After forty years growing Allegiance Software from a small Fargo tech start-up to a successful and thriving national company, Sonja Jensen is poised to retire. It has been an exciting journey.
Shortly after graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of Minnesota, Moorhead, in 1977, Sonja Jensen started her own company. She confessed that she was primarily motivated by frustration– at the fact that she was offered less money than any of her classmates because she was a woman in what was then considered a man’s field. Ultimately Sonja decided she’d rather risk starting her own business than get paid less than she was worth.
In 1978 Sonja started writing software for Prairie Public Broadcasting. But it wasn’t until 1989 that Allegiance Software initiated national sales – although a few stations – WQED, Pittsburgh, WQLN, Erie, and KCET, Los Angeles – signed on prior to the national launch. Sonja said the decision to sell nationally was made based on the demand from stations along with the fact that as far as she could ascertain, Prairie Public was the only station in the country that was happy with their software.
In the early days of the software development Sonja, working with Lois O’Meara, the Prairie Public Membership Manager, now Allegiance Fundraising Group Software Services Manager, developed the plan, wrote code, assisted in testing, and accompanied Prairie Public staff to public television and radio development conferences to learn more about the software needs of public media. After a huge PBS customer service test, which most stations failed, Sonja wrote customer service features into the software so stations could better serve their members. She later developed a sophisticated segmentation scheme using the customer service and activity codes as a means to personalize interactions beyond the typical giving levels and gift types which were the standard of the day. Long before CRM was a concept, Prairie Public and other Allegiance users were making use of those tools to better serve and track customer interactions.
O’Meara shared an anecdote related to CRM saying, “I remember when the Metropolitan Opera sent us 18 great books on the 100 year history of the Met. With only a limited quantity we couldn’t offer them as a pledge gift so we segmented the donor file to identify those people who had indicated opera as a program preference, or who had pledged around an opera program. We mailed those donors the Met Opera books. The response was amazing. People called to ask ‘how did you remember I loved opera?’ and to thank us. That is what CRM does at its best, and we were doing it in the early ’90s thanks to Allegiance Software.”
As software sales escalated in the ’90s, others were hired to write the code while Sonja prepped station data for conversion, converted and installed software at over 200 public radio and television stations nationwide, and supervised the growth of the company from 3 employees to twenty-five.
Commenting on Sonja’s legacy, Allegiance Fundraising Group CEO, Rich Aukland said, “Sonja Jensen has spent over forty years dedicating herself to helping Public Broadcasters be successful. She and the Allegiance Software Team built a solution that will continue serve and help non-profits into the future. It has been a professional privilege to work with Sonja for the last four years to evolve the Allegiance Business. Both the Team at Allegiance Fundraising and I are grateful for her contributions and her vision. We will do our best to honor her tireless work ethic and commitment to customers as we go forward.”
In October, Sonja talked about her 4-decade tenure as President of Allegiance.
What makes you the most proud?
“When so many fundraising software lines have gone by the wayside, I’m proud that we created a software product that is still alive and growing today. It was a good basic design from the beginning, and we’ve re-written it for new technology four times – not put a skin over it, but re-written – moving from green screen on IBM mini’s to DOS to GUI to ASNA to DOT NET, and always provided updates and upgrades as part of our clients’ annual support. We invested in making Allegiance better.”
“I’m also proud of the fact that we were the first system that had web pledges integrated into the database – starting in 2000.”
What do you wish you had known then that you know now?
Smiling, she responded, “I wish I’d known Apple was going to be so successful! I could have bought stock!”
How did you stay motivated when times were challenging?
“Having to meet payroll for a growing staff was always part of the motivation. And, with all the deadlines you have to stay motivated and on task. There were not only a lot of employees depending on us…there were a lot of clients. They wanted us to succeed and we were committed to helping them succeed.”
What were some of the highlights over the years?
“Converting our first Team Approach client was a highlight – clients couldn’t believe we were able to convert them within a few days instead of over months and months. And we didn’t just convert, we cleaned up data and didn’t leave donor records in limbo. New clients were amazed.”
“It was rough when a prospect went with another vendor, but gratifying in the long run. A few years or a decade later, we’d get them back because whatever they had acquired didn’t do the job.”
“I used to freak out when so many stations and prospects would line up to get the latest in thing, which often turned out to be vaporware, not software. I’d refocus by just going back to look at our software and saying ‘how can we make the software better? How can we make our clients fundraising jobs easier? And pretty soon, the flash in the pan had sputtered out and we were still there offering software that works.”
Over the course of your 4-decade tenure as President of Allegiance Software, what have you learned about running a successful software company?
“Relationships are the foundation of our success. The quality of the software has to be equaled by the quality of the customer support or people won’t stay with you. You have to answer calls in real time and solve issues and challenges as they happen.”
“At conferences our booth was always the busiest…we have great relationships with our clients and they flock to the booth to see who is there – and to put a face with the names of people that they work with through the year via email and the phone.”
What advice would you have for Allegiance Fundraising Group as you retire and as they move forward?
“Keep improving and modernizing the software, adding features that help people be successful in their fundraising efforts; and keep customer support and training strong. Remember our users are fundraisers, not software specialists.”