Nearly every team with nearly every organization we’ve ever worked with has negative feelings about their technology.
The database of record is too sophisticated or too generic. The e-CRM is unwieldy. The reporting dashboards don’t sync across channels. It’s impossible to easily track donor moves. There is little overall innovation when it comes to engaging donors with technology.
Regardless of the specifics, the big picture is the same: Our tech sucks. But there’s nothing we can do about it.
But is that really true? Two colleagues (and friends) who run an agency called The Build Tank have just launched a rosy-titled report called Roadmap to a Better Technology Tomorrow and I’ve asked them 5 tough questions that may be top of mind for fundraisers.
1. The Roadmap’s first step is “you must be willing to invest.” CEOs, CFOs and most fundraisers are typically not technologists. And many of us think we’re better off with the devil we know than the devil we don’t — leading to inertia. So….when are we better off with the devil we know?
If your organization is unable or unwilling to invest in its technology enough to make it actually do its job, then perhaps don’t bother ripping off the bandage. But chances are you’re already suffering, and you may just be too used to it to notice. People have allowed their technology expectations to get so incredibly low, and/or they haven’t even dared to consider what really excellent technology could do for them.
Here are a few tests: Do you love your donor database? Do you love your website? Do you love how easy it is to see the history of every donor’s relationship with the organization? Does your database make it easy to pull the program information your funders want to know? Are you constantly innovating to offer your donors ways to engage more meaningfully? Do you love how clear every staffmember’s portfolios and cultivation steps are? Do you love how your dashboards show you useful snapshots of your progress in each of your different fundraising and program areas? Do you have a team of technology allies on staff to answer your questions, and who are constantly showing you new capabilities that you didn’t even realize were possible?
If the answer to these questions is no, then you’re leaving massive opportunity on the table.
2. How would you suggest a Chief Development Officer make a financial case to invest significantly in technology when they themselves are not a technologist?
You don’t have to be a technologist but you do have to care about your technology. Everyone does. If your tools are holding you back it makes no sense to just close your eyes and hope it gets better. It won’t.
The way out of the mess is much more about investing in people than in systems. You need a team of technology problem-solvers whose job it is to make sure everyone gets what they need from your systems. When you have that, things will get better than you currently even imagine is possible. Without it, you will continue to suffer. Unfortunately, many organizations wait until things get unbearably bad before they take action, and by then it’s much more complex and expensive to fix.
And in fact the Chief Development Officer is actually probably the ideal person to make the case for technology investment, because they can make a clear ROI argument. Think about it from this angle: we all know that thriving for-profit businesses these days are making significant technology investments. That’s not for charitable reasons, it’s because they know it directly correlates to their bottom line, and without it the world will quickly pass them by. The same is true for nonprofits. It’s pretty much guaranteed that almost every single one of your targets as a department and an organization will be made stronger and more effective and impactful via strong technology, and that you will fall irretrievably behind without it. The head of development is in a unique position to make that argument in a way that other leaders may be more willing to hear.
3. You share three key distinctive areas of technology — Traditional IT, Content and Product. What does the first iteration of a “Better Tech Tomorrow “non profit’s tech ecosystem organizational chart look like? Reading between the lines [What is the minimum staffing structure required to not hate your tech and who do they each report to?]
Well two of those three areas are probably already covered in many cases. Most organizations have figured out how to handle traditional IT, and they also have people focused on the content/user side. The major gap that persists is the product team — the stewards of your technology platforms like CRMs and websites. And that gap leads organizations into a ditch, every time.
Depending on scale and ambitions the product team can start with a couple people, or with a small initial unit. But it’s important to expect this team to grow — not because they are somehow generating their own needs, but because they’re out there solving problems left and right for your entire organization. And eventually your staff will begin to grasp how much more powerful and effective their work has become while working with this team of technology magic-makers. So the demand curve hockey-sticks. That might sound scary at first, but what it really means is that this team is thriving at making things overwhelmingly better for everyone around them. The ROI for this team is off the charts.
4. Who manages this team, and how does Development ensure that their needs get met?
You might think you want to own this team but you really don’t. It needs to be an independent stripe in your org chart, rather than housed under Development, Operations, IT, or any other department. People are used to clinging to turf “owning” CRMs or websites especially, because they have been burned so often in the past, never getting what they’ve needed. So eventually they make a power move to grab it, rebuild it, and then hold on tight and defend against all invaders.
But owning technology platforms pushes your department way out of position, makes you waste countless hours out of your area of expertise doing things that make you miserable, and results in subpar systems. Whereas once you have a skilled team of technology allies in place we see a different kind of trust develop, and everyone gets to focus on their areas of expertise while getting what they need out of the technology where it matters. The end product is dramatically better.
5. When have you seen nonprofits hire the right technology staff? What did that hiring process look like? Who was in charge? Who was consulted?
We typically lead the hiring process for organizations who we help through this transition, because we’re often looking for different qualities than they expect. We’ve also written quite a bit about this that people can read if they want to do their own hiring.
Bottom line we’re typically not looking for super technical whizzes. We’re looking for strategic-minded people with exceptionally strong communication and relationship building skills, an ally-first mindset, an even-minded humility, strong project oversight skills, and of course a strong grasp of the possibilities of the technology platform itself.
Whoever is hiring, a variety of organizational staff need to be involved throughout the hiring process, because a key candidate requirement is their ability to thrive within the organization’s culture and to excel at building relationships. We’re not building a back-room technology team here. This is a team of strategic-minded, inspiring colleagues who you look forward to working with on a daily basis to make great things happen.
After chatting with Sam and Chris, I’m hopeful that their roadmap will provide the inspiration, confidence and political will needed to help some early adopters kick the “our technology sucks” habit and usher in a new era — one where tech isn’t a bandaid or a bemoaned line item under overhead, but an essential impact-driven part of everything your non profit does.