What Every Nonprofit Needs to Know About Technology

Return address labels. I so rarely mail anything that receiving return address labels with a donation request from a charity I wholeheartedly support was simply a tipping point. In addition to my annual donation, I vowed to volunteer and share what I know about using technology to solve business challenges.

More and more nonprofits are facing challenges that mirror those of for-profit businesses. They need to cut operating costs, reach more stakeholders, move to data-driven decision making, and keep information secure. While businesses invest in technology and transform their operations from end-to-end, too often nonprofits give technology a pass. Tight budgets, lack of knowledge, fear of change—they are all part of the resistance.

Making technology improvements doesn’t necessarily mean a massive undertaking that requires many resources. I recommend starting with an assessment and a plan that helps you focus your goals, understand the technology you have, and learn about standards for technology in other nonprofits of a similar type and size. Then prioritize the improvements that offer the strongest return on investment—big gains for a small amount of dollars and effort—or those that will help you meet your top goals.

To help you get started, I’ve gathered some perspectives on technology that all nonprofits can use.

The right technology can help you save money on operations.

First, focus on efficiencies in your operations to reduce or eliminate redundancies, waste and errors, and in the process save money. Technology can play an important role in creating efficient processes, helping you reduce or eliminate duplications and delays, as well as helping you speed up by automating specific tasks. Technology allows for faster processing of data and easier sharing and retrieval of information. Automation can reduce the time a repetitive task takes and eliminate human error, like sending a welcome email when new members register, or filling out financial forms.

Technology also keeps information up to date. Instead of searching through spreadsheets to gather data on members, anyone in your organization can open a shared database and have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips. Also, integrating systems, like finance or project management systems, can help keep track of how much time staff members spend on various efforts. This will help you determine if it’s a worthwhile task, one that needs to be outsourced, or one that needs more resources.

Invest in data analytics to take advantage of your data.

Examining your data can lead to a deeper understanding of the relationship between your activities and results.

I remember a nonprofit client who found that the same material covered in their 5-day, in-person certification classes could be taught in about 3 days online. Armed with the data, they worked to offer an online class. The move reduced instructor and travel expenses, and delighted participants, all without impacting the integrity of the program.

Another nonprofit examined data from a decade of fundraising efforts and discovered that the two biggest campaigns each year demanded considerable up-front costs and time; however they failed to reach top donors. That insight helped them consider new options and reprioritize efforts for the following year.

Nonprofit Technology Tips

Data can also help organizations demonstrate their powerful impact solidifying their case for grant and donor money. Using data to target fundraising appeals by interest and donor capacity has proven to be more effective than hitting the whole list repeatedly.

Security is everyone’s responsibility. Make it a priority.

Nothing can derail a nonprofit’s growth, reach and reputation like data breach exploiting personal and financial information or beneficiary lists. Because you share a passion and a cause with your audiences, every exchange of information or money is a trusted transaction.

It can be powerfully motivating to look at your current vulnerabilities and worse-case scenarios when prioritizing security. It’s also important to think through educating staff on security issues, and closing up endpoint security issues, such as unprotected laptops or websites that connect to your network.

Want governance and transparency made easy? Invest in technology.

Every nonprofit operates by certain standards and reporting structures. Good governance, according to the National Council of Nonprofits’ Good Governance Practices requires a good mix of board members, leadership and accountability, and a blend of candid discussions, transparent practices, and governance policies. Additionally, your industry may have formalized principles and practices and standards for excellence for nonprofits.

Technology tools make light work of keeping up with these standards. There’s a host of proven technologies for reporting, taxes, audits, policies and more that save headaches, hassles and time.

I notice that nonprofits tend to discount competition in their sector, but every nonprofit is constantly competing for funding, volunteers, and even talented staff. Charity Navigator, GiveWell and annual ranking lists all use standardized data and information categories to evaluate nonprofit organizations, influencing these external audiences. One of the ways to distinguish your nonprofit ranking or score is through transparency and accountability metrics, which often boil down to how technology is used to manage governance.

Connect the community to your future mission in new ways.

Digital communication is a game changer. Your reach, impact, and ability to personalize the connection are now all a reflection of your technology choices. Information-rich websites, tailored appeals, online education, open-source tools, social media updates, and technology have transformed nonprofit tactics, leading to greater awareness and a streamlined donor experience.

Top trends include text messaging for quick updates and news alerts; customer relationship management systems that collect data and engage donors; and social media that helps nonprofits make incredible connections. We now live in a time when someone, inspired by a story they see on social media, can donate by simply telling their home voice assistant, “Give $10.” The long-term impact of today’s communication technologies will shift how all nonprofits tell their stories as well as achieve their missions. The question is, when will yours embrace it?

Technology is the competitive advantage for nonprofits.

Models of commercial organizations, as well as nonprofits, show us that those who choose not to invest in technology will see an ever-widening performance gap between their outcomes and those of organizations that adopt technology effectively. The models emphasize the value of an innovative culture, which is at odds with traditionally risk-adverse and show-to-change nonprofits.

Historically, we know that ignoring technology launches a cycle of ignoring change such as not innovating and benefiting from the value that comes with technology, not to mention a flexible, adaptable organizational culture. Nonprofits who hope to continue the mission for years to come simply cannot ignore the call to technology. And they don’t have to take massive risks to do it.

Basic operational technologies, the baby steps to digital transformation, have been adopted on a large enough scale and for a long enough time to be proven effective. Investing in them makes sense and shows ROI. What’s needed is a deeper understanding of how technology solutions support nonprofit missions and strategies.

While data analytics get nonprofit boards excited and motivated, the real value of technology daydreaming is that it helps organizations understand why they want tech tools, what they hope to accomplish, and why it might be worth using consultants or hiring staff to ensure the transition is timely, effective, and a good experience for stakeholders.

To effectively adopt technology, nonprofits need technical expertise coming from the top management levels and woven through the organization—not secluded in information technology departments. Done right, technology adoption isn’t about new apps or devices, it’s about strategically selecting digital tools that empower staff and members to deliver on the mission. It’s a cultural mindset that embraces innovation.

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