Just about every nonprofit at this point understands they need:
- a robust way to communicate with and engage constituents.
- a user-friendly way to record this engagement so they can track actions, monitor performance and either automate or personalize future engagement, as appropriate.
Technology is a tool to help you do more and better.
Enter CRM – customer relationship management – systems.
Or perhaps you call this your database.
You’re really talking about a place to store,manage and disseminate information about what people do, have done, and can and will do with your organization. This may include:
- how you send email, text messages or fundraising appeals;
- how you power event registrations, volunteer scheduling, monthly giving, peer-to-peer fundraising or even social media and advertising, and
- how you generate reports.
What Technology Do You Need?
If you believe your technology isn’t working for you, ask yourself why?
You must first define the problem before you can choose a solution. As Maureen Walbeoff, the Accidental Technologist, says: “If you hate your dining room table, don’t buy a new house.” You’re going to hate the table even more than you did when it was in the house you have today.
Think of your technology like you’d think of a staff member.
As my pal Julia Campbell says, technology should function like an employee.
“It should have a job description. And it should have performance evaluations every six months, maybe even every three months at this point to see: ‘Okay, what’s working, what’s not working? Is it us? Is it the technology?’ Or is there just a mismatch in there?”
— Julia Campbell, J. Campbell Social Marketing
- What do you need the technology to do?
- How much of that is it doing now?
Shiny and new does not necessarily trump tried and true.
Would you fire a high-performing employee just because they’d been there for 10 years? If they do everything right but one thing, would you trade them in for someone else just because of that? That would be kind of nutty.
Define the Real Problem
Too often nonprofits say to me “I think we need a new database because ours is old.” Whatever you do, don’t buy a new system just because you’ve had your current one for a while. A shiny new database is not always a better solution. Also, don’t switch just because you’ve decided you want to add one new thing your current system can’t handle well. A new system may be better for event registrations, but worse at half a dozen other things you’re already doing.
1. Convene a cross-disciplinary team
Your goal is to determine things not working well at an organizational level. This means discussing how certain solutions may impact others. If they don’t play well together, they’re not optimal. What sings for marketing may suck for fundraising. What glows for finance may dim for development.
If you’re a one or two-person shop, think from the perspective of wearing your different hats. What would be important for fundraising? For marketing? For finance? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts but, for this exercise, think from the parts’ perspectives.
2. Address your pain points
A problem definition meeting is not focused on particular tools and solutions. Not yet. Don’t begin by going around the table and naming CRM, SaaS, email providers or other tools you want to look into. You don’t want to jump headfirst into the sales/purchase cycle before engaging in necessary reflection about your pain points. I like to think of your technology as a patient. You can’t know what medications to choose unless you first make an assessment and diagnosis. What hurts? What’s not working? Were this a SWOT analysis, you’d be looking at your areas of weakness. As a starting point, you might give each of your existing technology tools a grade, from A to F.
Take note of redundancies. You shouldn’t be entering the same data in three different databases. You shouldn’t have two different email servers, one for fundraising and one for marketing.
3. Review your strengths
What do you like about your current systems? Look principally at the tools to which you gave A and B grades. Particularly note what you’re not willing to give up. This doesn’t mean you can’t find a new solution. It just means you don’t want to sacrifice the perfectly functional car for a few new bells and whistles. But do ask yourself if the car is really still meeting your needs, or if you’re trying to hold it together with rubber bands and chewing gum.
Beware of weaknesses disguised as strengths. I used to work with a MacGyver of technology. He could make anything work. So we thought our system was terrific! Really, we were totally dependent on this one staffer — and that was a weakness. Were we to be honest, we’d state flat out the current technology was the opposite of user-friendly. One person made it sing, but no one else could read the music.
4. Forecast your strategic opportunities
With your team, imagine what will be going on in your organization in the next three to five years. Most organizations don’t take enough time to check in with cross-functional departments to iterate the broad view and share goals. You know your objectives as a fundraiser, but do you know what keeps your finance team, marketing team, volunteer coordinators or program staff up at night when it comes to information storage and management and constituency engagement?
Discuss how your current technology will/will not help you reach your goals and objectives. Remember, if your technology is like another staff person, it needs to pull its weight. If it can’t, it needs to add some skills. If it can’t, it may need to be replaced. Let’s say you’re planning to grow major gifts, legacy gifts, or monthly giving. Or perhaps you have a goal to turn more leads into donors. Or you want to retain or upgrade more donors. Or you want to sign up more direct service volunteers. You may need some help from technology.
Here are some types of opportunities you may want to address:
- Enable greater advocacy actions
- Register more volunteers
- Engage more interactively with current and/or prospective constituencies
- Offer higher touch experiences to develop donors
- Personalize more to build community
- Automate more to increase ROI
- Advertise more to reach out more broadly
- Email more to reduce expenses
- Text more to boost engagement
- … and so forth
Discuss how different technology might help. This is a time to talk about your different audiences and consider prioritizing them in terms of your need to actively engage with them.
- What information do you need to capture?
- How would you use that information?
- How would this increase your efficiency?
- How would this broaden your support?
1. Form an ongoing inter-disciplinary work group
Constituent relationship management is everyone’s job. Technology is just one tool to help you achieve a customer-centered culture. Or, if you will, a system-wide culture of philanthropy. A major cause of unsuccessful change efforts, including choices around technology, is the failure to address organizations as integrated comprehensive systems. When you form an inter-disciplinary work group you have a place to address issues as they arise. It’s much better than stewing on something, or telling your boss “this is the answer,” without consulting your colleagues about their thoughts first. Because, like the game of whack-a-mole, when you make a change in just one little corner a new problem is likely to pop up some place else.
You need a safe place where people feel listened to and understood. What you find annoying as a fundraiser is not necessarily going to be a priority for the finance officer. But if you have a space to explain what you find so frustrating, and how another solution might actually enable you to bring in more revenue, then you’ve got something on which you can work together and pool your resources.
2. Together, revisit the data you need to assure you’re on track
Before you make a final decision, remind yourself of your priority goals and objectives and how you’ll know you’re achieving them. It’s easy to get into implementation mode, losing sight of why you purchased the solution in the first place. For example, if your goal is to retain more donors you’re going to need a retention dashboard and easy-to-generate reports so you can easily monitor how you’re doing on a regular basis. You may want to track retention by segments or campaigns, not just overall.
If the off-the-shelf version of what you’re considering doesn’t meet your needs, talk to the vendor to see if they can help you better set things up from the get-go. Ask them if they offer training or coaching. It’s better to do this now than try to modify things on your own later (especially if you discover they can’t be modified)!
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