Tag: planning

When a web design agency receives an ill-prepared RFP, they are far less likely to take the time to prepare a proposal for the project, or the proposal will be less accurate and useful. If you decide to create an RFP, then a strong website RFP is a beneficial first step toward a successful new website.

Why Create a Request for Proposal?

When prepared well, RFPs can serve a valuable purpose for nonprofit organizations. An RFP for a nonprofit’s new website can:

● Help all partners think through the scope of a new website.
● Build consensus within the nonprofit about project goals.
● Clearly and consistently explain the project to web design agencies.
● Demonstrate to agencies that you are serious about the project.
● Help to ensure consistent proposals for easier and more informative comparisons.

In any given week, I review 5-10 request for proposals. Inevitably, many of them fail to achieve some or all of the goals listed above. Here are some of the most common mistakes I see in RFPs.

Mistake #1: RFP spam

RFP spam is when an organization blindly sends an RFP to dozens or hundreds of agencies. Maybe these leads were discovered through a list of qualified agencies, or maybe they were collected randomly from browsing web design agency websites.

Bonus mistake: Forgetting to use blind copy (Bcc) in the email announcing the RFP, so everyone on the list can see all the other agencies contacted. Many qualified agencies will decline to respond to this type of mass solicitation.

A more effective approach is to send a thoughtful, directed communication.

Gather references from colleagues or friends, or research leads using an analysis agency l. Create several metrics to inform choices likely to be a good fit, such as experience in your industry, examples of work with similar types of organizations, size, location, or quality of work.

Then contact the 5-10 agencies that you’ve decided might be a good fit and conduct 15-minute introduction calls. You’ll quickly discover which agencies are likely to be a good fit. You might also discover new details to add to your RFP. Once you’ve narrowed your list, personally invite the 4-5 most promising agencies to respond to the RFP.

Mistake #2: micromanage the format

Unnecessarily complicated delivery processes and formatting requirements create additional challenges. Micromanagement can signal that an organization is more concerned about rules and bureaucracy than quality, likely discouraging quality agencies from responding.

Here’s an example from a recent RFP:

…Strict conformance to the specified proposal format and completeness of required content are essential. Lack of any listed item will disqualify a proposal … One (1) copy shall contain all original signatures and be marked “Original”. Proposer shall also submit one (1) digital (thumb drive) and nine (9) hard copies of their proposal marked “Copy”. Proposals shall be submitted in three ring binders. Cost Proposal sheets shall be separately placed into sealed envelopes separate from Proposals and labeled “Confidential”. Each section of the proposal shall be tabbed in accordance with the below number system…”

Bonus mistake: Requiring multiple print copies of proposals may send the wrong signal about your organization in today’s eco-conscious business environment.

Instead, allow requested proposals space and flexibility to showcase the strengths of the agencies bidding for the contract.

In most cases, the digital agency’s proposal format is a strong reflection of their future work. If the proposal is disorganized or filled with errors, their work will likely also be disorganized. If the proposal is organized, creative, and elegant, there’s a good chance their work will be too.

You should specify the requirements of the proposal (examples, references, budget, etc.), but also allow the agency to meet those requirements in the format that best represents their work.

Mistake #3: withholding the budget

Some nonprofit organizations decline to provide a budget or budget range, perhaps because the organization wants to get a great deal (who doesn’t!) and doesn’t want to only receive proposals in an overly prescriptive budget range.

However, similar to shopping for a car without deciding on a budget, there are great values at nearly every price point.

Sadly, most digital agencies invest great effort to prepare a proposal only to discover that the budget allocated for the project is a tiny fraction of the effort required. Many agencies today will decline to respond to an RFP if a budget range is not disclosed.

Disclose a budget or budget range, so agencies can help prioritize and accurately describe what is possible in that range. Most digital agencies are pleased to work with your budget, or will tell you if the budget it too low.

Mistake #4: unclear (or fake) process

Some organizations are not clear about the RFP process they will follow, or they are requesting proposals because a minimum number of “bids” are required.

Here’s an example of an ineffective invitation to submit a proposal:

Subject: Website Bid
Date: Tue 20 Mar 2018 09:38:04 – 0700
From: < Uncertain Company >

Dear Vendor,
We are considering redesigning our website. Please prepare a proposal from the attached specs. Once we receive a bunch of proposals, we’ll decide if we want to move forward with the project.
< Uncertain CEO >

This email implies that the digital agency’s time may be wasted if the organization decides not to proceed with the project. Certainly, any organization can reject all proposals submitted, but leading with uncertainty about the project is likely to discourage responses from qualified agencies.

Instead, agree on a process with the entire organization before issuing the RFP, and then be clear about that process in the RFP.

Mistake #5: unrealistic timeline

Some organizations propose an unrealistic timeline that can impact cost or dissuade qualified agencies from responding.

For example, here’s a timeline from an RFP I recently received:

8.3 Schedule

November 1 RFP Released
November 7 Questions Due
November 8 All Questions Answered
November 9 Proposals Due
November 12 Interviews
November 14 Firm Selected
November 15 Board Approval
November 19 Project Kick-Off
December 21 Website Launches

This timeline is highly unlikely to succeed.

First, most agencies will decide to proceed and begin serious work on a proposal after questions have been answered. In this case, there is only one day between when questions are answered and the proposals are due.

Although it’s possible, most organizations cannot review proposals and schedule interviews within two days, and even fewer can get approval from their board in a day.

Asking an agency to start a project just a few days after you’ve notified them they’ve been selected is unrealistic. Finally, trying to launch a new website within 30 days in the midst of the holiday season would be challenging.

Instead, propose a realistic timeline and suggest that the agency can recommend a timeline as well. Leave time in the schedule to meet with agencies and answer their questions. If you have hard, event-driven deadlines, take time to explain them.

A model website RFP template

Requests For Proposals can be an effective tool when used well. Avoiding these common mistakes will help your next website RFP get the results you’re seeking.

If you’re embarking on a new website design project and want to use an RFP, Urban Insight provides a free Model Website RFP Template (disclosure: name and email address required to download), which I created in collaboration with several digital agency owners to provide a concise, easy-to-modify template with sample language. We created this template to help avoid these mistakes and help nonprofit organizations think through the website project and help find the best agency partners.

So, you have a new project that requires a lot of research and a deadline that doesn’t fit. Scrambling, you set off to find resources and a search engine is your first go-to resource. You wait half a second and then your confidence falters: 137,000 results.

We live in an information-rich era, but how can you filter the research that’s available and judge its merits for your nonprofit project?

Trust the information experts

Wondering where to find good information resources? Consider reviewing the online research guides provided by a college or university library. Curated by information professionals, plentiful and free, these guides can help you figure out where to look to find international, national, state and sometimes local information.

Senovia Guevara quote for NTENConsider academic sources. Several universities maintain digital repositories that include images, video, reports or datasets available for users to download for free. Research from students, faculty and research-focused organizations associated with the university are often included. Examples include the University of Michigan’s Deep Blue, Harvard’s DASH and more.

Investigate government sources

Depending on what you need, there may be a government-produced report or dataset that can help you. USA.gov, Data.gov, Govinfo.gov and the US Government Publishing Office are several options to consider. Take a look at whether your city provides an open data portal and if they do, take advantage of it.

For example, if you’re an advocate for responsible policing in Lansing, MI, you should know that the city has an Open Data Portal that provides detailed traffic stop information for the area.

Know what to search for

Your front-door search might not give you what you need, but consider other options your search engine provides – like Google’s Dataset Search. Researchers can filter by date, download format and a host of other attributes.

No matter your source, you will still have to vet the sources, but these tips should help you get on the right path and find the data you’re looking for. Good luck!


Main image: Creative Commons, Eden, Janine and Jim.

According to a recent report by NTEN, 65% of leading-edge nonprofit organizations have a process for prioritizing, selecting, and implementing their technology needs—and the first step in this process is developing the plan. Here are four questions to keep in mind when creating an effective technology plan for your organization.

1. Who is on your technology planning team?

Leaders often neglect to include their IT vendors or technology personnel in the decision-making process, while in other organizations, IT makes all technology decisions without any input from managers, departmental staff, or third-party vendors. According to Joe McKendrick at Forbes, today’s most successful organizations have top-level leadership who are “becoming more immersed in technology decisions, while CIOs and CTOs and their IT staff members, as well, are being asked to join in on high-level decision-making teams.”

In today’s competitive business environment, technology has become immersed in every aspect of operations. Involvement from stakeholders at all levels of the organization is essential to creating an effective and sustainable technology plan.

2. What are your technology-related goals?

The goals you set for your organization should be written to address specific problems or future goals for the organization. Of course, you should remember to be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound). Additionally, your technology goals should address the following questions:

  • What is our primary technology issue or need?
  • What are our technology or organizational barriers?
  • How will our organization improve by addressing this issue?

3. Who are your IT champions?

Once you’ve determined your technology planning team, the next step is determining “who’s on first.” This means developing a resources list of the technology champions who will help realize the organization’s technology goals. These IT champions should consist of external and internal technology providers (tech vendors, IT contractors, and staff with IT responsibilities). Good communication is essential to any project, large or small. These individuals should have a clear and collaborative line of communication at all times.

4. What technology tools and resources do you have? What do you need?

You should evaluate the technology resources you currently own and what your organization will need for the future. This final part of the planning process is the point at which you will also begin gathering information to help you develop an annual budget projection for technology-related costs, as well. These components include:

  • Network services (internet, email, storage/backup, and disaster recovery): Do your current vendors provide outstanding service and support?
  • Hardware/maintenance & lifecycle: Is your equipment outdated or obsolete?
  • Software/upgrades & updates: Are you at the current version of all software? Do you have support from your software provider for updates to these products?
  • Technical assistance & training: What support resources do you need? Are your staff adequately trained to use your technology? Do they have someone to call for support when they need help?
  • Future growth and integration (mobility, remote access, cloud services): Where is your organization going? Do you need additional technology resources to get you there? Are there nonprofit or low-cost vendors to help you reach your goals?

Your organization’s technology plan should be thorough, easy to understand, and fluid, so that adjustments can be made as your industry changes. For complex organizations, you may want to seek advice or contract for support from a trusted professional in your industry to help you develop a technology plan that meets your needs.

With a little forethought and strategic thinking, you can create a technology plan for your nonprofit that is effective and sustainable.

Using managed IT services can be great for nonprofits small and large, but it does come with some risks. It is important to understand some common pitfalls when using managed IT service providers (MSPs) and to ensure you have the proper systems in place to avoid those pitfalls. Here are some of the more common issues I have seen in my 20-year career in IT.

You’re not getting what you paid for

Are you paying for services you are not receiving? Is the managed service provider actually doing what they have agreed to do for your organization? Often an organization will only pay attention to something if they see a problem. They do not always ensure they are protected from a problem occurring.

As the customer, you are entitled to a monthly log of work done. You should see items like: patches/updates applied to computers/servers, firmware upgraded on network equipment and important backups verified. Whatever services you’re paying for, make sure you are receiving them.

You can’t access your own documentation

Lack of documentation can be costly to an organization. What is your access to your computer and network documentation? I highly recommended and encourage you to insist on access to all of your company’s documentation at an alternate location other than your MSP’s servers.

Dependency on a provider should be handled the same way you would with an employee: have a plan. All of the information you need should be available if for any reason someone or some company must take over the role in your organization.

You’re relying on just one opinion

Are you being sold the solution that works best for the managed services provider or the one best for your organization? Regardless of whether or not you have an MSP you should always get three proposals for any solution you require. Many times the one that your MSP provides is the right fit, but it is important to know it is. By actually bidding out any project or product you need, you do not just get price and feature comparisons but a greater understanding of features.

Having different recommendations can lead you to the best overall solution for your organization. Use the information to ensure that what you need is part of the solution you receive. This also ensures that those you contract to work for you are always putting their best foot forward.

You’re not seeking out specialists when needed

Managed IT service providers are experts in support but they are not experts in all forms of IT. If you look at functions beyond basic network and computer support, it is important to draw on MSPs that specialize. Some of the common instances when you should work with other vendors are cybersecurity, phone systems, and wireless.

It is your right to bring in an expert. If you see a problem, have your MSP work with that partner to make sure you’re truly getting the right equipment and configuration for your network.

You’re not asking enough questions

As with most things in life, if you do not ask for something, you won’t get it. For example, disaster recovery plans must be discussed. MSPs will sell you backup solutions, but you also need to know: How do you recover your systems? What is the plan?

It is important for every organization to evaluate what software and hardware they are using from time to time to ensure that they have what they actually need. Many MSPs will order and replace whatever you tell them. They will not set up a recommended plan of action for you every year unless you ask for it.

For example, “You will have X number of machines that will need to be replaced in a year, you will need to think about upgrading your infrastructure, and here is a phased approach or this is what we need to do to replace.”

MSPs can help you with issues if you report your network is slow but do they make recommendations to prevent your network from getting slow? You should engage your provider for assistance in developing your IT plans if you do not have the staff on site. Use your MSP to ensure that audits occur on hardware and software, keeping them in a proper cycle and verifying their utilization.

Many of these issues are simple to avoid. Do your due diligence, get competitive quotes and compare other managed service providers every few years.

Beyond that, help protect yourself by looking for an independent IT professional. Many consultants and contractors available are not managed IT service providers but can be contracted to review your network and computer systems. Auditors are used frequently to independently verify your accounting and it should be no different for your IT department.

Embrace IT but ensure you are getting your money’s worth.

Digital planning is about more than tactics: it’s the synergy of strategy and goals, and the tactics to meet those goals. If you are a digital or tech professional, you have probably more than once had a colleague request a tactic that didn’t actually meet the goals they wanted to achieve.

In 2010, I was producing training for state parties and the DNC. Party leaders, communications, and digital staff kept asking for blueprints and guidance to make sense of the complex web of digital strategy, but I felt that simply handing over our plan with no context would be a bit like strategic malfeasance. I liken it to someone asking for the blueprints to a house when you don’t know if they’ve ever swung a hammer, have the right resources, or if your blueprint would even fit their lot.

So I knew I had to go deeper, and wrote a book: The Digital Plan: A practical guide to a strategic digital plan. At its core, digital strategy is about goals: asking the right questions to choose the right goals and making a plan to achieve them.

Here are my top two tips to keep your tactics, strategies, and goals aligned.

Acknowledge and pivot to goals.

Let’s say someone comes to you and asks for a specific thing without any goals–for example, a microsite (which often isn’t so micro) or a video. More often than not, they have real needs and goals and just don’t know how to ask.

1) Acknowledge, listen, and empathize with the ask. Confirm you are listening and interested in the project. Validate their role and their specialty knowledge. Don’t take offense if what they want is out of scope or not actually going to meet goals.

2) Ask them about their goals. What is their number one goal? Is it to move messaging, raise money, get people to an event, etc? Make sure you get to the top-level goals and away from the tactic. Validate the goal and repeat back what the goal is.

3) Pivot to strategy to find the right scope and tactic. Now that you have them in conversation around their top-level goals, pivot to strategy. Affirm you want to help them meet their goals and that you are building out the right strategy to get there. From here you should be able to tackle the conversation from a place of shared strategy.

Join the planning conversations early.

Too often people who work on digital or tech-related aspects are brought in after the fact. Make sure you ask those planning campaigns or whoever in leadership can advocate for you to join in planning conversations from the beginning. This gives you the chance to head off the confusion of tactic vs goal when planning.

In the early conversations, encourage people to stay focused on goals before digging too much into tactics. As tactics pop up, acknowledge them as possibilities but be sure to not lose that framing.

For example, let’s say people are jumping straight to the idea of a Twitter campaign. Acknowledge the idea and both the merits and weaknesses of the idea. Give folks the feedback they need and then pivot back to goals: “A Twitter campaign could be a great way to get to our goals.” Then reopen other ways to meet the goals.

Make sure when you close whatever initial meetings might be taking place that you are aligned on what the digital goals, tactics, and overall strategy are. Ambiguity over this might leave some stakeholders believing the discussed tactics are the strategy and that all that was discussed is moving forward. This is one place you should be definitive.

A strategic digital plan at its core should be about goals. It is important to be clear about the difference between strategy, goals, and tactics.

Creating and launching a new program in your organization can be complex and challenging. As part of my work as the Digital Inclusion Fellow at the Salt Lake City Public Library, I noticed libraries across the nation were circulation wifi hotspots and/or devices (laptops, chromebooks, tablets). The City Library did not have a program in place to circulate technology, but had a interest in doing so, to help make Salt Lake City a more digitally equitable community. I used the following steps to create the Tech League Laptop Discovery Kit program and secure funding for a six-month pilot project through an internal grant.

While there are no crystal balls to gaze into to assure the success of your program, there are a few easy steps you can take to help brainstorm, design, and implement a sustainable program.

Research, Research, Research

Understanding the community your organization serves is essential to successful programming. Get to know the individuals in the community your organization serves and understand their needs and desires. Where do they spend their time? What are they spending their money on? Gain an understanding of work already being done by other organizations in your area. What programs are successful in the area, and what makes them something community members want to participate in?

Establish a Need

Now that you have an understanding of your community and the work being done by other organizations in the area, look for gaps in what is being offered and what is needed. Use surveys, demographics, and talk with individuals in the community and nonprofits in your area. Are there gaps in services that your organization can address? Are there successful programs in place that your organization can build on to create a program to help individuals in the next step? What is successful across the nation, but may not be happening yet in your community? What can you add?

Find Your Tribe

Determine the staff members that would need to be involved with your program in order for it to succeed. Put together a workgroup to brainstorm your idea, sketch out a budget, and determine feasibility and long term sustainability of the program. Be open to new ideas and input from co-workers and draw on their strengths.

Small Beans

Start with a small pilot project. View the new project as an experiment to gather data, hear from your community members, and learn from. Be sure to communicate with staff regularly, and look for opportunities to train staff as needed. Let community members know about your new program and look for new opportunities for collaboration with community partners.

Re-evaluate and Respond

As your pilot nears an end, gather data and lessons learned to present to your organization. What are the program’s successes, and where are there inconsistencies that may threaten the long-term success of the program? Is your program aligned with the larger organizational goals? How could you expand the program? Determine if there will be a need for external funding. Use the data and success stories gathered in the pilot program to tell about others about your program.

Remember that new programs are a process, and at anytime you can return to a previous step to reevaluate before moving forward.

A new year presents new opportunities to assess and grow your individual fundraising program. Do you know how your nonprofit compares to similar organizations? Where do you excel or where do you hope to grow?

Focusing on nonprofits with revenues under $2 million, the Individual Donor Benchmark Report is back again with fundraising data for small and mighty nonprofits.

Among the report’s findings are:

  • Organizations raise 34% of their revenue from individuals.
  • About half of individual donor revenue comes from donors giving less than $1,000.
  • One out of every five individual donor dollars is raised online.
  • Four out of ten board members are active in fundraising in a significant way,
  • Organizations are raising about 14% of their income from recurring donations.

The report also found that the average organization’s donor retention rate is 60%, meaning that 6 out of 10 donors give again—and 4 out of 10 donors don’t.

If your organization has a donor retention rate around 60%, you may be asking yourself two questions:

  1. How can we increase retention?
  2. How can we find more new donors to replace the donors we are losing each year?

Here are a few tips to help you think about how to answer those questions:

Increase Donor Retention

If you want to increase your retention rate, the best strategy is to view your individual donor fundraising program as a relationship development program. Your goal should be to build a relationship with your donors, where part, and only part, of that relationship is about their financial support for the organization. Here are a few ways to shift your focus to your relationship:

Consider your organization from a donor’s perspective.

Even when we are doing many things to communicate with and engage donors, sometimes there are holes in our plan. One way to find these holes is to walk through the experience that different types of donors have with your organization. What happens when a new donor makes a $25 gift? $2,500 gift? What happens when someone gives online? What is the experience for a $50 a year donor? You may find that with a little intentionality you could be doing a much more effective job of engaging your donors with your work.

Remember what you learned about your donor.

As a development director, I learned to listen carefully in major donor meetings and record what I’d learned after the meeting for future cultivation and solicitation. While this kind of attention is standard procedure for major donors, there’s an opportunity to use some of the same ideas with everyday donors. As your donors click on links in your emails, respond to direct mail solicitations, or attend events, they are giving you information about what they are interested in. If you are diligent, you can capture that information and begin to develop a picture of your donors. Organizations can also survey donors to gather information about their interests and use that information to tailor solicitations.

Thank donors seven times before you ask them again.

This advice has been around for a long time, but I still get surprised looks and big sighs when I share it. “Seven times?! How could we possibly do that?” First of all, it’s a guideline—but the real point is that you should not treat donors like ATMs, only coming to them when you need money. You should be in touch year round to share the results of their donations (and your work) and to thank them for their support. These thank yous don’t need to generate a lot of extra work. Think about content that you are already producing that could be re-purposed as a donor thank you: annual reports, updates for the board, or grant reports.

Find New Donors

You may be able to increase your retention rate, but you will likely also need to focus on finding new contacts and developing strategies to convert them to donors. One powerful framework for thinking about cultivating new donors is the cycle of engagement. The cycle includes the following components and questions:

  1. Opening the door to potential new donors. How do you find new potential donors? How do you collect contact information from potential donors? What have been the best ways for you to find new donors in the past?
  2. Thanking and tracking new contacts. How are you communicating with donors after they first meet your organization? Do you have a welcome series to introduce your organization? What information about them are you tracking in your database or other places?
  3. Engaging supporters. How can you help people experience your work? It may be by participating in programs, volunteering, or viewing a video about your efforts. How can you increase the opportunities for supporters to engage with your work?
  4. Thanking and tracking engaged supporters. How are you communicating with supporters after their engagement with your work? What engagement data points are you tracking?
  5. Asking for a donation. How can you tie your ask into the way you first met them and/or the way they have been engaged with your organization.
  6. Thanking and tracking donors. How do you thank a donor? What information about their gift do you need to record in your database? After this step, go back to #3 and repeat indefinitely!

The best way to ensure your organization is continuing to find new donors is to involve everyone (board, staff, and volunteers) in identifying, cultivating, and asking for support.  Even for those who have an aversion to fundraising, getting involved in opening the door, engaging, and thanking donors can be a fun way to help the organization grow its donor pool.

For more donor fundraising details and data, check out the full Individual Donor Benchmark Report

Over the past four years, I’ve worked on more than a dozen native apps for iOS. In this article, I’ll share a few insights gained through my work on three nonprofit apps:

Native App or Mobile Web?

Native apps are written specifically for a single mobile operating system, such as iOS or Android. They tend to be more expensive than websites – so why would you build a native app?

  • Performance and gloss: Sluggish experiences translate into a loss of audience and attention
  • Rich media: Your audience doesn’t have to wait for individual media files (audio, video, and high-resolution imagery) to download over unreliable cell networks
  • Offline access: Apps can be self-contained
  • Integrate emerging technology: iBeacons, environmental sensors, health monitoring devices, etc.
  • Buzz: It’s still easier to get your fans – and the press – excited about an app than a website
  • Focus: Apps can present an immersive, full-screen experience, without the distractions of web addresses and navigation
  • Multi-screen experiences: Technologies like AirPlay allow apps to present visuals on big screens – great for education and presentation contexts

Mobile websites are still sometimes a good alternative when:

  • Budget is limited
  • Cross-platform is essential (especially when combined with budget considerations)
  • Your audience will always have a decent internet connection
  • Media files are small or not essential to the experience

Defining the Project

If you’re not sure precisely what you want to build, hire a designer or developer to explore the possibilities through a limited discovery phase. This might include user stories, screen mockups, design elements, etc.

One great way to narrow the scope and features of an app is to write the app store description first, and sketch out five screenshots that will best convey what your project is about.

Be Prepared

Next, assemble your content: all of the text, images, sound, video, and other material you want to present.

Gathering and structuring this data doesn’t require complex database development. The Regional Arts & Culture Council uses a Filemaker Pro database to keep track of their public art collection in Portland. The Des Moines public art app is based on the data they manage in their WordPress-based website.

This is a long-term investment: when your organization makes a conscious choice to maintain a database, you will be ready to re-use the information in a variety of contexts well beyond the app you currently have in mind. It’s impossible to know how you might want to present this information in five or ten years, but you’ll be ready for new opportunities as they arise.

Refine Your Plan

All three of the projects mentioned above feature geographic data. Though they seem similar on the surface, working with actual content led to diverse designs. (For more on this, check out slides from a talk I gave at the O’Reilly Open Source Conference in 2011.)

Here in Portland, we chose to use pin colors to highlight the different artistic disciplines of the public art on the map:

Public Art PDX - mobile app screenshot

In contrast to Portland, Des Moines’ public art collection tends to be located in specific places, such as the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. We added a feature to let the audience zoom in on a particular area of the city:

Des Moines Public Art - mobile app screenshot

The original designs for the PDX Social History Guide also focused on mapping, but as we listened to the interviews, we found that fewer than half the story clips could be attached to a specific location. We switched to a thematic index instead as the primary interface:

PDX Social History Guide- mobile app screenshot

The app still has a map, but it’s a secondary path to the stories, and its value is different: it reminds of us the geographic overlap and interplay of different histories and communities.

While some of these nuances can be predicted in advance, it’s not always possible to imagine the best ways to present content until you have it. That’s why you want to have a good, representative draft of all your content before you start building the app.

If content arrives partway through implementation and it doesn’t fit your design concepts, this can create major delays, require costly rewrites, or sink a project altogether.

Define Deliverables for Content and Media

It’s expected that your developer will work towards project milestones, but it’s just as essential to define internal deadlines for delivering graphics, media, and text, as well as feedback on designs and test versions to your developer. Falling behind on deadlines and sign-offs can be expensive, as mentioned above.

Ideally, don’t begin the design phase of your project until you have your content ready to go, a clearly defined scope for your project, and your funding in place.

Move Fast

Once you have your scope and content, move through the design and implementation phases quickly. Unless your project is truly massive, an implementation phase longer than a few months is not advisable.

iOS has settled into a yearly update cycle and it’s not unusual to see 70-80% adoption of a new iOS release within a few months. You don’t want to be stuck with an app that’s based on a previous version when most of your audience has already moved on.

Building on current features will also help you future-proof your app and extend the value and impact of your investment.

Test, Test, Test

I can’t emphasize this enough: make sure your developers are doing real-world testing on actual devices. Your app needs to be ready for the rigors of mobile, including:

  • Limited hardware
  • Unreliable cell and wi-fi connections
  • Battery warnings, notifications, phone calls, and other disruptions
  • Screen glare or audio in noisy environments

Simulators are fine for the development phase, but there are many problems you won’t identify until you try to use your app as your audience will on a phone or tablet.

Also, ask your developers to share regular beta test versions with you as you get close to launch and provide regular, timely feedback.

Revenue & Donations

Amidst the deluge of free digital content, I’ve been encouraging clients to consider charging for their apps. If you charge for print publications, conferences, trainings, or other program activities, why not charge for apps?

At a minimum, think about giving your audience the opportunity to support your work by making extra features available via in-app purchases.

Either way you go, be aware that the app stores do take a hefty cut of sales: Apple, for example, takes a commission of 30% on all App Store transactions.

Donations are an option, but there are some limitations: Apple requires that apps with donations must be free, and all donations must be made in the Safari browser or via text message. Though this is less convenient for your supporters, the upside is that you don’t have to pay a commission.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

In January 2013, the Communities of Impact kicked off with a retreat at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, WA. While there, we held a Failfaire-style conversation about times when our best-laid plans went awry.

For one participant, this was a chance to reflect on how a massive project taught him that there really is no such thing as an end result. At Parents as Teachers, a project that began seven years ago may never be finished – and that might be OK.

NTEN: Richard, tell us about PAT, your role there, and the data management system.

Richard Wollenberger (RW): PAT helps organizations and professionals work with parents during the critical early years of their children’s lives, from conception to kindergarten. I’m the IT Director. We have 65 staff and an annual budget of about $11 million.

When I came on board in 2006 PAT had been using a homemade database to track trainings and certifications. The tool was well-built to immediately handle whatever needs someone came up with, but ill-conceived in terms of long-range scalability and expandability. (One example: Every year, we train 500-700 people across the country. Every trainee had to fill out a registration form of two to 10 pages by hand and fax it in, and then someone on our end had to do data entry.) Then we hit a physical limit in the system that there was no way around.

I suggested that the CEO, my boss, meet with the business managers to tell her why the existing system didn’t meet their needs. I wanted it to be clear that this wasn’t a case of IT needs something to do and needs a budget for it. Each department got to outline their needs as business priorities. And in 2007, we brought a vendor in to meet the board, explain the project, do a needs analysis, and build a customized CRM system based on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Sharepoint.

NTEN: Then things went wrong. What happened?

RW: In fall 2007, a change in financial leadership revealed that mistakes had been made that led us to think we were in a better financial position than we were. Our budget fell apart, 15% of staff was let go, and the project was postponed. Months went by; we focused on other things and made do with our old system.

However, in 2008, PAT was able to hire a consultant to help us with an organization-wide SWOT analysis and a study of the early childhood education environment. I talked to the consultant about how technology could be a solution in different areas. Normally IT isn’t in a strategic plan; it’s a means to achieve your strategic plan. But in this case, using modern technology effectively became a pillar in our 2009-2012 strategic plan.

Then one day my boss said, I know you think I’ve forgotten about this, but I want to show you something. She picked up a folder where shed kept her notes regarding a new data management system. Our organization’s 25 year anniversary was coming up in 2009, and I was able to work with our fundraising team to secure grants as well as a commitment from the board for a capital campaign to finance the project. In 2011, we finally went live with the new online system.

NTEN: And what have been the results?

RW: On the plus side: We’ve reduced the number of systems we use from 13 to four. We moved all technical communication between those systems to automated processes, reduced our carbon footprint by eliminating faxed/printed forms, cut the time it takes to register for a training (from three to four weeks to instant!), and we’ve freed our staff from simple data entry. They’re now knowledge workers who can work with data entered by our customers.

But there are drawbacks. Any system like this is feature-laden and complex. It was beyond our ability to properly comprehend. We’ve set up so many rules and regulations that some departments hit snafus if others take certain actions in the system.

NTEN: What advice would you offer someone who is considering implementing a data management system like yours?

RW: When you’re trying to automate business processes, you must have them documented. And if you don’t have them written, create them before you try to automate them.

Documentation and communication are more critical than ever. The best thing about collaborating has been meeting with different departments to create our flowcharts. When we talk about these little nuances of the process, we realize that a step might mean different things in four other departments. To hear a topic discussed from all of those perspectives was eye-opening. In our old world they weren’t connected.

NTEN: What happened after you reflected on this in our session about failure?

RW: I remembered that everyone in our field can relate to not having the success they wanted at something. And I realized that this is a process, and there really is no such thing as an end result. A project has an end, but most nonprofits (hopefully) won’t. The real result is continuous improvement. And you have to celebrate whatever successes you do have.

When nonprofits are in the trenches tackling large social challenges, it can be difficult to see the little details that make up their programs. In a time where social service organizations are struggling to maintain the resources needed to sustain operations, evaluating a program’s success can be a low priority. This can turn a mission-driven organization into one without a roadmap for the future.

There are several ways to lose sight of details:

  • During budget discussions, extra money may become available to use for programming. If a program has been successful before, it can seem like a simple decision to put more money into it and expanding it without first re-evaluating its effectiveness.
  • If the program is new, it may seem logical that the program will make an impact because it was designed to tackle one of your current issues, but that may not actually be the case.
  • If the program is struggling, it may be difficult to understand why.

It’s hard to make the best choice if there isn’t a way to logically identify and measure a program’s plan and performance.

Logic Models Chart the Course

Logic models are an ideal way to measure and evaluate a program’s progress. A logic model lays out the connections between a program’s purpose and its desired results. Early adopters, like the United Way, use logic models advantageously to help it structure the building blocks needed to deliver on its mission.

Model Elements

A logic model looks similar to a flowchart, in that each field leads to the next field. The model is composed of the following elements:

  • Inputs are the resources needed to create and implement a program. An input can include staff members, instruction modules, volunteers and volunteer training, etc.
  • Activities are actions that take place during the program. This includes conducting a lecture, providing a volunteer with a mentor and more.
  • Outputs are tangible and specific objects that are created by the activities for the program’s participants; in this case, outputs would be the number of youth in lectures or with mentors.
  • Outcomes are the changes an organization expects to see in participants – both immediately and over time. They are measurable and specific. Examples include increased knowledge of risks of smoking (initial), youth quitting smoking (intermediate) and longer life expectancy (long-term.)

Map of a logic model

Creating the Boxes

The model can be read like a series of “if, then” statements; if you have the inputs identified, you can figure out what activities would logically come from them. For example, if 100 parents at-risk for child abuse receive counseling, an illogical conclusion would be “there is an aware ness about factory farming.”

When developing a logic model, you can either begin at the “inputs” and work toward the “outcomes,” or go in reverse and start with the desired “outcomes.” If you start at “inputs” and work forward, you can clearly see that all steps are present to achieve the outcome you desire. By going in reverse, you can begin by concentrating on your mission and then determine piece by piece what actions or resources are needed to make that goal succeed. Both are valid techniques and the best choice depends on the goals of the program.

Strategies for Using Logic Models Successfully

Logic models can help your organization in a variety of ways, including:

  • Understanding the steps necessary to succeed. A logic model requires you to re-examine the goal behind the program, why the program is needed, how it will be created and maintained and what role it has over the long term. These components of planning have likely been considered at the start of the program by board members and community leaders. However, aligning the answers to the questions in a physical model allows for greater comprehension and analysis.
  • Identifying similar elements when collaborating. In some cases, collaborating with other like-minded organizations can produce the most impact on a central issue. If one nonprofit is considering whether they should align with another, the process will be easier if they already know how both sides can effectively integrate their services. If each organization has a logic model in place, it can be simple to measure whether programs have a greater impact when integrated or if they are too separate in their goals and outcomes to be efficient.
  • Keeping impact in mind. When board members make the decision to change a program, there are many questions that may need to be asked, such as: do you have enough people to maintain the program? Is the program successful, and if so, how can it be mimicked in new programs? By creating and observing a logic model based around the organization’s core goal, board members and leaders can see if their activities align with their current input or if their goals can be achieved with the activities being conducted. From there, each individual aspect of the program can be evaluated to determine if it should be expanded, removed or revised.
  • Showing how funding is creating tangible results. A logic model is specific, so it forces the organization to have a level of accountability for their planning. Investors donate more money at a more consistent level if they see how exactly the organization is making an impact. By connecting the logic model with specifics on how the program improves the quality of life in their immediate community (labeled as “long-term outcome” in the model), donors will be more interested in promoting the organization. Donors should be notified frequently of changes in the model, program structure or financial status through emails, newsletters or an Annual Report.
  • Narrowing down what data you need to track. When a nonprofit organization puts a data management system into place, it can become tempting to input and track every piece of data possible to ensure that nothing important is being forgotten. Similarly, when faced with measuring data for the first time, a nonprofit may believe that each piece of data contributes to determining program impact. A logic model can help guide the organization, by clearly showing what information may be beneficial to track in order to identify successful outcomes. For example, a logic model may be created for a tutoring program, which is aiming for improvement in math grades. The specific components of data, or metrics, that would be important may include participant attendance, program dosage and test scores over time. Narrowing the focus to those metrics and reporting change over time will provide the nonprofit and their donors with more accurate insight into the program’s impact.

Outcome Measurement is in Your Reach

Creating a comprehensive logic model takes time and staff, especially if it is part of a greater outcome measurement plan. Re-evaluate frequently to determine if our model should be updated to reflect current programs.

Outcome management doesn’t have to be difficult, however. Logic models help determine if a nonprofit, community group or foundation is making an impact and on areas to focus to better align resources with your objectives. Those without a clear measurement strategy will be left behind.

Ananda RobertsAnanda Roberts is the President and founder of nFocus Solutions, leading provider of outcome measurement and performance management technology for nonprofits, communities and the U.S. government.