Technology is tough, but we all need it. Embracing it is pretty much an essential part of any organization. This is especially true when it comes to nonprofits. Database management, office and marketing automation, scheduling, reporting, etc., can all be massive time savers for a capacity-strapped organization. But the upfront costs and time delays of finding the right solution, and implementing it properly, can be daunting.
In our 13 years working with nonprofits and human service organizations, we have found that there are three questions that need to be asked when making decisions about technology:
Does it do the job? Can we afford it? And is it easy to use?
If you work for a for-profit organization, you might have the tendency to ask those questions in that order.
1. Does it do the job? Let’s figure out the best solution possible for the optimal outcome.
2. Can we afford it? As a for-profit entity with a substantial technology budget, we should be able to.
3. Is it easy to use? Even if it isn’t, we can require that people use it and invest in enough training to make them proficient.
However, when applying that same sequence to a nonprofit, it’s a different proposition.
1. Does it do the job? We aren’t really sure what job needs to be done, but we have someone on our board who is an expert at this, so let’s go with what he or she recommends.
2. Can we afford it? We can get some of it free now, but we will have to pay something later. Even though we don’t know what that is and most likely won’t have the budget to pay for it, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
3. Is it easy to use? No. But it’s what we’ve got.
For a nonprofit, that sequence needs to change for technology to be successful. Fortunately, there is a great deal of competition in the technology space and growth in the “consumerization” of technology that would have been wholly unaffordable a few years ago; there’s opportunity to approach technology in a way that’s less daunting.
For nonprofits considering new technology, a better sequence is:
1. Can we afford it?
Getting the funding to invest in technology to improve internal processes probably hasn’t seemed like a top priority for your organization. It might feel like there’s always something more important your money could go towards. The real question you should be asking yourself here is - Can we afford not to purchase new software?
The reality is that backend technologies can radically change your organization for the better. They free up your time, resources, and funds so you can redirect your attention towards all the projects and programs that your organization runs. The ones your funders want to see.
If you don’t have the money on-hand to purchase new software at this very moment, don't sweat. The reality is that there are a lot of funders out there who believe in the value of technology for a nonprofit organization and are willing to foot the bill if you can craft a bulletproof funding proposal that proves the impact new technology will have on your mission.
2. Is it easy to use?
If the software you purchase is really complex, how likely are your employees to use it? You can mandate it, but unless you have additional resources to train people and bring them up to speed on updates, chances are it won’t be used the way it was intended, if at all. While a solution that's large and comprehensive might seem like a good choice at the beginning, you could run the risk of overwhelming your staff with a solution that ends up being more complicated than what they actually need. Before purchasing any software, make sure you've gone through a personalized demo or free trial so you have a better idea of what working within the solution would look and feel like on a day to day basis. As well, it's important to select a vendor that has training and customer support resources in place so that you can feel confident that your team will be properly prepared and set up for success once you go live.
3. Does it do the job?
Some might think it’s odd that this would be the last step. But the truth is if you can’t afford it and people won’t use it, the best technology in the world won’t help you. To be clear, the solution still needs to work, but “do the job” can vary in definition. Some solutions are more horizontally-focused with all the bells and whistles you want, but also a ton of functionality that you don't need or will likely not use. Conversely, other solutions can be more vertically-focused, offering niche functionality that is specific to your operations, but may not have large R&D budgets to ensure the quality of the solution. What Nonprofit leaders should strive to find when evaluating their options is a solution that gives them the best of both worlds. These solutions will have been built with nonprofit operations in mind, yet are still robust enough to manage complicated processes.
Deciding on new technology to implement within your organization is tough. But taking into consideration the realities of your nonprofit’s finances, culture and goals can help mitigate challenges and increase the odds of your technology-related endeavors ultimately achieving success.
Part of the process of finding the right solution for your organization is putting together and submitting RFPs to be able to compare vendors against one another. No matter how much you may ask yourselves the questions above, if you don't follow the right process, you may not end up with the right product.
Don’t re-invent the wheel. If you're considering purchasing a new software system in the next few years, and want to learn from the procurement best practices of Nonprofits before you – our upcoming webinar is for you. Join us on Tuesday, March 21st at 2pm EST as we walk through the most critical aspects of the RFP process, such as how to ensure stakeholder buy-in, how to build the right requirements checklist for your needs, how to accurately determine scope, timeline and budget, and more.