Tag: strategic planning

Demand for social good services is rising faster than organizations can meet it. To fund your mission, you need to know where your organization stands compared to your peers.

In this white paper — created in partnership with the Blackbaud Institute and NetHope — we’ll explore the value of collaborative benchmarking to comparatively measure your performance against peer organizations. By understanding your position in the sector, you can:

  • Prioritize resources according to your organization’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Ensure that you invest in programs which will lead to organizational growth
  • Enhance collaboration across the social good sector for stronger mission delivery
  • Download the white paper to find out how you can make the most of your benchmarking opportunity!

Download the report from the Blackbaud Institute and begin collaborating today.

Earlier this year, NTEN rolled out an improved Tech Accelerate. This free benchmarking tool connects your organization to resources to help you understand where to invest in improving your technology plans, policies, and infrastructure.

This spring, we’re expanding this commitment by offering additional support for you to evaluate your technology, get direct, expert advice from community members, and apply for a small grant to begin your improvements.

Community Call on May 9

Complete your organization’s free Tech Accelerate Assessment by Tuesday, May 7, and you’ll receive access to an exclusive Community Call with an expert panel to give advice and recommendations about your results. The panel includes Emilio Arocho, Kayleigh Collins, and others whose diverse perspectives and tech backgrounds can provide guidance to move you and your organization forward.

The Community Call is free to join but reserved for organizations with completed Tech Accelerate Assessments — those with completed Assessments will be emailed access details prior to the Community Call at 2pm ET/11am PT, Thursday, May 9.

$1,000 grants available for completed Assessments

Organizations that complete their free Tech Accelerate Assessment by Tuesday, May 7 —whether they participate in the Community Call or not— can apply for a $1,000 grant to invest in improving your organization’s technology effectiveness. A $1,000 grant may be a small piece of the project budget you need, but we hope it is a start and an incentive to move ahead.

Applications for the grants will be emailed to all organizations with completed Assessments. The deadline to apply is Monday, May 27.

Tech Accelerate Demo on May 2

Need a refresher on what Tech Accelerate is, and how it could benefit your organization? Join me and NTEN web developer Dan Fellini for a free demo at 2pm ET/11am PT, Thursday, May 2. You’ll learn more about how and why we built Tech Accelerate, and how you can use it to evaluate your organization’s current technology investments and plans.

You can complete your Tech Accelerate report with colleagues to ensure the most accurate assessment of your organization, so we encourage you to invite others to join you for this webinar.

Organizations have used Tech Accelerate to make budgeting decisions, lead staff and board in planning discussions, and to inform a technology roadmap for the organization. All staff connected to your organization’s profile in their NTEN account can collaborate on an Assessment together, so get started today!

We’ve heard from numerous partners and individuals within the NTEN community interested in learning more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As our CEO Amy Sample Ward noted here, “We will continue to move forward so we can better be part of the world we want to see and meet our own vision of a more just and engaged world.”

If your organization is preparing to take similar steps, here’s a helpful outline below for planning and structuring your workplace goals.

This article was originally published by The Management Center. It is republished here with permission.

Goals are a concrete way to drive results, but how can you be sure to do it equitably? Introducing… SMARTIE goals! Adding an equity and inclusion component (that’s the IE part!) to your SMART goals is like putting avocado on a sandwich—come for the health benefits, stay for the life-changing impact (and don’t ever go without it again)!

For a goal to be effective in driving an organization’s performance, it needs to be:

Strategic – It reflects an important dimension of what your organization seeks to accomplish (programmatic or capacity-building priorities).
Measurable – It includes standards by which reasonable people can agree on whether the goal has been met (by numbers or defined qualities).
Ambitious – It’s challenging enough that achievement would mean significant progress; a “stretch” for the organization.
Realistic – It’s not so challenging as to indicate lack of thought about resources or execution; possible to track and worth the time and energy to do so.
Time-bound – It includes a clear deadline.
Inclusive – It brings traditionally marginalized people—particularly those most impacted—into processes, activities, and decision/policy-making in a way that shares power.
Equitable – It includes an element of fairness or justice that seeks to address systemic injustice, inequity, or oppression.

Here’s an example of a SMART goal turned SMARTIE:




By incorporating IE into your goals, you can make sure that your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is anchored by tangible and actionable steps. There’s a fine line between inclusion and tokenism. What’s the difference? Power. In most cases, it’s not enough to tack on “…and x number of volunteers/new hires/spokespeople should be people of color” unless the people you’re trying to include will be able to influence the work in a meaningful way.

SMARTIE goals are about including marginalized communities in a way that shares power, shrinks disparities, and leads to more equitable outcomes.

Want to get started? Download this SMARTIE goals worksheet.

For the last ten years, NTEN’s research has helped identify the practices in technology staffing and management that indicate an organization’s adoption level and potential for effectiveness.

Created by NTEN in partnership with The Forbes Funds, Tech Accelerate puts a decade of data and evaluation into a simple-to-use assessment, report, and benchmarking tool for the nonprofit sector. This free tool includes:

  • a comprehensive assessment about technology use and policies across four major categories of leadership, organization, infrastructure, and fundraising and communications
  • a full report that includes both overall and category rankings, prioritized areas of investment, and resources for next steps
  • benchmarking tools to explore your data in comparison to organizations like yours

Tech Accelerate is built with nonprofit staff in mind, whether you want to assess your current practices, identify areas for needed investment, or benchmark your adoption against other similar organizations. To start your first Tech Accelerate assessment, you will need to have an organization connected to your NTEN profile. You can invite other staff to help you complete the assessment online. When you are finished, submit your assessment to access your full report, including ratings, information about how to improve, and resources to guide your next steps.

Many nonprofit organizations today have a “Lifecycle Replacement Plan” for their physical assets. The process of “lifecycling” outdated computer technology in nonprofit organizations often looks something like this:

  1. Determine that the equipment is more than three years old.
  2. Get approval from the Board of Directors to dispose of the property.
  3. Donate said property to another “lucky” nonprofit.

But this process may not be the best solution for your organization. By making better technology decisions at the time of purchase, you can significantly increase the longevity, usefulness, and overall value of your technology investments.

How to get the best price and value

Think about the most recent purchases of significant value that you personally made. Did you shop around for the best price for the new car you bought? How many test drives did you make before you decided on the perfect vehicle for your family?

The same scrutiny should be applied when purchasing technology equipment. A sound practice involves comparing the best price and package from at least three or more reputable vendors.

Saving money does not mean shopping at big box stores with “extra low prices” for technology, either! Big box stores often receive bulk stock of computer equipment that is cheaper in quality and designed to sell for less. But you get what you pay for: Your computer equipment will become obsolete more quickly and will most assuredly have issues that require repairs just after the store warranty has expired.

It’s a best practice to shop directly from the manufacturer when investing in technology equipment so you can get the most up-to-date model, with a solid warranty plan. Outside of future software compatibility issues, your equipment could last 5, 7, or even 10 years!

When not to buy technology

Many nonprofits have a July to June fiscal period. Technology vendors are keenly aware of these fiscal cycles and often increase prices on their items during this time. Schedule your technology purchases during low-volume periods, such as January through March, to get the very best deals.

When you are ready to make your purchase, don’t be afraid to contact your vendor to ask for additional discounts or benefits that they may offer to the public sector!

When you must cycle out your technology

Once it’s time to cycle out your outdated technology, consider using a process that I like to call “leapfrogging.” You segment your equipment into one of three categories and then take the appropriate action:

  1. Oldest or worst-functioning: Purchase new equipment to replace the oldest or worst-functioning equipment.
  2. Functioning: Flag the “functioning” equipment for a future (next fiscal year) purchase. Upgrade this equipment with new components, such as more memory, as needed.
  3. Newest or best-functioning: Continue to utilize the “best” functioning equipment on your network. These systems will eventually fall to a lower category and be replaced in the future.

When you get rid of old equipment, make sure to recycle it appropriately or consider donating it to a refurbisher.

Here are a few of my favorite vendors for purchasing nonprofit technology:

With thoughtful preparation and a little research, you will see great savings in your future technology purchases.

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.

In 2016-2017, a Washington, DC–based nonprofit with a staff of about 40 and a 3.5 million-dollar budget undertook a redesign process to convert a ColdFusion website into a content management system with a custom mobile-responsive theme.

To make sure the finished results worked, the website team made strong efforts in:

  1. understanding the overall needs of the website,
  2. involving staff in specifying their own needs,
  3. determining content types,
  4. thinking in terms of lists,
  5. testing against assumptions,
  6. creating reporting mechanisms, and
  7. wireframing/building/testing/refining,

Feedback loops were built in to the ongoing process in order to course correct and gain early constructive criticism from internal stakeholders.

Tip #1: Understand overall needs

The team tasked with pre-planning the redesign process undertook a review of existing web pages and reached consensus that content belonged under different lenses, programs, campaigns, and actions.

The team identified the organization’s theory of change, current audience, new website objectives, comparables, desired functions, specified revenue models, and desired budget and timeline, and circulated this information via an RFP.

Example A. Website RFP Top 10 List

Better storytelling -> Optimized content -> Engages more people -> More social change -> Greater financial support -> Fulfills our mission.

Top 10 must-have list (goals for the site):

  1. Increased email sign ups, social engagement, and activists
  2. New donors: the website needs to encourage people to sign up as donors with attractive donation pages
  3. Stay on budget. We are open to creative work share solutions
  4. Clarity and Simplicity: needs to give visitors a clear sense of Green America’s work
  5. Attractiveness: A clean look, beautiful storytelling, and responsive design
  6. Flexibility: we do lots of stuff. Our ability to adapt has always been our secret weapon. Our website needs to be flexible to handle our diverse content and programs
  7. Ease of Use on the backend: we will have many editors with various technical expertise (the ability to update the website frequently is essential)
  8. Integration of all our channels and platforms: Daughter Sites, Blogs, Social, Digital Publications, Apps, SALSA (action CRM), Raiser’s Edge (fundraising CRM), Charity Engine (donation pages)
  9. Authentic product/sponsorship placement
  10. Visual Story: Telling our stories in a visually compelling manner to better engage audiences and increase shares of our materials

Takeaway #1: What to do

During pre-planning, convene individuals across different teams to construct a shared model for content. Aim for transparency around budget, timeline, and requirements for the website.

Tip #2: Involve staff in identifying their own needs

By mapping out content across major areas, staff better clarified their understanding of how content fit into lenses, programs, and/or campaigns. A pilot content management system allowed staff to test their assumptions against real data.

Example B. Early model of content hierarchy and structure

Team members continuously articulated how content fit into the proposed data architecture. For example:

Lens Program Campaign Focus Area Action Issue Topic
Food GMO Inside

Good Food for people and planet


No GE Wheat


Say no to GMOs


Factory Farms


Tell congress to stop trading our food stystems.

Tell congress to reject TPP

Tell Kraft to Remove GMOs from Miracle Whip

Tell Starbucks to go organic

Let Mars know you say no to GMOs

Tell American What Growers Association no GE Wheat

Soil not Oil

GMOs a case for Precaution
Don’t have a Cow

21 foods to always buy organic

An external design firm worked with staff to sketch out user personas, delve into content relationships, formalize roles and permissions, and determine the initial menu.

Example C. Sample site map content

Food Climate Labor Finance
Fight GMOs Fight Dirty Energy Ending Child Labor Save for Yourself and a Better World (banking)
Beyond Organic Invest in Clean Energy Ending Smartphone Sweatshops Divest from Fossil Fuels, Invest in Clean Energy
Fair Labor Better Paper Ending Sweatshops in Supply Chains

Finding Fair Alternatives

Green your Money/ Finances (investing)
Take Action:____ Take Action:____ Take Action:____ Take Action:____

Takeaway #2: What to do

Allow multiple opportunities for individuals to voice concerns, update assumptions, and validate the model against live data.

Tip #3: Determine content types

Content types evolved whenever staff identified a long bulleted list of the same type of content. For example, blog posts, media mentions, events, staff listings, job descriptions, magazines, press releases, and business listings all converted to “content types.”

Required fields emerged from discussions about content types. For example:

  • Media Mention = Title, Website link, Image, Byline, Body text
  • Business listing = Organization Name, Categories, Website link, Image, Address, City, State, Zip, Body text

Example D. Sample content type for a blog post

This is an example of blog fields:

Field About the Field
Blog Post Type Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from categories)
Body Long formatted text
Display Image Image upload allowing for pngs, jpgs, or gifs
Business Network Recommendations References a list of all available businesses in a related directory
Relevant Lens Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available lenses
Relevant Program Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available programs
Relevant Campaign Multiple choice, multiple answer, choose from a list of available campaigns
Tags Free tags in keyword style

Certain fields existed across content types. For example, the “Relevant Lens” field attached to campaigns, programs, actions, victories, and press releases.

Takeaway #3: What to do

Create fields for each type of content. Identify fields to repurpose across content types.

Tip #4: Think in terms of lists: referencing entities and normalizing data

Certain fields became standardized and used across multiple content types. For example, almost all content types require an image field, so content types used a “Display Image” field.

As another example, blog posts, media mentions, programs, campaigns, and actions all used the same “Relevant Lens” field to reference available lenses.

As a final example, blog posts, articles, and green living pieces used the same “Relevant Program” and “Relevant Campaign” fields as reference fields. The list of all available programs or campaigns continuously updates upon the addition of new programs or new campaigns.

The idea of “entity referencing” allows users to continually grow and easily make changes, because any list of referenced content is always “up-to-date.”

Normalizing means an edit to a specific piece of content perpetuates through all instances where that piece displays. By using normalization, categorization of items, and entity referencing, it became easier and easier for any privileged user to make changes sitewide.

Example E. Data normalization samples

5 Most Recent Blog Posts: On a blog post, a list of the 5 most recent blog posts displays on the bottom of every page, in descending chronological order (most recent first). Any new blog post auto-adds to the list. Any edit to the title updates in all instances.

Fruit List: A fruit list begins with apples, oranges, blueberries, and bananas. Additions like blackberries, peaches, plums, nectarines, mangoes, strawberries, and papayas automatically display on the “Fruit List.”

Fruit List Categories: Categorizations on fruit include “Citrus” or “Berries.” Additions such as “Stonefruit” automatically update, such that a categorized list might read:

  • Berries: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries
  • Citrus: lemons, limes, oranges
  • Stonefruit: nectarines, peaches, plums
  • Tropical: mangoes, papayas
  • Not Yet Categorized: apples, bananas, starfruit

Takeaway #4: What to Do

If an “edit” button makes sense next to every item in a list, convert that list to a content type: most useful for items such as blog posts, press releases, events, staff listings, directory listings, and similar content.

Tip #5: Test against assumptions

During the buildout, question if the articulated data structure matches staff needs. By taking time to find and correct incomplete/faulty assumptions about content relationships, all stakeholders better understand the final product.

As an example, a “Magazine Issue” offers the ability to choose from a list of available “magazine articles” in order to display “featured articles.” A “Lens” offers a display of “relevant pieces.” In one case, our team mistakenly focused on “parent” relationships for content, and based on feedback, turned that into focusing on “child” relationships.

Example F. Choosing relevant pieces on a lens

A “Climate” lens shows a green living piece “Cut Your Carbon at Home” and a blog post “Add Socially Responsible Investments to Your Workplace’s Retirement Plan.” On any lens, the “entity reference” field helps specify relevant pieces, in their desired display order.

Takeaway #5: What to Do

Course correction takes time. Identify, test, review, and go back to the drawing board based on feedback from editorial and program staff. Large projects require flexibility to address initial incorrect assumptions.

Tip #6: Create reporting mechanisms

Reports help staff understand the website content better. Report-building benefits when customized to the specific type of user requesting that report. Early beta versions help identify gaps and allow the user to continuously access, understand, and download available data in order to make suggestions.

In an iterative buildout, the technology team benefits from early feedback. Conversely, an administrator or executive reviewing a prototype report better understands what is available to them and makes more informed requests about new fields and filters.

Technology teams who engage with end users by requesting, correcting, and fine-tuning build more relevant and useful reports.

Example G. Sample administrative reports

  • Recently Updated: a list of all recently created or updated content
  • All Green Living Pieces: a list of tips on green living
  • All Press Releases: a list of all generated press releases
  • All Blog Posts: a list of all blog posts
  • All Lenses: a list of all major areas of work
  • All Programs: a list of all available programs, sorted by lens
  • All Campaigns: a list of all available campaigns, sorted by program and lens
  • All Victories: a list of success stories
  • All Staff: a list of all people who are staff members, consultants, and interns

Takeaway #6: What to Do

Reports help users understand the existing information. Create a new report for each content type and fine-tune as needed.

Tip #7: Wireframe, build, test, and refine

Prepare to be exhilarated, challenged, rewarded, and exhausted by the minimum viable product process. Technologists build digital tools twice: once in the mind, and second in reality. Prototypes help with the process of getting feedback across internal stakeholders. Drawings, mockups, and paper versions all assist teammates in understanding the proposed redesign architecture.

Build in a refinement period into the website redesign schedule so there is time to clarify and details that weren’t addressed the first time around.

Example H. Mindmap about Homepage

Mindmap about Homepage includes a Box called Enter, with arrows coming out that display Lenses: Food Lens, Finance Lens, Climate Lens, and Labor Lens. Other arrows go to five other sections. 1: Current Program Highlights, which leads to Relevant Programs and Relevant Campaigns. 2: Current Campaign Highlights, which leads to Relevant Campaigns and Relevant Actions. Relevant actions continues to Salsa Action (third party). 3: Current Action Highlights, which leads to Relevant Actions and All Pieces. 4: Piece Highlights, which leads to All Pieces and Focus Areas. 5: Sign up for E-news. 6: Donate (third party embed)

Image: Member Landing Mockup

This is a Balsamiq-generated mockup image to help the team understand different pieces for the member landing. It includes a main block with three tabs called My Biz Listing, My Coupons, and My Ads. There is a second block underneath called Members-Only Documents. On the left sidebar is a list of Announcements. Inside the My Biz Listing tab is four bolded field labels and text as follows: 1st line - Title: My Green Business Listing. 2nd line - Date Updated: 2017 January 7, Description. 3rd line - Description: lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do ejusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. 4th line - Categories: Children, Pets, Clothing. 5th line: (edit this listing).

Takeaway #7: What to Do

Tools such as Balsamiq, LucidChart, and Invision assist stakeholders in gaining clarity around mental models: use them liberally. Your platform never really reaches completion, so build in time post-launch to continuously improve.


Technology professionals create effective tools to champion positive social, environmental, economic, and political change. By integrating feedback loops early and often, these tools spread the message, educate the populace, gain support for the cause, and make a positive difference.

In April 2017, the Sierra Club joined hundreds of other organizations in the Peoples Climate March (PCM) in Washington DC and across the country. Together, organizations turned out over 300,000 people to protest the Trump Administration’s attacks on clean air, clean water, and our climate.

This was actually the second Peoples Climate March—the first was in New York City in September of 2014. We learned a lot about how to amplify mass mobilizations on social media during the first event, but three years is a long time in internet years. Since then the world has seen the rise of Facebook Live, Snapchat, and a massive public resistance movement, made more visible through events like the Women’s March this past January.

This year, we combined the lessons of 2014 with some new strategies and a bit of trial and error to successfully cover the March on social media. Here are just a few things we learned along the way:

1. Stay on message—meaning the coalition’s message, not your own agenda.

A mass mobilization isn’t a branding opportunity—it’s about mobilizing supporters around the issue. Everyone (the social team, the media team, celebrity supporters, etc.) needs to understand and agree to what the messages for the day are. It’s easy to harm relationships with partners and supporters by posting something that clashes with your message and values. We held a messaging training for our staff who were covering the PCM on social media to ensure everyone was on the same page.

2. Use a variety of voices and perspective to tell the story of the day.

You have to remember that you’re not always the best messenger. If you have a large audience, you should be elevating posts from smaller or less visible members of the coalition. Go out of your way to make sure you are highlighting a diversity of voices from other organizations, different communities—especially front-line communities, and people in the crowd.

Assign one or two people to monitor conversations happening online with your supporters and also checking out traditional media sources. During this year’s March, CNN tweeted a stunning timelapse during the event. It was inspiring for us to see and great for us to share with our community; the video received overwhelmingly positive replies and favorites from our followers and a lot of reshares.

3. Be everywhere.

“For the first PCM [in 2014] we had three, maybe four people running all the Sierra Club social media for the event. It worked, but there were a lot of ‘quick saves’ going on, like finding a coffee shop with wifi to transmit because it was impossible to get a signal. And we mostly captured content that we used immediately.

This time, we had 12 people just capturing content, so inconsistent signals weren’t as much of an issue. We still had a queue of quality content to choose from, so we could take a more editorial perspective and support more social channels.” – Bharat Kusuma, Digital Community Manager

4. You don’t need fancy equipment.

You’ll definitely want professional videographers and some high quality photography happening at the event, but mostly for future use. For the PCM, our team on the ground used their own phones for everything.

We had looked into what we could do to make sure they’d always have a signal, but really there wasn’t much. Satellite hot spots would would be running through the same cell towers, so there wasn’t enough benefit to justify it.

5. Have a command center.

“Most members of our core social team weren’t actually at the march; they were holed up in a hotel room with good WiFi a few blocks away, which became our command center.

Our role online was mainly editorial and moderation. We also did our best to troubleshoot as we went along—checking in with some of the staff working the march itself to find out what was going on when using radios. Getting that to work took a little longer to get going than we planned. If we hadn’t had multiple folks in the control room, it would have been a bigger problem because you can’t easily play editor and do technical troubleshooting at the same time.” – Heather Moyer, Senior Content Producer

6. Look beyond the social media team.

We have a relatively small social media team for a large organization, but even with a large team, it’s worthwhile to recruit staff and volunteers to be in the crowd capturing content for social media.

There are plenty of people who aren’t social media professionals who have great social savvy and personal reach. These are the people you want out there getting good stories and pictures and talking with people. They’re motivated, and not intimidated about the responsibility and can roll with it when something unexpected happens.

Things will go wrong, and you need your people on the ground to know that you may not be able to respond to them individually, but they can just keep going — posting, streaming, tweeting, being in the moment.

7. Be crystal clear on roles before the event.

“We’re getting better at this. The important thing is to make sure that everyone is clear regarding who has final decision making authority on what gets posted and what doesn’t, or if something has to come down—but hopefully that’s a last resort. You have to train the team days and weeks in advance on both organization and mobilization event guidelines, and make sure anyone who doesn’t normally have access to post content knows how to properly engage that day.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy

8. Facebook Live can be tricky but really resonates with people.

“Your signal will probably be shaky so use it when you’ve got a good one. Just jump in. People love it. You can narrate the event, move around and show different aspects of it, interview people. The energy is contagious. For this event, 5 minutes seemed to be a sweet spot, but shorter broadcasts were useful too, because we could add more specific descriptions to the individual posts.” – Emma Cape, Online Organizer

9. Work with big social media organizations to amplify the message (they appreciate it).

“We were lucky to be able to partner with Snapchat for their coverage of the march—mostly because we had something to offer them as well: the inside scoop, lots of our folks on the ground. It created an opportunity to build a relationship with Snapchat that we hope will create more editorial opportunities in the future. It also gave us an opportunity to create content optimized for a younger audience, and they were great to work with too.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy


Mass mobilizations have grown so much more powerful through social amplification. The stories are all around—you just need a few people to collect them, the desire to raise marginalized voices (not just your own), a clear game plan, and a hub to manage it all.

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!

Three years ago, Habitat for Humanity decided to test the power of technology to increase resident engagement in neighborhoods we serve. With a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight, we launched a pilot project with 12 Habitat organizations across the country to determine whether using feedback loops increases participation by community residents in choosing strategies and projects to promote their “community voice” and aspirational goals.

At Habitat, adapting a feedback loop methodology from Feedback Labs—a systematized approach to collecting and analyzing data and sharing back findings with community residents—has produced clear outcomes and made the case for scaling up this initiative.

To start, we interviewed Habitat staff to see if the residents they partner with prefer online, mobile, paper, or some other medium of engagement. Then we created a multi-medium method for data collection and the ability to share real-time feedback to hear directly from the community, so local Habitat organizations could discuss and strategize on their next steps.

The end result has been a widening of communication channels for our nonprofit headquarters to hear directly from feet-on-the-street community activists.

What our feedback loops told us about engaging our community


The less burden on people taking surveys, the better.

One Habitat staff member noticed many people in her neighborhood had challenges with the online survey. When she realized this, she stopped asking them to take the survey online and took it to them face-to-face. While academics might cite how many changes this shifting approach would make to the data, from a community organizer’s stance, the move created a better sense of trust with neighbors.

Meet people where they’re meeting.

Some local organizations didn’t know why their survey response rate was low. But when they decided to go out in the community, response rates went up. Also, once the community members got involved with Habitat, they stepped up their civic engagement in general. In Central Berkshire, Massachusetts, for example, residents who became active with Habitat and housing issues later took leadership roles in local transportation initiatives.

Make it fun.

In Dupage, Illinois, the local Habitat used the community’s BBQ and Resource Fair as an occasion to share results and hear feedback from local residents.

Make it personal.

People conducting surveys can be misinterpreted as dry. With feedback loops, we used our strength in housing and community outreach to connect neighbors, sometimes resulting in life-changing experiences.

Take Demita in Springfield, Missouri. Demita and other community leaders agreed to host a neighborhood event to clean alleys and to inspire homeowners to spruce up their yards. A few days before their “Rally in the Alley” day, Demita decided to introduce herself to residents along her alley and generate face-to-face enthusiasm for the event.

At one door, she met Kathy, a homeowner whose tailored front yard held potted plants and lawn art but whose backyard was overrun with waist-high grass. Kathy explained that she had been feeling hopeless since her lawn mower broke, and caring for her disabled husband left her no time to do anything about it. When Demita told others of Kathy’s plight, the next door neighbor came over and cut the lawn right away. It was Kathy’s first time meeting him, and in expressing thanks, she said, “This is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.”

For Demita, this new relationship alone made the community building effort a success.

Don’t let the medium control the conversation.

It’s easier to pick a sustainable technology that already supports human behavior rather than forcing human behavior to adapt to technology. Feedback from the pilot sites showed that some people found the online survey technology to be too prescriptive while others preferred it.

Also, there are residents in some neighborhoods who do not use smartphones and have no Wi-Fi at all. Low-tech methods should be considered as legitimate for immediate response feedback.

In each of the pilot communities, Habitat saw improvement in community involvement and resident engagement. Sometimes this manifested as a statistical increase in attendance at meetings and participation in projects. For example, in Greater Lowell, Massachusetts, only 29 resident leaders had partnered in neighborhood efforts before the pilot. Since October 2016, the number has grown to 56 participating in the first community conversation and 62 in the second—an impressive increase of 70%, or 39 residents, participating in both.

Over the past 40 years, Habitat for Humanity has worked with people around the globe to help families achieve the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to build better lives for themselves. The most important element of our mission is the partnership between Habitat and the homeowner, and we continuously seek to keep homeowners and their input at the center of what we do.

Each of the 12 feedback loop pilot projects shows a positive reflection of outreach in Habitat organizations nationwide, where our mission is guided by the aspirations of the communities we serve. Using feedback loops helps us energize communities and chart our progress in sustaining and advancing Habitat’s mission in partnership with donors, volunteers, and homeowners.

Collecting shared metrics has strengthened the evaluation of community engagement and helped us to continuously refine programs, projects, or systems. Our next step is to explore the growth and sustainability of feedback loops, which can change the dynamic between community residents and the people and agencies that partner with them.