An Eleven Step Program to Cure Shiny Object Syndrome

Are major technology decisions at your organization characterized by any of the following?

  • We chose the system because we have a volunteer/consultant who knows it
  • Let’s get this tool. It worked great at my last (completely dissimilar) organization
  • We should get the _____est thing
  • Our board member, donor, funder, or friend said to do or buy ________ because it worked for them
  • It’s not in our strategic plan or budget, but…
  • It’s free, so why would we pay for anything else?

Watch out for red flag phrases like these. They’re signs of poorly thought-out projects, and you might spend years mopping up after them.

Unfortunately, all the technology that glitters is not gold, and it’s painfully easy to fall for the lure of shiny objects. Products may look great during a demo, have charming salespeople or lots of buzz, and the price may sound too good to pass up. But beware of magical thinking: complex tools will not automatically install and run themselves, nor will they transform your organization with the push of a button.

In many cases, what seem like problems with a particular piece of technology are actually due to mistakes made at the start of the project or along the way. Major technology projects require planning; budgeting; risk assessment; project management; stakeholder participation; change management; the development of policies, procedures, and documentation; initial user training; and ongoing support and training. Sacrificing any of these can lead to wasted time and money, unhappy leadership and users, and project failure. “Major” technology projects refer to things like buying a donor database or Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system, email marketing software, volunteer or event management tools, or a web Content Management System (CMS)—not buying an additional license for Microsoft Word.

Below are eleven steps toward a successful technology project.

  1. Start with your mission. How will the new technology solution help your organization better serve its constituents? Mission should drive tech, not the other way around. Your mission will also tell you which data and metrics you need to track and produce. With certain tools, these are critical aspects to consider at the start.
  2. Make thoughtful decisions. For a complex piece of software, this means detailing your real needs, identifying any deal-breakers, and prioritizing the rest. Once you know which problems you need to solve, you’ll be prepared to ask the hard questions of vendors and test systems to make sure they’ll really meet your top needs.
  3. Make decisions based on your organization’s priorities and strategic plan, not whoever screams the loudest. Of course, if it’s your CEO or boss who’s doing the yelling, you may have to listen. But do your best to make sure this is a strategic decision with support from leadership and key stakeholders. Leadership should also be made aware that adopting a new tool often means that staff will be taking on new responsibilities. They may need to say “no” to some organizational priorities to clear space for the project and ongoing management and support of the new tool.
  4. Don’t expect software to solve a lack of strategy, communication, or fix broken business processes. As Kentaro Toyama, the author of “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology,” said in an interview in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Technology amplifies underlying human forces. If the … forces … are positive, then the technology will amplify that, and things will tend to go in a more positive direction. If they’re negative, then technology will amplify that and things will tend to go in a negative direction.”
  5. Ensure that you have the necessary funding, staff time, and understanding of your goals and needs. What does success look like and how you will get there? You’ll need a combination of vision and research to identify your goals and success factors. Be sure to look beyond “Year 1” funding and resources. Your organization is likely to need to change ongoing revenue allocations and staff duties.
  6. Someone needs to run the show. If no one’s in charge of the project or system, entropy will take over and your project or system will gradually (or quickly) fall into chaos. Someone needs to put things on the right track, make sure that people actually do what they’re supposed to do, and keep everything running smoothly. Create a means to govern using your new tool so that it runs smoothly and serves the vision that drove the project.
  7. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Develop policies and procedures so that people use the new tools systems efficiently and consistently. It does no good to have a shiny new tool that people use incorrectly.
  8. Train the system staff. The people who manage the project and system need to be properly trained on the systems they are implementing or supporting, rather than making it up as they go along. If the tech staff don’t know what they’re doing, they can’t train others or make good decisions about the system. That way madness lies. Chaos, too.
  9. Next, train staff on the tool, policies, and procedures, and have an ongoing training plan. It does no good to have a shiny new tool that no one knows how to use. This requires budgeting for staff training at implementation as well as ongoing training. Find your “power users,” the folks who are most enthusiastic about using your new tool, and support them in becoming mentors to others at your organization.
  10. Think about your organization’s hierarchy. Make sure the people running the project and managing the system are placed appropriately in your organization. They need to understand how the system will support the organization’s mission and strategic plans and have a broad enough perspective to not simply serve the needs of one department (or person).
  11. Customer service must be paramount once the system is live. The people managing and supporting the system need to play well with others. If they’re inaccessible or unhelpful, the people who should be using the system will avoid the people running it, and might also avoid using the software. Technologists are becoming increasingly called upon to be “people persons.” Do you have tech staff who will leave their desks and actually engage with colleagues?

The road to technology nirvana is littered with the remains of poorly planned projects. Major technology projects should not be undertaken lightly. You need to start with your mission and a plan: How will this project help your organization do its work better? Once you know which problem(s) you’re trying to solve, decide what you’re looking for; line up the right resources; think about how the new tool will change business processes, staff roles, budgets, and other systems; and put the right people, processes, and policies in place to ensure a successful project and ongoing sustainability. Don’t let your organization fall prey to the shiny objects approach to technology solutions.

This article is copyright © Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). Advancing Philanthropy® is the quarterly publication of AFP, which promotes philanthropy through advocacy, research, education and certification programs. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Weiner
Robert Weiner is an independent consultant specializing in helping nonprofits make informed, strategic decisions about the use of technology for fundraising. He has helped a wide variety of organizations choose donor management, member management, and CRM systems, including The Nature Conservancy, International Rivers, Earthjustice, the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, and numerous colleges and universities.