July 6, 2016

Avoid Technology Traps to Achieve Fundraising Success

We all know in this day and age that technology plays an increasingly important role in fundraising, as it does in many other aspects of our lives. As someone who works in implementing technology for nonprofits, I am passionate about the enormous benefits that the right technologies can bring to nonprofits. If chosen and implemented correctly, technology tools can make a nonprofit more efficient, effective, and increase impact.

While working with our nonprofit clients, I consistently come across some persistent traps that I see nonprofits fall into when choosing and implementing technology. These traps can be avoided.

Free Is Best

Nonprofits tend to be very price-conscious because of their budget limitations. But looking at price only ignores many important factors in making a decision about the best technology solution. Nonprofits often make do with whatever is donated or free. Free does not mean it is the right or the best technology tool for a nonprofit.

Before bringing in new free technology, a nonprofit needs to develop requirements for what is needed from the new technology and use that lens to vet available products. By bringing in free or really low cost technology, primarily for its price point, a nonprofit ends up with technology that does not meet its needs, and staff end up taking a lot of their precious time trying to make the technology work. If requirements are figured out early, followed by an assessment of available technology products, putting together a plan to raise the funds to pay for the technology will be easier. You’re a fundraiser, after all, and there are many foundations and other funders who understand the importance of the right technology and are willing to invest in technologies that produce greater results.

The Shiny Object Syndrome

Choosing a new technology for fundraising can be overwhelming. Most development staff don’t have a degree in computer science or an understanding of inner technical workings. However, they know what needs the technology must meet. They start a search for the best system for their fundraising needs and—lo and behold!—they contact a vendor who sets them up with a slick demo of their tool and says all the right fundraising buzz words. As they quickly click from one item to the next in their cool-looking user interface, staff will likely come back enthused about the product and ready to implement it.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: It is relatively easy to do some sleight of hand modifications for a demo that makes it appear that your tool does what the customer wants. Couple that with some impressive marketing materials that mention all the key terms, and it is easy to be sucked into thinking this is the product you need. It is so much easier to go back and sell it to your Executive Director and board if you can show them a sophisticated looking presentation. You buy this amazing technology tool, implement it, and then discover it really wasn’t what you thought you were purchasing.

Do not fall into the trap of being dazzled by a slick demo! You need to do your due diligence in evaluating technology products. Ask to take the system for a test drive. Many tech products offer a free trial where you can get in and get hands-on with the product. Check references with other nonprofits using the product that have similar needs to yours to find out how it is working for them. It’s important that you do not dismiss tech products just because they don’t have a fancy demo available. The lack of a fancy demo does not mean it isn’t a solid product.

The System Won’t Run Itself

I see time and time again, nonprofit clients who make a significant investment in a new technology, but when I ask who will be their system administrator once we launch, I get a blank stare. There seems to be a perception, in many cases, that the system will run itself. While newer technology can do a lot of amazing things to free up staff time, it does still need someone whose job is focused on making sure the system is being used properly, that staff (including new hires) are well trained in the use of the system, that you’re keeping up with the newest releases coming out, and that things are working properly. Some clients just decide to give all users system administrator privileges thinking that will solve the issue. I cringe when contemplating the ensuing chaos and lack of accountability that could result from this line of thinking.

A good system administrator (who isn’t wearing another 10 hats at your organization), will ensure that you maximize your investment and get the best use of your new tool. Don’t spend a bunch of money to implement a new system only to have it fall into disuse because no one is keeping it up.

Special Snowflake-itis (We All Have It)

In working with clients, I often come across a perception that the development department’s needs are very special and therefore, they need their own technology system that only they can access. There are several dangerous assumptions packed into that belief. By having a separate database from the rest of your organization, you are not able to get a 360-degree view of your constituents. There is often an assumption that donors are a separate and distinct constituent type for your organization, but it is rarely the case that at least some of them don’t have other interactions with your organization, such as volunteering or participating in your programs. The donor doesn’t see him- or herself as only a constituent for the development department. A donor views him- or herself as a supporter of your entire organization. By segregating a donor into a separate system, your organization risks not being coordinated in your asks to them and not fully understanding their interests and motivations.

The other danger in this assumption is that the development department needs to only concern itself with knowledge of its donors. By putting all your data in one system, your development staff then has a clearer window into the work of the rest of the organization. This will strengthen their fundraising toolkit.

Sometimes this belief in the need for a separate database is born from fear that other staff may see giving data that should be private. Many databases allow you to set up architecture to prevent staff from seeing data that they should not have the access to view. There are also fears that other staff won’t enter data using the same standards as the development department, but that is easily overcome by choosing a system where you can enforce data entry standards. Properly training all staff who will be entering data also reduces data entry errors.

I believe the benefits of an integrated system for all departments far outweigh the risks. Implementation of a shared database goes a long way to getting staff out of their siloes and working with a clearer view of your constituents and the work you’re accomplishing.

Choosing the right technology for your organization is key to being an effective fundraiser. As technology plays a larger and larger role in our lives, ensuring that your organization prioritizes investing in and implementing the best technology is critical to a nonprofit’s success. While this can require a significant investment up front, if done correctly, it will pay dividends for your in the long run.

Photo credit: Amy Snyder

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Paige Van Riper
Paige Van Riper is the Director of Professional Services at Cloud for Good (http://cloud4good.com), a certified B-Corp that works with nonprofit and educational organizations to create and implement strategic technology solutions. Paige has nearly 20 years of experience in nonprofit management in a variety of settings that range from an aquarium to a blood center. Paige headed up a database and website implementation at an environmental nonprofit that completely transformed the organization’s ability to engage constituents in raising funds, volunteering and affecting change in their community. Paige founded the Los Angeles Nonprofit Salesforce User Group which she continues to co-lead.
Interest Categories: Fundraising
Tags: donor management, technology planning