Ideas
Nonprofits and Technology: A Roadmap for Success
Author:Sara Chieco
Date:August 2nd, 2016

When it comes to implementing new technology, or improving upon existing technology, it’s often a scary prospect for nonprofits. They often don’t have technologists on staff and worry about how much it will cost, how long it will take, whether they should attempt to do it on their own, and if they should work with consultants. The prospect of choosing a consultant is definitely a daunting one. What if the costs run over? How would we know if what they are doing is correct? What if they miss all of their deadlines? Nonprofits are right to be concerned about this – unfortunately, occasionally these situations do occur.

Still, there are many reasons to undergo a technology improvement project including increasing staff efficiency, improving communication with donors and constituents, being able to seamlessly report out to your funders, or consolidating data from a number of different systems. Though the reasons can vary greatly and the process can seem overwhelming, implementing a new or revised technology can be accessible if nonprofits follow this roadmap.

Do we need to know exactly what we want?

While you definitely don’t need to and likely won’t know what the resulting system should look like, you do need to know why you want a new system, what your goals are for it, and what business processes you are trying to support and improve. Goals and requirements both feed into each other, sometimes one set are defined prior to the other, and sometimes they organically grow together. These goals are in part how you will gauge the success of the project once implemented. Does the final solution meet the goals?

It’s also very important to define the problems you are trying to solve. You should be sure to reach out to your subject matter experts from all different aspects of your business to understand their workflow, and their needs. What issues are you facing with your current systems? It’s important to define what is and isn’t working for you. Another critical piece is to ask “Why”? Why is this important? Why do we need this? If you can answer that question for each requirement, you are way ahead of the game! A good consultant is going to ask you that and you will already have thought it through.

Can we do this on our own?

This obviously depends a lot on the resources you have in-house, and the complexity of what you need. Generally, it’s a good idea to hire a consultant for a technology implementation. Rarely does a nonprofit have a project manager, business analyst (to fully flesh out and prioritize requirements), technical architect (to translate the requirements into technology) and an implementer (possibly requiring a software engineer) ready and waiting to work on a project. While you are an expert at understanding and executing your business, a consultant is an expert at translating those requirements into technology, and implementing the technology.

How do I know how much this should cost?

Unless you have implemented technology systems yourself, you are unlikely to have any idea how much it will cost to accomplish your goals so it’s always a good idea to reach out to organizations similar to yours that have recently done a technology project to get an idea of their cost. You should also know what a realistic budget is, and do a little legwork and research to know if your budget and your desired system are even in the same ballpark. If there is a large mismatch, that’s something to address before seeking help in building the system. Getting multiple bids is very important, and making sure you are comfortable with the skill of the people proposed who will be working on the project, how flexible the process is to address changing requirements, whether these resources are domestic or offshore, and then there’s your gut feeling – do you trust them and feel you would have a good working relationship?

There will always be a tension between getting it done quickly, and getting it correctly. A good consultant will want to take the time up front to really get to know and understand your processes and requirements. It may seem absurd to spend 6 or 8 weeks with “nothing” to show but some documentation, but it really pays off in the quality and accuracy of the implementation. Any consultant who is willing to take your RFP/documentation verbatim and dive into implementation is not one you should work with. Lastly, I would recommend entering into a Time & Materials project, where you pay only for each hour worked, not a fixed bid project. It is never the case that the project will equal exactly what is bid in a fixed bid project, so either you are paying too much, or the consultant is losing money. Neither scenario is a good one.

Why should I hire a consultant?

A consultancy is going to play a critical part in your technology project because of their expertise in translating your business requirements and goals into a technical design and implementation. While you know your business best, they will understand how to implement your features so that they actually work properly for you. There are myriad ways of designing a system, some more successful and some less, and a good consultant will make sure the usability of the system is considered, and the end result a positive experience for your end users. Remember though, this is a partnership, and should be treated as such. Rather than thinking of them as a vendor, I recommend really treating them as a partner, as they should be treating you as well. You should have the ability to make changes, add in new requirements along the way, and really help to shape the end result.

If you are interested in hearing more on this topic, please join us August 4th (and after) at the Nonprofit CRM Summit, put on by the fantastically talented Missy Longshore from Longshore Consulting.