The top 5 ways nonprofit leadership should support technology change efforts

 In Capacity, Change Management

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of organizations to guide technology change projects, as well as the opportunity to lead change in my own organizations. Over time, I’ve learned a lot about what makes for effective leadership engagement in such projects.

Before I move on to the five ways an executive can support success in technology projects, I’d like to provide two contrasting examples—one of failure and one of success—in recent nonprofit constituent relationship management (CRM) projects.

An Example of Leadership Failure

At one organization, the executive director supported the acquisition of a constituent relationship management system (CRM), because some newer staff in a couple of departments wanted it. He liked the idea of the organization using a CRM and becoming a “more modern” workplace.

After he approved the purchase, however, he rarely asked about the CRM, and he didn’t learn how to use it. He viewed it as a tool for “them.” Fundamentally, his interaction with the CRM rarely amounted to more than having his administrative assistant enter data from business cards he received.

As a result of his lack of interest and sponsorship of the CRM initiative, the system remained a much less valuable tool than it could have been—only a couple of teams used it. And when the executive director later left the organization, he took decades of relationships and knowledge about those relationships with him, as that information never made its way into the CRM.

An Example of Leadership Success

At another organization, leadership decided to make the move from a custom, in-house database to a modern, cloud CRM for fundraising, communications, a constituent portal, and program management.

Technology limitations in the current system initially provided motivation for the project. But as the organization went through the software assessment, selection, and implementation process, they began to understand the much broader, organizational impact this change could have.

Understanding this, the chief operations officer (COO) was engaged from project beginning to end. He participated in weekly check-ins, led development of the communication plan, spoke to staff regularly about the CRM project, helped make decisions about processes, and went through training.

Although he was not the chief executive officer, the COO had sufficient authority to make decisions for the entire organization and ensure that they were carried out. He made it clear CRM was a priority for the organization—through his own continuing engagement, the allocation of the necessary resources, his communications to staff, and his efforts to learn and use the system.

This organization successfully made it through some dramatic changes in how they operate and how they engage with their constituents, and I believe the COO’s engagement was the single biggest factor in success.

The Five Ways Leadership Should Support Success

Below is my list of how a leader (or leaders) at a nonprofit can effectively engage during a technology change effort. Each one of these actions increase the chance that the project will be successful. While it’s possible to have a successful implementation without doing every single one of these actions, as a leader you put your organization in the best position to succeed when you are attentive to all of them.

1. Prioritize. An organization-wide technology change effort must be one of the top three organizational priorities while it’s underway.

  • Allocate money. Sufficient funds must be allocated. The implementation vendor’s quote is rarely all-inclusive. Also think about overage, third-party applications, supplemental staffing, and any post-implementation staff additions. And of course, the budgets for celebrating when milestones are achieved!
  • Allocate staff time. The project cannot be treated as just one more responsibility that people have to figure out how to accomplish. Your job as a leader is to figure out what they can stop doing (or do less of) while the project is underway, and to secure supplemental staffing if necessary.

2. Communicate. You must be visible and vocal about the change.

  • Provide context and define expected outcomes. Why is this effort worth the disruption that inevitably comes with this type of change? Keep the purpose of this effort present to stakeholders throughout the project.
  • Define the envisioned use. How will staff be expected to use the system? In which cases is use of the system required, and when it is discretionary? Ensure there are well defined requirements about how processes will be executed and/or data entry standards.
  • Reach all stakeholders. Ensure you understand the full picture about who is impacted by the changes, and that you reach all of them in ways that are appropriate to each group.

3. Support and Accountability. Demonstrate your engagement by asking questions regularly throughout, with attention to each of the following:

  • Create project governance. Are key governance structures in place? Is there a clear project manager? Regular meetings? Key governance documents (depending upon project size) should include items such as a project charter (with expected outcomes, success measures, a defined team, and more), a project plan, a communication plan, stakeholder impact assessment, risks, and milestones.
  • Set and check deadlines. How is the project progressing as compared to the initial plan and major milestones?
  • Challenges. Difficulties will undoubtedly arise during the project, so seek to understand why they occur, facilitate identification of lessons learned, and ensure course correction as needed.

4. Take Personal Action. Model the behavior you expect of staff.

  • Attend the trainings. We’ve found that attentive executive participation in training sessions is a powerful motivator to staff exhibiting the same behavior.
  • Exemplify diligent and consistent use of the system. When executives are using the system in the full extent of its abilities to support their own work, staff follow suit.
  • Seek to answer key questions using the system. Use the data and reports into regular meetings. When staff are aware that executives are looking at the data, questioning its meaning, and making decisions based on it, they are much more diligent in keeping data up to date and clean.

5. Celebrate the Milestones.

A lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into major organizational change. Even though it may feel like the race never ends, make sure the milestones are recognized and celebrated!

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