How Even the Leanest Nonprofit Can Achieve Digital Transformation

In 2016, charity: water—a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to clean water around the world—tried a new fundraising tactic. The organization launched Walk with Yeshi, an immersive chatbot experience for Facebook Messenger. The bot invited users to virtually “walk” alongside Yeshi, an Ethiopian woman who walks 2.5 hours every day to get clean water. Users could then choose to donate (either one time or monthly) directly from the app. So far, charity: water has completed over 20,000 water projects in 24 countries—and 100% of Yeshi donations go directly to projects.

Walk with Yeshi is a great example of how nonprofits can leverage emerging technology to do good, better. How? Through digital transformation—a term that describes applying digital technology to innovate processes and enhance efficiency. Unfortunately, businesses leaders often perceive transformation as daunting or simply unattainable, so they don’t prioritize modernizing their digital infrastructure.

This fact is especially true for nonprofit organizations (NPOs); globally, on average they spend only 1% to 2.5% of their annual income on technology. But digital transformation is especially crucial to nonprofits; to deliver the highest level of social impact, NPOs have to run as efficiently as possible. As they frequently operate with a lean staff, and because they have a mandate to use donations wisely, NPOs face challenges that digital transformation can easily resolve affordably and reliably. A sustainable digital strategy can equip NPOs with the appropriate resources to stay at the forefront of the digital era.

Why Pursue Nonprofit Digital Transformation Anyway?

On a fundamental level, digital transformation is key to future success for any organization. Holger Mueller, VP and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, emphasizes the profound need for all industries to embrace the change. His rationale is simple: keep up with evolving technology—or risk being left behind.

David DeLorenzo, CIO of DelCor Technology Solutions, echoes the sentiment. “At an organization-wide level, embracing a digital strategy is critical to every association that wishes to stay relevant and maintain (or grow) their market share and voice in their industry or profession,” he says. ”Transforming the digital operations of the organization will also ensure that you are focused on top priorities, fully aligned, nimble, accountable, and transparent. An association that undergoes digital transformation fully integrates digital technologies and strategies into their operations in alignment with their goals and objectives.”

On a practical level, nonprofit digital transformation means greater efficiency. Digital tools make work more straightforward, communication simpler, and collaboration seamless. They can reduce labor costs by automating manual tasks, a boon for NPOs that often have to contend with shoestring staffing budgets. And in 2017, digital is where your donors reside—on social media, email, and smartphones—so keeping on top of those touchpoints is key to boosting donations.

Moving to the Cloud: A Good First Step

As a first step, most businesses have already abandoned archaic legacy systems for the greener pastures of the cloud. NPOs are no exception: a Nonprofit Technology Network survey indicates that 90% of NPOs currently use some form of cloud-based software solution. The rise of cloud applications has already revolutionized the way organizations operate; cloud apps are increasingly cheap and easy to use—even for non-technical users.

So why are some nonprofits so reluctant to fully embrace emerging technology as a cornerstone of their operations? Gregor Nilsson, CDO at the Swiss national offices of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), explains that NPOs are, by nature, risk-averse. “Traditionally the nonprofit sector’s willingness to innovate is lower than that of other industries,” he says. “While other companies can try and fail as long as they deliver the desired shareholder value, investments in innovation that turn out not to be profitable or impactful enough might be linked with reputational risks for a nonprofit.”

Fostering Digital Leadership in a Nonprofit Environment

To move organizations forward, change has to happen in the areas of culture and leadership. Research shows that a lack of buy-in from senior leadership is one of the most commonly cited roadblocks to nonprofit digital transformation. Enter the Chief Information Officer (CIO). They take on a multifaceted role, working closely with the IT department to ensure the alignment of business and IT goals.

But though clear leadership is necessary to succeed at nonprofit digital transformation, many nonprofits balk at the idea of hiring a dedicated C-suite techie. As Mueller explains, organizations are intrinsically inert. “[Humans] like to keep doing things as we already do them,” he says. And nonprofits are even more risk-averse than traditional businesses; smaller budgets coupled with their social mandates mean they are understandably choosier with their investments.

Sarah Prag, a Digital Transformation Coach at Quotidian Consulting, explains that organizations don’t necessarily need to “go big or go home” on digital leadership right away. Nonprofits can start with smaller digital transformation projects—as long as they have the blessing and support of key leadership. “You need both top-down and bottom-up leadership to change an organization,” she says. “The most powerful thing is to start bottom-up with small projects to show that it works. But getting permission from top-down to even start? That is the key to everything,” she says.

For NPOs, this approach may mean looking outwards and short-term, rather than internally and long-term. Tides Canada, a national public foundation and an operating charity, did just that. At the behest of its COO Ann Marie Johnston, the organization hired an external Creative Tech Consultant to guide them through the transition of moving to the cloud from a legacy system. They also wanted to integrate two key systems: Salesforce, a CRM platform for the management of donor activity, and NetSuite, their financial system-of-record. “Every nonprofit struggles with capacity in terms of HR, so you’re always looking to streamline,” Johnston elaborates. “We want to deliver financial reports in a timely way with minimal overhead.”

This relatively modest project was the first step in future-proofing their entire organization; moving to the cloud gives Tides Canada the freedom to switch out apps in the future as their operational needs and processes change. And it’s had immediate, tangible benefits, too; integrating SFDC and NetSuite using the intelligent automation platform, Workato, saves them hours of manual work, allowing the organization to decrease its staff by an estimated one to two full-time equivalents. And Workato is simple enough that the organization’s IT support staff has picked it up as well, Johnston explains. Ultimately, they run a leaner, more high-impact operation.

Increasing Digital Impact with Integration and Automation

While adopting new, cloud-based apps is key to nonprofit digital transformation, using multiple programs without integrating them can produce a new slew of problems. Even when NPOs move to the cloud, they still face the problem of data silos. And silos can hurt both productivity and the bottom line; a Forrester report indicates that repressed data silos lead organizations to ignore 88% of their customer data—a huge problem if you rely on grassroots fundraising.

Jean-Louis Echochard, VP and CIO at the Nature Conservancy, elaborates on why silos can profoundly affect nonprofit operations. “We have the systems, they hold information elements, but relating them in a coherent way is still a challenge—and the bigger our data, the more apps we use, the bigger the challenge grows,” he says. “The more apps I use, the more fragmented my information gets and the more time I spend defragmenting it, instead of benefiting from it.”

Integration—linking your apps together so they can automatically share information—is a powerful solution to the silo problem. For example, the Braille Institute of America (a NPO for the visually impaired) embarked on their nonprofit digital transformation journey by automating the conversion of donations between their apps. With 6 regional centers, more than 200 outreach centers, and a network of over 4000 volunteers turning to cloud-based integration was an obvious—and necessary—solution. For an organization of that scale, adapting to evolving technology is crucial, so the Braille Institute made the forward-thinking choice of migrating to the cloud.

Soon, however, they faced the tedious manual processes of moving donations from Luminate CRM, a Salesforce-based Blackbaud product, into Intacct, their accounting platform of choice. Using the Workato integration platform, the NPO automated the complex workflow. When a new set of donations is logged in Luminate, they are automatically converted into debit and credit card entries and stored in Intacct—in real time. Not only did they move over 30,000 existing entries quickly, but the organization also continues to process an average of 3,700 journal entry items every month with this workflow, saving them hours of manual data entry!

But integration is good for more than simply moving data around. From accounting to event management, integration can streamline backend workflows and automate manual processes for added efficiency. Chicago Scholars—a NPO that supports underprivileged students in applying to and attending college—uses integration to execute its programs and measure engagement.

As an event and program-based nonprofit, Chicago Scholars faced the dilemma of keeping track of contacts for targeted follow-ups. They use Salesforce, a CRM platform, as a hub to record every student interaction. But they also use specialized apps like Eventbrite and Twilio to track RSVPs, reach out to students, and maximize attendance.

For example, the NPO created a workflow in Workato to engage with prospective students who haven’t been actively working on their program application via SMS. The integration triggers a query in Salesforce of selected program applications once every day and, if the Scholar hasn’t worked on their application for 14 days or more, send a text message to the students via MogliSMS. The text asks if the student needs help with anything and reminds them to log into their Chicago Scholars application. This helps keep students engaged and allows the staff to give students a friendly reminder without wasting time manually identifying who has not logged in and sending them texts. With integration between these apps, Chicago Scholars simplified the arduous task of keeping their program attendees engaged. The result? 86% of their students graduate in 6 years, compared to a national average of only 56%.

Do More With Nonprofit Digital Transformation

These numbers are just one testament to the power of nonprofit digital transformation. Regardless of your organization’s mission, embracing the digital age can push you further in achieving your goals and doing good. With the right technology and leadership, digital transformation is attainable even for the leanest nonprofit.

The Braille Institute serves 75,000 people each year more effectively thanks to automation. Read their story>

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