Introduction: When Solving One Challenge Creates Another
It’s no secret that technological innovation has helped individuals, businesses, and organizations tackle problems and improve efficiencies for decades – centuries even. However, the challenges new technology can introduce are less often discussed.
Here’s a quick personal example: 15 years ago, as I was just starting my career, I traveled extensively across the country. GPSs were less common at the time, certainly not available on your cell phone, and fairly pricey to get with a rental car. The small company I worked for had a policy of not covering GPS expenses, so the Sales team would carefully plan our trips ahead of time, printing MapQuest directions for each leg of the trip.
Years later, having a GPS on my cell phone was a game changer. If there was road work or traffic, I could easily select a new route. But there were some unintended consequences as well. For instance, I drained my cell phone battery and needed to ensure I always had a charger nearby. I also found that I never planned for a trip quite as well.
While this is a very simple example with minimal consequences, the concept holds true as we think about nonprofit organizations adopting new technology. Technology may solve one problem, yet present other challenges. For example, as organizations introduce applications for email marketing, event management, online giving, etc., they often create data silos that prevent them from achieving a complete picture of their supporters. For over 20 years, Omatic has helped nonprofits with exactly this situation.
At Omatic, we’re fortunate to have built a network of trusted partners who are also passionate about helping nonprofits achieve their goals through technology. We recently sat down with Noah Berk, Co-Founder of OBO, and Staci Rice, CEO of Idlewild Partners. Keep reading for their expert insights regarding:
- The biggest challenges nonprofits can tackle with technology.
- The challenges technology can create for organizations.
- Advice for those looking to implement new solutions.
Question #1: Tell us a little about yourself, your organization, and your experience with nonprofit tech.
Noah: I love all things digital. At OBO, we help nonprofits digitize their operations by leveraging software like Salesforce.org, HubSpot, and monday.com. When used correctly, these powerful systems can help nonprofits improve fundraising, manage constituent engagement, track programs, and maximize social impact while simplifying operations.
We’ve worked in the nonprofit tech space since we first got started in 2016. And we’re proud to have received recognition for our work, including Inc. Magazine Best Places to Work, Baltimore Business Journal 4x Winner Best Places to Work, Inc. 5000 companies, CIOReview’s Most Promising Business Process Management Services Company of 2022, HubSpot Elite Partners, Monday.com North American Partner of the Year, and Salesforce.org Partners.
Staci: I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2008 when I joined a national nonprofit that worked in education reform. I sat on the Development team, supporting fundraising and communications efforts using Salesforce and other supporting technologies. While there, I was introduced to Salesforce and the power of the platform to help propel nonprofits into the 21st century.
I was lucky in that the organization invested in my development and helped to get me certified. I branched out in 2011, expanding my reach to other nonprofits looking to leverage Salesforce. In the years since, I have worked with over 300 nonprofits, implementing and supporting their Salesforce environments. I am now the CEO of Idlewild Partners, a Salesforce implementation and support firm that works with nonprofit and mission-driven organizations across the country.
Question #2: What are the biggest challenges nonprofits can tackle with technology? Can you share any success stories?
Noah: Technology is the great equalizer and force multiplier in organizations. With the correct technology, we see nonprofits increase total fundraising, enhance operational efficiency, and improve constituent engagement across the board. One of the larger foundations we work with was on the wrong technology stack, littered with inefficiencies and low adoption. After making the switch to Salesforce, not only did the foundation substantially increase donations via personalized communications, but it also reduced total technology costs by 70% year over year.
Staci: Nonprofits, like all businesses, tend to collect (or want to collect), a lot of information about their constituents, about the services they provide, and about their programmatic outcomes. Collecting that data and then using it effectively can be very challenging. We’ve found a few key best practices related to the use of technology that can have a very positive impact:
Centralize the data.
Having a single source of truth for constituent information is essential for several reasons. It enables an organization to raise more money, increase constituent engagement, and provide holistic services to clients. For example, being able to see that a person in your system is a donor, is a volunteer, attended your gala, opened your last 5 emails, and has a kid who has enrolled in your programming the last 3 years is critical to better serving your constituents.
This means reducing the different platforms that are siloed (don’t talk to each other) and eliminating external ‘trackers’. Building a single database that can speak to your other systems (email marketing, online donations, program registrations, etc.) is a HUGE win for nonprofits.
Reduce the number of clicks.
Salesforce provides tools for process automation that can reduce the number of tasks your team has to perform manually, for example creating automated emails and updates. In addition, integrating systems so they talk to each other reduces the double entry that often happens with disparate systems. Connecting your online donation form, email marketing, surveys, inquiry forms, etc. to Salesforce saves team members’ time by automatically and seamlessly syncing data that would otherwise need to be keyed manually.
Consider outputs, outcomes, and how you measure success.
What are the qualitative and quantitative data points that can tell your story? Limit data collection to those key data points and resist the urge to collect as much data as you can. It becomes overwhelming on many levels to have more data in more places than you know what to do with.
Question #3: What challenges have you seen technology create for nonprofits, and how can these challenges be overcome?
Noah: Most nonprofits simply don’t have a handle on their data. But without good data, how can an organization increase donations via personalized communication? And it’s not just about donations, it’s also about operational efficiency and improving constituent engagement.
Most nonprofits struggle with their integrations and struggle with data models to incorporate all their data. We utilize a three-phase approach to help clients get a handle on their data and leverage it to meet their needs:
- In the first phase, User Stories, we unpack the needs of their organization.
- The second phase is Solution Engineering. During this phase, we determine how to meet all an organization’s requirements and solve their data/data model issues.
- In the Implementation phase, we apply what was discovered and solved for in the first two phases.
We’ve found that this systematic approach really helps ensure an organization’s needs are met without introducing any negative, downstream impacts.
Staci: Organizations often try to bite off more than they can chew. They will go with a very sophisticated, overly robust system that they aren’t able to manage. A good example is when an organization chooses an enterprise-level email marketing tool. It looks great during the demo and features all the bells and whistles. However, it can often be too much horsepower for what a nonprofit really needs, because the organization doesn’t have a team (or even a full-time person!) responsible for learning the tool and using it fully.
We always recommend the ‘crawl-walk-run’ approach to Salesforce – or any tool. Start with a minimum viable product (MVP) and begin using the tool. From there, you can add features, tweak automations, and rebuild small pieces of it if necessary. Determine what your requirements are, prioritize them, and then work through the roadmap in a logical order. This approach boasts several advantages. It will keep costs down, ensure you’re implementing the ‘must-haves’, and increase adoption by rolling out updates and enhancements over time.
Question #4: What advice do you have for nonprofit organizations that are looking to implement new solutions?
Noah: It all starts with requirements. Too often we see nonprofits, like most organizations, jump into a software without thinking through their team’s requirements. If nothing else, make sure you interview your team members to understand what they need. Then, organize those requirements into an easy-to-follow document that will help align the team with the new solution.
Staci: Have a budget for technology and expect that the work will continue long after the implementation is over. We like to use a ‘tending the garden’ metaphor. After your implementation project is over and you’ve gone ‘live’, you’ll still have ongoing maintenance, upgrades, and enhancements to work on.
As an organization evolves – and because technology innovates at breakneck speeds – your system will need ongoing attention. Ensure you have the internal and external resources to support the work. An external consulting partner who is familiar with your organization, your programs, and your processes can provide flexible support based on your fluctuating needs.
Thank you to Noah and Staci for sharing their perspectives – what great advice from experienced leaders! Perhaps your organization is considering new technology to help drive outcomes, or maybe you’re working through how to connect systems you already have in place to make the most of your data – no matter your situation, there are a few things I hope you take away from this blog:
Plan for Change
Noah and Staci both highlighted the importance of planning – budgeting, collecting requirements, and understanding the ongoing needs that come with implementing new technology. As we think about ongoing needs, we’d also recommend choosing solutions and partners that give you the flexibility to make changes as the needs of your organization and supporters shift. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of how quickly things can evolve. Your tech stack should help you respond to those changes, not prevent you from doing so.
You’re not alone!
The challenges your organization is working through are common to the industry. Companies such as Omatic, OBO, and Idlewild have solutions and experience to help. If you’d like to learn more about OBO and Idlewild, take a look at their websites, or connect with Noah and Staci on LinkedIn. To see how Omatic has helped organizations like yours, check out these case studies: The Pink Agenda, Apraxia Kids, American Lung Association, and Mercy for Animals.