Selecting Nonprofit Software: Technology Comes Last

 In Capacity, Change Management, Information Strategy

Build Consulting firmly believes, and communicates to each of our clients, that four key things must come before selecting software. If the organization hasn’t previously considered each of these things in a structured manner, the chances of selecting the wrong software, or even selecting the right software but still experiencing implementation failure, are exponentially increased. Listen to an “Ask the Experts” webinar from November 2018 discussing software selection.

The four things that come before technology are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Operations
  3. Process
  4. Data

When you include technology as a fifth element, these things comprise the Build Information Strategy Framework™. We have a whitepaper that describes this framework, giving a broad treatment to each element. (See also “Nonprofit Information Management Basics (Video)” for a brief review and discussion of this subject.) In this blog post, I’ll just be touching briefly on each element as related to nonprofit software selection.

Leadership

The most important element in selecting the right software for your organization is leadership. This is because leadership sets expectations for how the organization will function and how performance will be measured. If the selected software doesn’t support the way the organization is supposed to function, both contributing to and helping measure success, your organization’s leadership won’t be satisfied.

Whenever we hold an “Ask the Experts” webinar related to any aspect of nonprofit data and technology, the questions always come back to leadership. Organizations that struggle to use technology often have leadership with some missing ability as it comes to either connecting high-level organizational strategy to the operations plan, or as it comes to creating a culture that thinks and acts in disciplined ways. These are challenges that can only be addressed at the leadership level, and so much success with nonprofit technology depends on these questions being addressed prior to making any significant software investment.

Who establishes your organization’s governance model and policies? Who is ultimately responsible for driving impact? Who authorizes major purchases? Whose engagement/endorsement (or lack thereof) will decide a project’s fate? Leadership. For more insights, read: The Top 5 Ways Nonprofit Leadership Should Support Technology Change Efforts.

Operations

Nonprofit organizations that do well with new technology generally have six operational qualities that provide a huge benefit to making clear, deliberate software decisions that result in successful implementations. These are:

  1. An operations plan (or equivalent) that describes how the organization functions, details a set of performance goals, indicates how progress to those goals will be measured, and sets out documentation guidelines for process, data, and systems inside the organization.
  2. Team members that know the landscape in which the organization works—understanding how peers, partners, and funders operate.
  3. An understanding of basic project and time management principles—and how apply those to internal projects.
  4. An understanding of the nature and importance of technology change management.
  5. Someone to lead the project internally that is experienced in business requirement definition and has led similar projects before.
  6. An understanding of how to budget for “total cost of ownership” when it comes to software (including all short and long-term costs).

The greater the organization’s strength in each of these areas, the greater the likelihood of selecting software that can be successfully implemented.

Process

Selecting any nonprofit software solution requires developing a strong internal understanding of how the organization performs its work—its process. Moreover, this understanding must be sufficiently well documented so it can be well communicated to software vendors.

Almost no nonprofit organization has entirely current process documentation for all its functions/departments; but some organizations have very little documentation whatsoever, meaning the knowledge must be gleaned from those currently performing the work—or even from the existing software configuration, if the system administrator(s) are no longer with the organization.

Because of this, nonprofits often provide vendors with too little or inaccurate information about how the organization functions. This can result in vendor proposals with a great deal of scope uncertainty or a wide range of possible costs. Some vendors will clearly state the assumptions on which their scope and costs are based, while others will not.

This can lead to a variety of problems ranging from cost overruns to learning mid-implementation that the software can’t do (or can’t do elegantly) what the organization needs.

Another type of challenge emerges when an organization has well-defined processes, but has a case of “not invented here syndrome”—it has processes that seek to accomplish the same goals as peer organizations, but performs those processes in a different manner and is unwilling to be influenced by industry best practices. This can result in the organization ignoring software solutions purpose-built to accomplish their objectives, because the organization perceives itself as having a unique set of needs that are, in fact, not significantly different to justify the high cost of moving away from pre-built, configurable software to highly customized solutions.

Data

Nonprofit organizations that excel at selecting and implementing new software understand their data. They know what data they have, the state of quality it is in, what the organization is trying to accomplish with that data, and how to manage the data to achieve the desired goals. For organizations in such a position, new software is generally not selected to better understand the organization’s data, but rather so the organization can manage and report on the data more efficiently and effectively.

Organizations that manage data well generally have at least an intuitive understanding of the various ways they should be thinking about data quality. Is the data complete? Is it accurate? Has it been collected and managed in a consistent fashion? Is it well integrated across systems/databases? Is it available in a timely manner to managers and decision-makers?

For such organizations, it is much easier to understand how its data needs to be structured in the new software’s databases to achieve the organization’s management and reporting requirements. Organizations that do not have a good grasp of their data have more work to do before being able to properly judge which new software solutions are best.

And Finally… Technology!

Major software implementations, that have a significant impact on how an organization functions, are too often entered into without adequate consideration of all the elements that contribute to success.

The plain fact of the matter: if you get everything right upstream of the actual technology, selecting and implementing the right software becomes far easier. The actual process of selecting software—writing and circulating an RFP, reviewing vendor proposals, sitting through demos, and making a decision—isn’t rocket science. It is everything that comes before—the assessment of leadership, operations, process, and data—that makes the difference in whether or not your organization achieves success.

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