Nonprofits don’t need to spend a quarter million in tech to succeed

Guest post: Why take a human-first approach to digital transformation?
Oct 27, 2022
12 minute read
Change Management

The Click That Cost A Quarter Million

Chris works in the accounting department at a nonprofit organization called ImpAcme. Chris has made it a monthly ritual to grab a pencil and print out a donations report to reconcile donation payments across all the bank accounts. This process takes about half a day, and Chris does the job because nobody else has the patience to sort through all those transaction pages. The sad truth is that at one point, the reconciliation report had a handy filter that allowed this process to take only one hour sans pencil.

However, 28 months ago, that filter was accidentally removed during training — with a single click — without anyone noticing. ImpAcme has a great data team that could add the filter back in less than 60 seconds if they knew about it. Ironically, they are busy researching a systems migration because their current system “can’t do reconciling.” Fourteen months into the systems migration process, Chris’ team member Andrea will stumble upon the filter function in their current system. It will only take her a few minutes to realize she was the one that deleted that filter all those years ago. 

Now that’s how a single “click” — the accidental deletion of the filter — cost ImpAcme a quarter of a million dollars. The staff’s frustration with the system set the groundwork for migrating to a new software platform. Unfortunately, all the disruption will cause Chris to resign 12 months into the project, and Andrea will leave two months later to join a consulting firm. With multiple phases of work, including vendor selection, licensing, consulting, data migration, staff training, and replacement costs, the migration cost will exceed a quarter of a million dollars. 

Welcome to technology in the nonprofit sector.

The Click That Saved A Quarter Million

Just like a single click cost a quarter million dollars, another small click could save a quarter million. Let’s take a closer look at Chris’ story. Every month Chris in accounting grabbed a pencil and printed out a donations report before reconciling all the accounts. While Chris continued with her pencil and paper habits, Andrea from the data team presented a new button in their system during a staff meeting that lets users get help from the data team. The great thing about this button is that it was designed by the data team to take less than 30 seconds to complete, and Andrea even joked that “complaining is a sign of hope.”

Once again, the monthly reconciliation ritual arrived, and after 28 months of repeating this monthly behavior, Chris made a bold move and filled out the new “help me” form. It took Chris less than 30 seconds to inform the data team that the reconciliation report process was hard. With feedback delivered, Chris grabbed her pencil, printed the report, and started reconciling; by the time she was done and ready to go home, she completely forgot about her 30-second detour.

Waiting in Chris’ inbox the following day was an email from Andrea asking if they could sit down for a few minutes and go over the “help me” form she filled out. Before lunchtime, Andrea was able to add the handy filter to the report and showed Chris the report that had all the right stuff; she nearly wept. A few minutes later, an email thanked Chris for submitting ticket 000861, and nobody ever said the system “couldn’t do reconciling” again. It took Chris 30 seconds to complain, and that action blossomed into trust for her data team and an internal champion spreading the word about how well the form worked. 

Andrea and the rest of the data team received and resolved 84 other tickets over the next few months. Instead of moving away from the platform for not doing what’s expected, leadership acknowledged the form's success and sent Andrea to a technology conference where she gave a talk called “The Biggest Mistake I Ever Clicked.” 

Chris and Andrea are leaders in their departments and have no plans to leave an organization whose impact aligns with their values and has a positive workforce culture. 

A Tale of Two Outcomes

These two realities are separated only by a few choices. They both started with the same platform, the same products, the same tools, the same licenses, and the same staff. The difference was the model and mindset the data team used to engage digital maturity and the methodology that helped them achieve it. A methodology developed by The Human Stack℠ over the past few years focuses on the human dimension of technology, especially for nonprofits. How does it help? These two outcomes each focus on different angles; one focuses on the technology (the tech stack), and the other focuses on humans (the human stack).

Outcome 1 Prioritizes The Tech Stack

ImpAcme will spend the next several years migrating to a new CRM only to find that their digital behaviors and questionable data migrated too. Ultimately some of the details changed, but the same issues were largely in place—all at a cost exceeding a quarter million dollars.

Outcome 2 Prioritizes The Human Stack

The data team at ImpAcme focused on fixing more issues every month and making the data more accurate. The fundraising team felt their fundraising data could be enhanced by investing in a fundraising AI system and grew their fundraising by nearly a quarter million dollars.

Here is a detailed breakdown of the financial, technical, and staff outcomes:

Financial OutcomesTechnology OutcomesStaff Outcomes
Data Team Prioritizes Tech Stack: Expense Increase $250,000Focus: New CRM Outcome: Doesn’t solve core problems and creates new ones.
The migration results in the same problems at a high expense. Data quality issues are migrated and unresolved resulting in low data confidence. 
Migration to the new CRM significantly increases the workload to gather requirements and perform UAT to complete the project. Staff aren’t trained effectively and resort to spreadsheets resulting in data quality issues.
Staff leaves and is replaced, morale drops, and quiet quitting becomes the norm.
Data Team Prioritizes Human Stack: Revenue Increase $250,000Focus: Existing CRMOutcome: Solve ~20 tickets monthly in the existing system, increasing productivity. Monthly data quality goals are created and met, resulting in high data confidence. Staff participates in system changes. As tech becomes predictable, teams become less resistant. Trust in data translates to information user's trust. 
The staff slowly becomes engaged, resulting in less resistance and more resilience.
Net Difference:     $500,000Outcome 1 Loses $250,000Outcome 2 Gains $250,000 
Averaging 20 improvements/month in the existing system. 
85% success rate, meeting 108 data quality goals. 
Results in efficient systems and high-quality data.
A sustainable rhythm of strategic and tactical meetings. Low digital resistance. Increased confidence in data. Organizational recognition of accomplishments of the data team. 

Oh, and BTW, This Isn’t Just Hypothetical 

While ImpAcme is hypothetical, this model and methodology aren’t. For nearly three years, Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG), a nonprofit in Detroit that prepares kids for life, has been utilizing this model and methodology and is a notable example of an organization that has moved from digital resistance to digital resilience over that time. 

Khali Sweeney (CEO) and Jessica Hauser (Executive Director) had a vision for Digital Transformation to move DBG into the digital age. When they started this process in 2019, they knew that the long-term success of their impact would rest in their ability to use technology effectively. Securing their tech stack tools, they were on their way to having a successful system, but they ran into human-centered issues and knew they needed to invest. Over the past 36 months, under Jessica’s leadership, they have seen incredible transformation in their organization's digital maturity on the human stack.

Recently, the Database Administrators, Meredith Potter and Skylar Burkhardt, were invited to share their processes, learnings, and outcomes at The Human Stack℠ cohort. They presented how they solicit issues from staff, review them as a team, address the ones they can work on, and move the rest to a Guidance Team (tactical team) or Center of Excellence (strategic team). When the process started, Meredith needed their consulting partner to handle most of the internal system tickets, but today she and Skylar resolve all but a few. Working as a team, they onboard and train staff, track their technology roadmap, monitor user adoption KPIs, set and meet data quality improvement goals monthly, manage complex DevOps processes using sandbox environments, and distribute monthly release notes to the staff.

To encourage staff to submit tickets, they choose a staff person each month and recognize them for having the “best ticket of the month” and writing up what the issue was and how it was solved.

Screenshare of a donut graph of DBG cases grouped by staff name.

They are technology experts with no previous formal training in technology, and they deliver these results as a fraction of their overall job description. They have right-sized workloads resolving what they can each week, knowing they will return to it the following week; their approach uses time as an ally that works with them, not against them. Their success in managing their system comes across their confidence to navigate tomorrow's technology because of their digital resilience. 

Part Computer, Part Human, Different Stacks 

Information systems are part technology and part human. The technology part is architected, engineered, and diagramed from base code to UX on the tech stack. Because it has its own stack, the tech’s quality and efficiency can be measured. Burndown rates are effectively the progress of building the tech stack over time and budget. In sharp contrast, the human part of information systems is often unrecognized and underappreciated. “There’s no solving for humans,” PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer), and other sayings are indicators that humans aren’t keeping up. 

Digital Transformation has tended to focus on the tech stack. Even change management and digital strategy projects have primarily focused on the change management and strategy of the tech stack. 

Therefore, Digital Transformation can best be understood as initiatives or projects that organizations tackle (circled in blue). The ones that focus on upgrading the tech stack have a “T” in them, and the ones that move an organization toward digital maturity on the human stack have an “H” in them. This model allows humans and technology to grow along their axis. Separating these stacks creates unique characteristics of being agnostic and having their own base codes. 

Digital Transformation line graph showing digital maturity on the x-axis and digital upgrading on the y-axis. Data shows an upward trend.

Independently Agnostic

The human stack is platform agnostic because the tech stack is human agnostic, meaning the technology doesn’t care which humans create data (as long as they are authenticated). The tech stack doesn’t care because tech stacks are incapable of emotion. On the other hand, the human stack is full of emotion about the tech stack.

Base Code

Every bit of information on the digital tech stack boils down to the base code of zeros or ones because the tech stack is a highly intricate calculator of True/False statements. On the other hand, humans are herd animals with a base code of belonging and calculate complex “in” or “out” calculations. Of course, humans care about accuracy and true/false, but belonging is a driving need unique to the human stack.

Organizational Digital Maturity Requires A Human-First Mindset

The human stack is where the humans of an organization move from resistance to resilience. What helps humans reach digital maturity is their sense of connectedness: Connection to others on their team, connection to the mission, connection to the impact the organization makes, and connection to their paycheck (don’t underestimate that one). 

Humans move from resistance to resilience as a team on the human stack. We move from a place of instinctive fear and insecurity to being able to absorb the changes and grow. This development is at the team level, not just at the individual. And presentation-style end-user training may be an excellent way to distribute information. Still, it’s not a great form of transformation because human behavior changes with practice and repetition, not with information. 

Digital Maturity line from Low to High on the Human Stack scale. The low end is Resistant and the high end is Resilient.

The chain of events leading to small effective organizational changes requires a high level of intention, precision, and investment. One of the biggest secrets of digital maturity is knowing that a high volume of lowercase problems (problems that can be addressed quickly without a significant level of involvement) kill information systems, but solving a steady stream of them cures information systems. Solving lowercase problems is the key to digital maturity (and transformation). 

  • Chris must believe that identifying and notifying someone about a problem will likely create change.
  • Issue notifications can’t drop into a void; it needs to go to a list that another team looks at regularly.
  • The staff who can fix the problem need to connect to the staff who have it. 
  • Leadership must prioritize the budget and time to hire (or develop) internal skills to triage problems. 
  • A triage process and workflow is required to handle the problems in-house or hand them off. 
  • Access to experts to outsource more significant, uppercase problems (problems that take planning, strategy, and time to address). 

This chain isn’t accidental and requires growing and maintaining a methodology. 

More About The Human Stack℠ 

If you’ve been frustrated by all the hype around "digital transformation" in the past, it might be because it only focused on the tech stack. Sure, maybe you got a change management training thrown in there too. But that was change management of the tech stack and strategy of the tech stack. But that’s not where most of the challenges reside. 

Humans are the challenge and unrepresented on the tech stack; that’s where we come in.

To learn more about The Human Stack℠ and how our community is reshaping the way we think about tech, visit our Ethos page, where we break down our big 5 M’s in great detail to help you reach true digital transformation.

Tim Lockie

Tim Lockie

He | His

Founder & CEO, The Human Stack℠

Tim Lockie is the Founder & CEO of The Human Stack℠, co-host of the Why IT Matters podcast, and uses he/him/his pronouns. His history with the nonprofit world and technology seems to be intertwined. Tim has 20 years of organization experience as a volunteer, youth worker, camp counselor, music instructor, foster parent, getaway driver for teens in danger, board member, finance director, bookkeeper, recruiter, and community administrator…the list goes on. He has seen system deficiencies range from missed opportunities to damaged relationships in these capacities. Tim believes that Digital Transformation is affordable and scalable with nonprofits of all sizes and is obsessed with The Human Stack℠.

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