July 25, 2017

Don’t have Jedi-level skills in tech? There’s an assessment for that.

Using the Discovery Assessment to figure out your organization’s real challenges

I’ve noticed a common characteristic among the tech professionals in my life: they’re an inquisitive bunch. Take my husband, for example—a software engineer. I pose a challenge (tech or not) that I’m struggling with, and in the matter of a nanosecond I’m bombarded, in the most thoughtful way possible, with 50 questions. Five minutes later he’s uncovered the root cause of my challenge, given me three possible solutions with supporting evidence, and suggested a couple of tools I can use to tackle said challenge. To him, it’s no big deal. (“I just know what to Google for,” he says.) To me, it feels like a form of magic.

When the Taproot Foundation embarked on the development of a framework that could help nonprofits successfully complete tech projects by working with volunteer experts, we knew we had to capitalize on this inquisitiveness, this Jedi-level problem-solving ability. And so we racked the brains of the staff at VMware (thanks to their collaboration), and together fleshed out what we call the Discovery Assessment, our very own nonprofit-focused, problem-solving tool.

What’s the Discovery Assessment?

The Discovery Assessment is a tool that can help organizations prioritize their needs, uncover risks and constraints, and analyze the impact of a project on their current systems—all before diving into that project.

While this approach isn’t new to tech professionals, it’s a critical step that’s often skipped when nonprofits take on tech-related projects alone. This isn’t a dig on us nonprofit folks; we’re simply not experts in that field. We don’t know what we don’t know. We want a shiny new website (or a new email marketing platform, or a new CRM system…) like yesterday, but we don’t always fully understand what that means or have the words to explain what we’re really trying to solve for. That’s where being inquisitive comes into play.

The Discovery Assessment is made up of three steps:

  • Run: This step deals with your day-to-day. What tools do you currently use to get stuff done? What do you need immediately in order to keep your programs and services running? What’s just flat out not working? And is there a staff person who can address those issues?
  • Scale: This step addresses what you want to be doing more of and how your existing processes or systems can be expanded to make that happen. What annoyances do you have with your current system that could benefit from being changed? Are there tasks you do over and over again that take up enormous chunks of time? Are you behind on reaching goals because you’re lacking resources?
  • Transform: This step looks at what you can do to fundamentally change how you operate. What would you do with unlimited time and resources? How can you better engage with your stakeholders? What does success look like in a month or in five years? Look at organizations you admire and pinpoint what they’re doing that you’re not.

The Discovery Assessment is rad because it can be used for small and large projects, by tech and non-tech professionals alike, with or without the help of volunteer experts. And it can help just about anyone tackle any challenge.

What does the Discovery Assessment look like in action?

Let’s look at a small arts organization. They’ve had their existing website for years, and they feel it’s time for a new one. Unfortunately they lack both staff capacity and expertise (not to mention $$) to address this challenge. Before jumping into the development of a new site with a volunteer or contracted design firm, they can use the Discovery Assessment to figure out how best to approach their challenge.

  • Run: The organization currently uses an outdated content management system. In order to address their immediate needs to keep things up and running, the organization finds a skilled volunteer who is familiar with the CMS to make critical content changes, overseen by a communications staff person.
  • Scale: Being able to refer their audience to the website for event information is a top priority for the organization, but the current site is hard to navigate and rarely updated (that gosh darn CMS). To help them scale given their current constraints, that same skilled volunteer adjusts the navigation menu as needed and coaches the communications staff person on how to update the website and improve SEO.
  • Transform: The organization finds other nonprofits they admire and notes what they do really well. They list all the ways a new website can help them better engage with their stakeholders and identifies what success looks like.

Depending on the outcome of their work, this arts organization may determine that with a few tweaks and the help of a skilled volunteer, their existing site will be sufficient for now. Or maybe they just burn the whole thing down. Either way, they’ve done their due diligence, asked themselves 50 questions, looked at all the possible solutions, and found the tools they can use to tackle. They’ve done some Jedi-level problem-solving on themselves.

So what’s next?

Nonprofits don’t need to stop at the Discovery Assessment! Taproot, with the help of the VMware Foundation, created a Solution Development Framework to not only discover but also design, implement, and maintain solutions to nonprofit tech challenges with the help of pro bono experts. This framework also includes resources to help organizations secure pro bono tech consultants and job descriptions to ensure that they find the perfect fit for their organization. Check out the free resource here, and happy discovery!

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Crystal Hendricks-Kretzer