Death With Dignity National Center (DWD) works to improve end-of-life options through carefully worded Death with Dignity laws. The Portland, Oregon, nonprofit established and defended landmark legislation in Oregon and Washington that now serves as a model for advocates and policymakers nationwide.
When DWD hired Melissa Barber full-time as electronic communications specialist in 2010, the plan was to launch a full-fledged electronic communications department to oversee several technology projects. Barber learned about the Nonprofit Tech Academy (NTA ) and brought the opportunity to her new boss, executive director Peg Sandeen. “The timing was fortuitous,” said Sandeen.
Prior to the Academy, DWD was “keeping the lights on” as far as technology adoption and reactive in its approach. “We were fairly proactive in the content of our messaging but less so in the technologies to deliver them,” said Sandeen.
At the time Barber joined DWD, the organization wanted to change its donor database, “the root of everything we do as a nonprofit,” said Sandeen. “The old system was outdated and ineffective for us, and we wanted to move to the cloud.”
DWD also wanted to move its website to the Drupal platform to have the capability to update the site without having to call its website consultant each time.
Most of the DWD staff and board members were sold on the idea of moving the database (and the website) but, “as at any organization, we have folks on a broad spectrum; some want change and some don’t,” said Sandeen. To encourage further buy-in, she formed a committee comprised of the individuals who would be most involved in the database transition and the heaviest users of the new system. The strategy was reinforced during the NTA , but it was one Barber had learned from experience at a previous employer, where getting buy-in for a technology project was a challenge. The committee was charged with determining needs and assessing available products, a practice influenced by Barber’s and Sandeen’s experience in the Academy.
“If folks are tasked to use a specific resource day to day they should be engaged in the decision about what to use,” said Sandeen. “If people are using X and swearing about it all day long, I don’t want to be the executive who says, ‘Tough, you have to use it.’ I want them to feel they have the resources they need to succeed even though we’re small.”
Engaging others worked. “People really got excited about the potential of a new database, and they became more aware of the limitations of the current system,” said Barber.
Resources from Idealware helped DWD get a feel for the pros and cons of different systems. The committee selected Salesforce and issued requests-for-proposals from consulting firms. Price quotes ranged from $5,000 to $50,000. The huge variability led DWD to shift their focus and undertake a ROI analysis of moving the website to Drupal first. As a result, “We decided the website should take precedence since it had a better ROI in the near term,” Barber said.
Although the database project was put on hold temporarily, the proposal process itself was immensely useful. It reinforced the need for a new system and the cost variance, which resulted from different approaches to preparing and handling data, served as a motivator of sorts. “The need to clean up our data had been a noodling problem, and now it has a dollar value attached to it,” said Sandeen. DWD will tackle the cleanup in-house, and “hopefully that will go a long way toward cost savings.”
The website transition to Drupal moved ahead and was completed in May 2012. “We’re already seeing the difference in cost and savings after the conversion,” said Barber. While there was an up-front cost associated with the transition, DWD has gone from paying $750 per month to its former web consultant and host to $12 per month to its new ISP.
Barber credits the NTA with pointing her toward resources and information about different products and their potential. Following the Academy, she kept in touch by email with other members of her cohort. She and Sandeen also attended NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where they met with several members of their cohort in person as well as potential consultants.
In addition to the website transition and the database proposal, DWD has made other important changes. It transitioned to a new email system (Gmail) after looking at the ROI, and put a realistic, multi-year plan in place for upgrading office computers and for the electronic communications department more broadly.
“It’s not just things that are different; now we have a structure, a plan, in place,” said Sandeen. “Each department within the organization had a plan, and it was important for the electronic communications department to have one, too. The NTA helped me see what that would look like in order for the department to be an integral part of our mission.”
Ultimately the department’s plan will include milestones and metrics for program evaluation. It’s in the early stages of assessing what data will be helpful. “The next phase will be, Now that we understand what we can collect, let’s set some targets and goals,” explained Sandeen.
The NTA also helped Sandeen develop new ways of communicating with her board of directors. “I learned to talk about considering return on investment; it’s language I wouldn’t have used otherwise,” she said.
Both Sandeen and Barber believe DWD is closer to being an innovator when it comes to technology and that the org’s maturity level now is more service- and value-oriented. “You have to be ready and open to act,” said Sandeen. “We can get so busy doing day-to-day work related to our missions that technology projects can be difficult to find time for. You have to be ready to make a commitment, though, because doing that can take you places.”
[This case study is part of a series documenting the challenges and successes of small nonprofit organizations learning to apply technology to achieving their mission. The Nonprofit Tech Academy is an 8-week course hosted by NTEN. This case study and this organization’s participation in the NTA were generously supported by a grant from Google.]