Three Steps to Choosing the Best Software for Nonprofits

Lou
Kotsinis

Congratulations! Your nonprofit is growing, and as a result, you’ve outlived your existing software platform. Or, maybe you’re moving along steadily, but finding it hard to get things done with your current set of digital tools. Do you look for a new all-in-one digital suite to handle it all? Do you build custom, from the ground-up? Or, is it a hybrid play where you’ll use some third-party tools, adapt some of your own, and then run it all off a CRM? In short, what is the best software for nonprofits?

In our experience, most clients that have reached this point do one of two things:

  1. Look at what other nonprofits are using and copy that, and/or
  2. Do some research and then grab the latest “all-in-one” digital marketing platform

While these are easy fixes, choosing one or both of these paths poses problems long-term because one size does not fit all. Each organization is unique, with its own unique challenges, internal culture, operations and strategic goals. Accordingly, purchasing the latest new gadgets without doing an exhaustive review of both practical and strategic needs inevitably leads to band-aid solutions, misspent resources and frustrated staff. 

There’s a better way. We’ve worked with many clients to help them architect their tech stacks and digital marketing platforms from the ground-up, and we can boil down into three steps the process that leads to choosing the best software for nonprofits.

Step 1.  Start with Strategic Outcomes, Not Technology

Yes, the CRM is bloated and offers too much for your needs. Yes, you want your members, customers and donors to pool into a single database. Sure, you want a grant application portal that you can control and customize as you like. But these are all features. They address an immediate need, but not the root issue behind the need. Assessing the larger, underlying pain point that’s driving the specific need will result in a more comprehensive solution – one that addresses not only the issue at hand, but perhaps a larger, operational or strategic challenge. 

Pull back a bit.  Seek the ‘Why’ behind the immediate need: 

  • Is that CRM really bloated and unnecessary, or has the individual charged with running it not been properly trained; or are they even the right person for that role? 
  • Does pooling all collected data into one location speak to a larger reporting issue? 
  • Does the organization require control and customization of the grant application portal because they require true flexibility? Or does senior leadership not want to tether itself to a third-party subscription (which may, in the end, solve all of the organization’s grant application issues)? 

In our client technology assessments, we begin not by asking what the specific problems are, but what are the global outcomes the client hopes to achieve, including: 

Organizational Outcomes:

  • Amount of targeted revenue for the year, and from what expected sources
  • Fundraising challenges across these channels
  • Volunteer, member, student acquisition targets
  • Desired level of mission/program awareness
  • Digital marketing targets: website traffic, email sign-ups, social media followers
  • KPIs (key performance indicators) for specific programs

Operational Outcomes:

  • Overall strategic goals for the year
  • Events and special program requirements
  • Governmental and regulatory/reporting requirements
  • Board initiatives and requirements

Staff Outcomes:

  • Level of overall staff satisfaction, challenges to staff satisfaction
  • New hires anticipated, and in what areas?
  • Areas of friction
  • Necessary staffing resources/allocation of staff time 

Only after we receive thorough answers to these types of questions do we then dive deeper into specific task or technology discovery. By that time, we already have a feel for which areas of the tech stack require emphasis. We can also then test the clients’ stated needs versus actual larger needs and determine any unrealized conflicts.

Step 2. Assign the Right Project Manager

Technology upgrades are complex, labor-intensive initiatives. Accordingly, we recommend assigning a dedicated individual to act as project manager. 

In smaller organizations, this typically falls to the Executive Director, something that we advise against. A typical ED already has way too much on their plate to begin with, and thus cannot dedicate the time and focus required to oversee a software upgrade properly. In larger organizations, capable, non-executive individuals can take the helm. In smaller nonprofits, wherever feasible, we recommend that a trusted individual (either outside of or within the organization) other than the Executive Director assume the role of project manager. 

Irrespective of who the PM is, this individual will ideally be: 

  • Interested in technology, design and user experience
  • Organized and detail-oriented
  • Task-and deadline-oriented
  • Available to research and learn about technologies, platforms and products.

You may not find the individual with all of these qualities, but the more of these boxes you can check off, the higher your chances of a successful outcome.  

Step 3. Create the Digital Roadmap  

The goal of your research and analysis is to adopt the best tools and digital practices to run your organization smoothly from the bottom-up. And the best way to accomplish this is to gather all of your findings into a digital roadmap

A digital roadmap is just that – a roadmap that allows the organization to plan its software and technology needs into the distant future. Of course things will change along the way, so flexibility should be part of that roadmap, but this will be the planning document you can rely on to tie your technology choices and upgrades against your larger goals. 

The specifics of the digital roadmap are for another post, but in short it will lay out:

  • Short and long-term goals
  • The anticipated software tools required to achieve those goals (both immediate and long-term)
  • Assumed price ranges for purchase/development/implementation
  • Organizational milestones (and the technology required to reach each)
  • The ‘Why’ behind specific digital choices

With this type of planning document in hand, there will be less guesswork moving forward, more intelligent fact/goals-based tool selection, and more time to prepare (budget and time-wise) for large-scale upgrades. 

That’s the way to do it. That’s how you choose the best software for nonprofits. In the end, it’s all about getting it right the first time. And that happens by doing the work to understand your nonprofit’s foundational needs and then building a plan around that discovery. By then documenting those needs and researching the tools and processes required to meet them, you’ll have structure. The result will be time and long-term cost savings, along with the most value for your expenditure – not to mention a happier staff, fewer executive team headaches and a satisfied board of directors. 

If you’re interested in putting together a digital roadmap for your nonprofit, or if you’d like to discuss an especially challenging aspect of your digital infrastructure, let us know. We’re only an email away

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