Occupation Automation: When to Let the Machines Take Over

We often hear the term automation used in the marketing world, because that’s where it’s been used most: everything from email drip campaigns to robocalls to auto-DMs. It’s gotten a bad rap because marketers sometimes use it as a replacement for authentic human interaction, but it has the power to offer so much more than that. When executed well, automation can be used to reduce monotony and boost productivity at our organizations.

Nonprofit professionals are often expected to do a lot with very little, which leaves many of us feeling overworked and overwhelmed. We may look to technology to tackle some of our biggest challenges, but it can complicate matters further. This is especially true as we continue to experiment with more and more digital tools that operate independently from one another.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of nonprofits that each used multiple donation processing platforms, multiple event management systems, multiple databases, and multiple content management systems. Why? A variety of reasons, ranging from cost to user preference to “it’s always been that way.” Every nonprofit organization has its own unique set of needs, and with those needs often comes a patchwork of technology solutions that may or may not play nicely together. In between these technology solutions are human beings, who are responsible for copying and pasting, importing and exporting, and entering and archiving in order to keep everything running smoothly. While many of us would like to be out there saving the world, we spend a good chunk of our time working for machines. Isn’t it time the machines work for us?

Automation at Work.

There are a number of free and low-cost automation tools on the market, and two of the most popular are IFTTT and Zapier. For folks who are looking to get their feet wet in the automation space, I always recommend starting with IFTTT, because it’s free and offers a super friendly user interface.

IFTTT, an acronym for “If This Then That,” is a service that allows you to create powerful connections between two apps that normally wouldn’t interact with one another. Users are guided through the process of setting up automations using a simple formula, If This Then That, which IFTTT affectionately refers to as a “recipe.” Data is passed between apps through the use of mail merge fields, called “ingredients.”

Here are some real life examples of what you can cook up (see what I did there?):

  • IF we raise $_____ in a Salesforce campaign, THEN change the color of the lights.
    Enhance your next fundraising event with some special effects! Electronics companies like Phillips and WeMo provide internet-connected lighting products, so why not connect them to your database?
  • IF I post a tweet with a specific hashtag, THEN send an email.
    Our staff are often our greatest brand ambassadors. So why not set up an automation to email your staff asking them to share your campaign specific social media posts?
  • IF I create a Bit.ly link, THEN log it in a Google Sheet.
    At the True Colors Fund, we use Bit.ly to create custom URLs for both aesthetic and tracking purposes. Those links are then logged in a shared Google spreadsheet so staff can easily access them for sharing.
  • IF I post an image on Instagram, THEN post it as a Twitter image.
    Software companies have rivalries and all too often, we’re caught in the middle. You may notice when you use the native Twitter share feature in the Instagram app, your pretty image is tweeted out as a link instead of a photo. This forces your followers to leave Twitter and go to Instagram if they want to see the image. That’s no fun. Use IFTTT to create an automated workaround.
  • IF the temperature drops below 32F, THEN send an SMS.
    You can automate the weather! No, seriously. If you work at an organization that has staff working outdoors, you can set up weather-related notifications that remind them to dress appropriately and pack special supplies.

IFTTT currently supports over 280 apps, but it’s not without its limitations. Recipes can take up to 15 minutes to trigger, so if you’re looking for a solution that can deliver results in realtime, you may need to look elsewhere. Also, you’re limited to one account per app, which means you’ll have to create multiple IFTTT accounts if you’d like to set up automations for multiple Twitter accounts. The biggest upside: IFTTT is free.

If IFTTT doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can kick things up a notch with Zapier, a similar service that supports nearly twice the apps. Zapier offers multi-step automations, which allow you to connect more than two apps. For instance, if someone fills out a form on your website, you can set up an automation that subscribes the user to a MailChimp group, updates their contact information in Salesforce, looks up their contact ID, and assigns a task in Trello for one of your colleagues to follow up with them. Zapier also supports multiple accounts per app, which means you can set up automations for all of your Twitter accounts. Of course, all of this comes at a cost, as Zapier offers a range of pricing structures. However, they do offer a discounted nonprofit rate.

Automate Responsibly.

Automation can be like a shiny new toy. Once you get the hang of it, you may be tempted to start automating everything in sight. Here are some things you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • Use automation as a supplement, not replacement. It’s important to remember that computers are not a replacement for human interaction (at least not yet, anyway). Especially where communications are concerned, you’ll want to continue to engage your followers with real, thoughtful communications.
  • Don’t set it and forget it: set it and check it. Like any other kind of technology, automations can break. This is especially true when using free or low-cost solutions. Be sure to log in routinely and check in on things.
  • Enable notifications. Most automation services offer the option to notify you whenever an automation is run, or whenever there is a problem. Email and push notifications are a great way to monitor automations while you’re off saving the world.

Start with Pen and Paper. (No Joke.)

With automation, the possibilities are nearly endless – and that can be overwhelming. Most services provide a directory of sample automations that you can browse for inspiration. Before diving in, sometimes it’s best to start with the trusty ol’ pen and paper. Make a list of all of those tedious day-to-day tasks that eat up your time to figure out which might be best suited for automation. Then go from there.

When used strategically, automation can relieve us from performing repetitive, mundane tasks, freeing us up to focus on the important stuff: serving our program participants, cultivating relationships with our supporters, and building a stronger workforce.

Joe Moran
For more than 15 years, I've worked as a nonprofit capacity builder, techie, and creative producer. As the Director of Content Operations at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, I'm responsible for implementing project management systems, optimizing business processes, and collaborating with stakeholders across the organization to ensure all content-related activities remain in strategic alignment with Foundation goals. In addition to my experience in the nonprofit sector, I've also worked in the entertainment industry as an actor, producer, and writer. I'm an avid comic book reader, retro video game player, and wacky snacker. I'm also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)®. Twitter: @JoeSaidSo