What is a Tech Platform-Centric Nonprofit?

 In Information Strategy, Interim and Part-Time CIO

Becoming a platform-centric nonprofit creates enormous opportunities for digital transformation.

A platform-based nonprofit uses a technology platform as a key foundation in their technology strategy. This focus on a foundational platform allows the nonprofit to act on information and data in new, connected ways.

When done well, a platform-centric technology strategy empowers organizational strategy, which drives higher and more meaningful mission outcomes.

Build has worked on numerous platform selections and implementations. When done right, the move to a platform-centric approach demonstrably delivers values, with a clear link between the effort and the outcome.

Becoming a platform-centric nonprofit requires fundamental changes in how your organization works. These changes impact executives, managers, and staff. Our experience can help your investment in strategic change bring the most benefit to your organization.

What is a “Platform-Centric” Nonprofit?

If you made the jump to a smart phone from a cell phone, chances are the platform (Apple/Android) won you over. The product, the specific phone itself, was less important than your commitment to the platform that you would use for your phones for the foreseeable future. You made a choice partially based on the connected products available once you committed to that platform environment. This distinction between product-centric and platform-centric has been upending the for-profit technology space for a few years.

Technology companies see huge competitive advantages to creating and marketing a robust platform, including associated products and services, that customers buy into and become loyal to.

What does this mean for nonprofits?

When someone donates, volunteers, or takes an action, they aren’t choosing based on the technology platform that allows your organization to respond to their interest. But when your platform suggests merchandise to purchase, a follow up action to take, or connects them to their peers who also donate, you can see the value of a technology platform environment.

On the administrative side, a technology platform that folds in more functionality can connect business processes into a coherent holistic environment. The more your nonprofit’s staff inhabits a common and shared environment where everything happens, the more important connections can be made that appear seamless to your donors and clients.

A nonprofit that transforms itself in adopting a platform-centric approach has the opportunity to better coordinate how technology improves engagement—and in doing so, realizes its mission goals. But if it makes the switch to a platform-centric approach without adequate transformation, the organization can drown in an over-engineered system that is complex and unusable. Along with the rewards are substantial risks.

Is your nonprofit ready to become platform-centric?

The current landscape of platforms

When nonprofits think of platforms, less commonly referred to “Platform-as-a-Service” (PaaS), Salesforce immediately comes to mind. However, while Salesforce has experienced significant growth among nonprofits, companies like MicrosoftNeon, and NetSuite have also focused attention and investment in platform offerings that are tailored to this sector.

A “platform” may seek to be an all-in-one solution for its customers, with multiple native apps pre-built on top of the base platform. Or the concept of the “platform” may be more of a facilitative environment, relying mostly on vendors to create third-party apps that run on or integrate with the platform, extending the usefulness of the foundational technology. Typically, the platform vendor is trying to strike a balance of these two approaches to create the most compelling solution for customers.

Our analysis and experience have shown that the real point of differentiation between platforms is the size of the broader nonprofit ecosystem associated with each. Even among two of the largest platform competitors, Salesforce and Microsoft, the number of implementation firms, third-party solution providers, and nonprofit customers are significantly different. Choosing a technology platform should include a strategic evaluation of its associated ecosystem.

The opportunities for the platform-centric nonprofit are increasing

There has been a ton of interest and excitement surrounding the opportunities offered by platforms like Salesforce, Microsoft, and Google. These platforms provide a platform environment topped by an array of products that help staff get things done.

Build is interested in how these platforms act as catalysts to help standardize how NGOs, funders, and governmental entities track, manage, and report on common data. The work of Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact around the Common Data Model was pioneering, and Salesforce has recently spun up its own attempt at creating a more common approach to data. We reviewed Microsoft’s changes here.

The platform-centric nonprofit has been central to a vision of connectivity that can improve everything from engagement to relationship management to service delivery. Becoming a platform-centric nonprofit will mean that your organization can act on information and data in new ways. These new ways of working can better align your organizational strategy with your technology strategy.

Platforms vs. Products

Platforms are different than the traditional software that your organization has purchased in the past. They have some unique attributes that should be well-understood by your entire organization before you commit to change.

A platform is not a product

It is a set of tools upon which you, a vendor, or an implementation partner can build applications or business processes. This means that significant configuration or customization may be possible—and may be required.

Expect integrations

While a platform offers a wide breadth of functionality, it is capable of integrating with technology that isn’t part of that platform. Platforms like Salesforce and Microsoft have well-developed and reliable integrations to applications like SurveyMonkey, MailChimp, or QuickBooks. Expanding the nonprofit environment of your platform may involve a simple connection to your other software. This requires the capacity to bring multiple stakeholders to the table to explore business processes that can and should connect, and then to change-manage the transition to the expanding platform.

You’re in the cloud

Modern platforms are cloud-based—meaning that there may be no software to purchase, maintain, or host. This eases the operational load on your IT department and is an important consideration when evaluating cost savings related to moving to cloud-based offerings. Our colleagues at Community IT have called this “Cloud Transformation,” and it has a real long-term impact on your organization.

Critical success factors to becoming a platform-centric nonprofit

Making the shift to a platform-centric nonprofit is more than simply making a technology switch.  Build has identified the critical success factors for selecting, implementing and managing platforms for nonprofits.

Opportunity mapping and organizational strategy

Because so many opportunities are created when you become a platform-centric nonprofit—from revenue generation to service delivery—it can be both incredibly exciting and overwhelming to think about how the move can support organizational strategy.

An opportunity map can help your nonprofit navigate where to make investments in your platform. Mapping the LOE (level of effort) to the ROI (return on investment) in making the transformation can prompt important conversations about which strategic opportunities for investment should be performed first and which can be deferred.  Note, however, that this is not a static exercise. As time moves by, new opportunities emerge and priorities change—and the opportunity map should change accordingly.

A strategic technology roadmap

How much strategic thinking are you prepared to do before you embark on this transformation? If you have already moved to a platform-based strategy, how often do you revisit your goals and plans? One of the core differentiators for successful nonprofits that invest in platforms like Salesforce or Microsoft is the amount of strategic work they do up-front in the selection phase. Successful platform-centric nonprofits have a technology roadmap, and that roadmap includes detailed operational, process, and data changes that will be required.

The idea of linking organizational and technology strategy is not a new idea, but many organizations fail to fully embrace the significance or importance of the ongoing exercise of alignment—revisiting their roadmap on a regular basis to make sure business needs and technology solution delivery remain in sync.

By aligning organizational and technology strategy, and reevaluating your roadmap, the entire organization can have a common vision for how to prioritize and balance investment.

Strong leadership

The Build Information Strategy guide identifies the importance of leadership to any technology project.

Implementing a platform like Salesforce or Microsoft should not be viewed as a singular project, but rather a series of projects and investments that an organization pursues over time. An organization’s leadership should understand a key difference between implementing software and implementing a platform: it is not a single investment of time and expense. Rather, there will be significant investment at the outset and in perpetuity. The technology roadmap will help leadership align on this, but leadership must understand their role in ensuring the adoption, sustainment, and ultimately the success of becoming a platform-centric nonprofit.

Transforming to a platform-centric nonprofit

A technology platform-centric nonprofit uses a platform of integrated software and apps to support processes across departments in a dynamic, constantly evolving environment. The connections this approach makes possible will transform your business processes and your nonprofit. But the risks are also substantial—you cannot “set and forget” these platforms.

Approaching a transformation to a platform-centric nonprofit as an organization-wide effort will increase your likelihood for success. Understanding that the shift to a platform-centric nonprofit is about much more than technology helps your organization tap into the potential, and the promise, of your platform choices.

Becoming a platform-centric nonprofit will mean that your organization can act on information and data in new ways. These new ways of working will better align your organizational strategy with your technology strategy.

Start with a technology roadmap. Build can help! Our experience can help your nonprofit organization ensure you make the most impact with your IT investments.

Contact us to learn more!