processing".

Joomla is also free and, because it integrates multiple degrees of user privileges, is relatively easy for the masses to learn. You can also allow on-page edits (without a backend login), so that's pretty fun.
posted by TomMelee at 8:56 AM on September 27, 2012

I've built a couple of big sites in Drupal and I detest it. It's a CMS for developers rather than end users - the click, click, click, click, save, click approach to editing anything is horrendous for actually managing content.

I've found ExpressionEngine to be far faster and more user-friendly for end users.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:06 AM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Many of the large, enterprise-level nonprofits such as ACLU and Amnesty use Drupal. There are also many, many smaller and mid-size nonprofits using Drupal.

For just content management, I think Drupal is a no-brainer. It's a huge open source project supported by a great community. There are many companies and organizations, such as the White House, with a vested interest in seeing Drupal succeed. One of the best parts of using Drupal is that chances are someone has run into your problem before and has a solution.

In terms of training, there is also now a ton of freely available and paid training material for Drupal. This wasn't always the case. Since Drupal is so popular in the nonprofit space, there's a good chance that new employees will have some exposure to it.

There's a second question within your question, which is how to use Drupal. You could potentially just use Drupal for content management and then use other systems for collecting donations, sending out emails, event registrations, etc. In your requirements, you mention "taking contributions in a secure, robust way." Depending on how much money you are collecting via online donations, I'd probably recommend different systems. In addition, you didn't mention whether your online donation system needs to integrate with any sort of donor database or email system.

I'd be wary of any vendor that tells you that they can provide a great all-in-one system that includes fundraising and donor managmeent for anything until $80K. One thing to keep in mind when weighing your options is that the initial cost of implementing Drupal may be higher than for something like Kintera or Blue State Digital. However, if you look at the license costs over time, you will likely be saving a tremendous amount of money.
posted by JuliaKM at 9:11 AM on September 27, 2012

I wish I could add to what everyone else has said, but I'm not sure I can, it's all true, and exactly what I would've said.

Right now, you just can't beat Drupal. Active communities, huge user base, lots of paid consultants out there, scales well, open source... it's all good.
posted by Blake at 9:19 AM on September 27, 2012

Drupal's very flexible, so given adequate Drupal expertise in the organization, you can do almost anything with it, but you have to be wary of extravagant claims: There are tons of modules to extend its core functionality, but there's sometimes (often?) a gap between what a module can do and what it's advertised as doing; and a lot of modules are implemented as simple APIs, which means you might need to write a custom module to get the functionality you need out of another module.

The one thing that made me prick up my ears in your question is the migration issue. I'd say that might be the most important set of decisions you make in this entire process. I've been dealing with a 10-site Drupal multisite configuration that was born from the migration of a proprietary CMS done a year or so before I arrived, and I am not lying or exaggerating when I say that every problem with Drupal I've had in the past year has its roots in poor decisions from the initial migration: Performance problems, limits on how we can expand the site architecture, and refactoring of template/logic entanglements that simply shouldn't have happened on such relatively simple sites.

The problem with Drupal where that is concerned (and compared to other open source publishing platforms) is that where WordPress and Joomla impose fairly rigid opinions on what kind of content you're working with and how you probably want to present it out of the box, Drupal has — as Brian Puccio says — become much more of a content management framework than an actual content management system. It provides all the bits and pieces you need to put together a system, but Drupal reserves its opinions to a much lower level than WordPress, Joomla or many other CMSes. What that means is that with Drupal, you don't start with an article or a post with categories or tags. You start with nodes that belong to a vocabulary. It's up to you to define a node such that it looks like an article or post, and it's up to you to design a vocabulary that acts like a category or a tag.

That's a fine paradigm for Web developers, since it maps to their conception of the underlying data structures. It's terrible for non-developers and novice developers who don't always realize how much they benefit from the assumptions WordPress et al make out of the box. As a result, my observation has been that Drupal talent skews toward the higher end and more expensive, with occasional cranks and hacks like the guy who did the conversion I inherited who can talk a mean game but really do not understand how to build a Drupal site that works well (vs. merely working).

Also be aware that the most common module people use for migration from other CMSes has changed radically in the past year or so. It used to allow for dead-simple GUI-based data migration. Then the developers took it in another direction and it has now become a complex API that requires you to create a custom module to implement a migration. I'm pointing this out because all of the tutorials you'll come across on migrating from other CMSes are usually about the earlier, simpler version of this module, which isn't working very reliably anymore. So data migration will be more involved than an initial survey of existing howtos will suggest.

So if you end up going with Drupal, I guess I'm trying to say, make sure that the migration team understands Drupal as a thing unto itself and is prepared to spend a portion of the development cycle defining terms and building out a content model before they can even get started with the migration, because Drupal insists that you do that to get anything out of it besides the simplest site.

Also be ready to pay a healthy amount of money if your internal development resources hit a wall in their expertise: Competent Drupal developers, in my experience, are a notch above competent developers in other open source systems, they price accordingly, and they're harder to find.
posted by mph at 9:22 AM on September 27, 2012

Drupal is free, yet unless you're trying to do something really experimental with it (e.g. create a gamified site for managing medical records?), the support community is probably going to give you better support than what you're paying for with Kintera. People contributing code to Drupal are active with answering support questions and bug tickets because it reflects on their professional abilities (and is a service to the community, of course), and the community at large is also great about helping each other out on the support boards.
I don't know a lot about the other CMSs you mentioned--except that their user bases are far smaller, meaning less community support (important if switching to a free tool. Even the IT people need to ask questions sometimes).
posted by pavane at 9:25 AM on September 27, 2012

One other thing, regarding JuliaKM's comment about Drupal knowledge among incoming end users:

Drupal's flexibility can sometimes mean that people who think they "know Drupal" really do not. Yes, some menus are the same and some things look similar from installation to installation, but workflows can vary radically because the underlying content model and taxonomies ("vocabularies" in Drupal parlance) vary in meaning and effect from site to site.
posted by mph at 9:28 AM on September 27, 2012

I could tell you stories... I've been doing Drupal consulting gigs for a few years because right now it's awash with oodles of cash. Doesn't mean I think it's a good tool.

I'll just make one observation: Drupal's module systems leads to a user interface that emphasizes features, rather than workflow. You'll end up with dozens (possibly hundreds) of menu items, and not a clue which five or ten to chain together to get the result that you want. Easy to train on, it isn't.
posted by Leon at 10:05 AM on September 27, 2012

[This is a followup from the asker.]
We have some legit developers lined up who quoted us around $120k and volunteered to donate about half that. They can also provide limited ongoing support. We don't really have an in-house IT department so much as an in-house IT guy. He's the one pushing Drupal because we have to put in a service call about once a week for Kintera. From a strictly financial perspective, we just can't afford to keep paying Blackbaud the equivalent of a full-time senior staff salary to keep Kintera, something that no one likes.

We're planning on using CiviCRM for doing emails, and volunteer and donor list management. We currently use Wordpress for our blog content, and we'd like to be able to keep that as our main content interface. The main concerns are making sure that CiviCRM is robust enough, and that we'll be able to quickly get people up to speed.

While I'm grateful for folks voicing concerns about Drupal (because it really helps to be honest with expectations and give a balanced view), I'd also like to know some advantages Drupal/CiviCMS have over BlueState and ExpressionEngine since they're being pushed on the basis that they're new and flashy, rather than on the basis of features or framework. (They'd end up costing us a lot more, in part because the contract Drupal devs we've got don't work with those platforms.)

Our board really doesn't know anything about technology at all, so that's why I'm looking specifically for answers that give us a way to have an honest conversation about the different options.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:08 AM on September 28, 2012

I work at Blue State Digital and would be more than happy to talk with you about our web design and development services. I'm more on the technical side, not sales, but can get you many of the answers you are looking for, to help compare our services with Drupal and what you are looking for.

Based on what you've outlined in your post, it seems like a great fit. We often talk with nonprofits who are, similar to you, debating between ExpressionEngine and Drupal, and I'd be happy to speak with you in more depth about ExpressionEngine and why it's our preferred CMS for the hundreds of sites we've built.

I am happy to keep this confidential, as a MeFi thing, or you can also reach out to Samantha Papadakis, who's on our business development team. Her email is or 646-862-1024, and is a great resource for a lot of comparative info to help you make your decision.
posted by Leth at 12:59 PM on September 28, 2012

PS: Sam is ok with me posting that, I checked with her first
posted by Leth at 1:29 PM on September 28, 2012

I've built a couple of big sites in Drupal and I detest it. It's a CMS for developers rather than end users
Except that I'm a developer, and working with Drupal made want to smash things. It's a terrible, terrible mess. For the amount of time and swears and processing wasted, one could learn programming and build a bespoke CMS, or at least hire someone. Do spend some time researchng what will meet your needs best. Check out Open Source CMS, there's scads of live demos.
posted by mimi at 12:51 AM on September 30, 2012

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