Making Technology Work For Not Against You

July 15, 2007       Paul Clolery      

Nonprofit managers are not budgeting enough money for technology upgrades. But, maybe there’s a reason for the lack of will. According to leaders in the nonprofit tech industry, many of the new technologies actually cause more work.

Sure, the gizmos and software updates provide all sorts of information regarding donors and operations. But do you really need to know that the donor is left-handed, eats breakfast at a diner on Saturdays and finished that charity walk two minutes faster this year?

The updates come so quickly and staff can be so nomadic that training on systems can also be a major headache. The wonders of technology, as well as its inherent challenges, was the subject of an NPT Executive Session, held this past April during the annual conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Dallas.

Around the table were: Christopher Fink, vice president, Telosa Software, Palo Alto, Calif., Diana Hoyt, president, Heritage Designs, Phoenix, Ariz., Sheeraz Haji, president, Convio, in Austin, Texas, and Steve Rusche, co-founder and chief operating officer, eTapestry, Indianapolis, Ind.

Moderating the session were Paul Clolery, editorial director of The NonProfit Times and Tim Mills-Groninger, associate executive director, Lumity, in Chicago.

Mr. Clolery: We want to discuss how the charitable sector is, in fact, using technology and if the technology is changing the way program is delivered, the way fundraising is done.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: Some of the things that are worth talking about are what some of the donors, constituents are thinking about, particularly in terms of their attitudes. It might be worth talking about some of the natural segmentations among age, education, and things that differentiate how people might prefer to live and react online. Some donors are still writing checks or making decisions on the last Sunday of the month at the kitchen table. In talking about expectations, let’s talk about what they know and what they know that they don’t know, how they expect to be treated and what they expect to see, their reasonable expectation of stewardship and then also how they’re reacting to new opportunities. And, how are we managing risk as we become more information dependent? Are we developing more levels of risk in having too few staff who know how all the pieces fit together or are there risks in just technology is aging out before that they’ve been replaced and managed the entire life cycle? Are we too dependent on the infrastructure?

Mr. Clolery: I’m wondering how much of this is purely staff-dependent. Technology is supposed to be making everyone’s life easier but when that employee leaves, what happens to the technology?

Ms. Hoyt: That’s a major problem. I don’t care what the technology is, it requires training. Staff turnover is one of the biggest things that we fight, training that next person on our product. It’s not just the technology they’re using for fundraising. It’s all the basic technologies. We often don’t think of phones and copiers as technology, but they certainly are today when your copier will scan and email and do whatever else it does.

Mr. Haji: Here’s one encouraging thing. There is a growing awareness among nonprofits and executives of the need to think about all the other aspects of successful technology programs, for example the change management and the training. It’s still a big challenge, but we’re seeing encouraging signs in the marketplace. A related issue is usability. We are trying to respond to pressure from our client base to make our products easier to use so that when there is staff turnover, the new person can learn quickly.

Mr. Fink: Process also seems to be an issue. It’s not just training people on the software and how to use it but how are they using it, particularly if they’ve lost the person who’s mainly handling the database. All that institutional memory is gone. It’s critical to document that within an organization, how they’re actually tracking information related to their constituents. In my experience, many organizations haven’t documented anything with regards to how data goes into the system.

Mr. Rusche: I think sometimes the technology focus has been on the application itself and we need to take that same technology focus and put it into the training. If we can use some of the same creative things we’ve built into the applications to help people fundraise successfully, why not build some things in to help them learn the system better?

Mr. Mills-Groninger: I’ve been an advocate for a long time of not teaching the technology but teaching the business. Don’t teach them fundraising, but let them see how we do fundraising in our shop. This tool is part of that, but there are also these procedures. We understand this is where the mail comes in. This is where I’m doing the credit card receipts. This is how it all fills in. These are our standards.

Ms. Hoyt: Almost no nonprofit has any kind of a written procedure and it’s like playing telephone — you’re new and I tell you what I learned from the last person. Down the road two or three people, it’s not the same procedure at all.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: We call that training by folklore.

Mr. Rusche: There are some new tools — tools like Wiki-type help, for example — that allow a nonprofit to incorporate some internal procedural documentation. You can start to combine both application and procedural instruction.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: In a lot of organizations there is not a management commitment to process. They are very short-term-results oriented — let’s get through this campaign.  Let’s meet this funder’s reporting requirements and then let’s move on. Some of that might carry forward to the next year, but often it doesn’t. There are new people, new requirements.

Ms. Hoyt: They have processes for mission delivery, their program. This is what we do when we in-take a new client. This is what we do when we have an abused child. They have it on the program side. They haven’t necessarily done it on the fundraising side.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: Who’s the appropriate champion in the organization to make this happen and are there any examples you can bring?

Ms. Hoyt: I think it’s the executive directors because they’re ultimately responsible.

Mr. Rusche: If you have a strong executive director, that person sets the tone. Now having said that, oftentimes the person who understands the technology most is the end user.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: What should the interaction between that IT person and executive director be to understand what should be measured and what should be valued? Often it’s lip service to the technology. We’ll have this product but I don’t really care whether we are using it well as much as if we’re making the same numbers as last year.

Mr. Rusche: Ultimately our jobs are to make all those issues go away, right? Focus on what you’re doing, your passion. Let us worry about how to make the technology work. I think we’re moving closer and closer to those kinds of things.

Mr. Fink: In terms of trying to convince organizations of the importance of documenting their processes, the donor’s relationship with their organization will hopefully outlast the staff. So, you want to document your process.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: How do you know when you’re doing it right or when it’s clicking appropriately and the technology is completely transparent?

Mr. Haji: I’ll take this conversation to a slightly different place, which is the new wave of using the power of people, which applies to training and documentation but is much broader than that. The over-hyped words, Web 2.0, to me, mean taking advantage of user-generated content and tapping social networks. We’re big believers that nonprofits are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this movement. Most of our efforts have focused on how organizations should leverage these new tools to engage their constituents, but Web 2.0 applies to process and to documentation. You articulated it’s hard to keep up. Look at the example of Wikipedia. As we rethink our documentation, we are opening it up to enable clients to answer their own questions and have a partner ecosystem that takes advantage of folks who are willing to contribute ideas, best practices and information that the community is hungry for in a Web-centric environment.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: One interpretation is that you’re modeling behaviors internally that you would like to see in the broader constituent world, user-generated content, donors helping donors, donors being advocates for the organization, perhaps in good ways, perhaps in less positive but —

Mr. Haji: Absolutely. We’re looking at it and saying if we want to be part of the trend to encourage organizations to empower their donors and their constituents and take advantage of Web 2.0, then we should be trying to do the same as well as an organization.

Mr. Rusche: One way to answer your question, how do you know when it’s working, it’s when your conversations are not around, how do we get the technology to work. It’s when your conversations are around, look what we’re doing with the technology. It’s when you’re looking at the data and saying we need to improve our donor renewal rates, not I can’t figure out how the system can tell me whether I can get donor renewal rates. So it’s more of what do I do rather than how do I do it.

Mr. Clolery: I was just wandering the exhibit floor. I was marveling at one person demonstrating a product. This one particular module would feed into five or six different pieces of software or technology. The question becomes, okay, if this one piece of technology feeds into six other things, you’ve got six other processes going on at the same time. Has integration gone crazy? Does it really need to do this many things?

Mr. Rusche: It might need to integrate in multiple places. I think integration is the key to a lot of people’s true success with technology. It’s where they can finally get all these really neat things, their Web site, their e-commerce, their database, their email marketing programs all working together and not worry how data passes between these things. So, yes, it does do those things, but how it does it should not be a major concern to the nonprofit organization.

Mr. Haji: I’d challenge that. I think nonprofits absolutely should worry about integrations. I respectfully disagree.

Mr. Rusche: Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t say they shouldn’t do it. They should not be the ones to have to worry about it.

Mr. Haji: I disagree with that still because I think there’s a myth that integration can be solved by the vendor community. I’ll give you an example. A lot of what we hear from our clients about is integrating an online Web system with an offline database. There is some myth that vendors can magically make these systems integrate instantly. I don’t think that’s a realistic framework. A nonprofit has to take ownership of what integration means for their own organization. I’ll give you a couple of examples. In a typical online system, you track open rates and click-through rates on emails. It’s not clear to me that it makes sense to pull that out of an online system and push it into the donor database. Whereas in a donor database, we might track that Steve’s mother-in-law plays golf and has a seven handicap.  Why would we want to pull that into an online database? So, integration of data in a way that allows an organization to personalize content and segment is key. This is one of the top issues that this market faces. I’d love to see more folks really roll their sleeves up and say, look, it’s hard and we, as nonprofit professionals and fundraisers, should care.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: I really like the idea of organizations looking at information as an important renewable resource. It has to be cultivated. We have to take a lot of responsibility for what information we want to collect and what we’re going to do with it, not because it’s nice data to have. We can collect all the open rates we want, but if we’re not going to do anything about it, then it’s just a chart that’s existing independently. The great potential here is you can take these systems and you have this flat view of the donor here and maybe it’s the same person there. Then you can fold that together and get this beautiful diamond that you see these little facets. Now we have something that we can use and we can be responsible back to the people who we are communicating with so they get the information that they need to know that we’re a good investment, we’re good partners.

Mr. Rusche: If we’re collecting information on click-throughs in an online system and we’ve got this other information in a database, the ideal solution is it all ends up in one place. I don’t have to go to my online system to see what click-throughs are and another system to see if the donor’s mother-in-law plays golf. What they track is up to them. Our job is not to tell them what to track. Each organization could have a unique strategy. Our job is to figure out how they can go to one place and see whatever components they determined are most important to them. So if click-throughs help them understand what their interest is and they think that’s strategic to them, great. Then we need to figure out a way to provide that.

Ms. Hoyt: Well, I agree, Steve, that there needs to be integration. I do at times ask the client what do you want to accomplish? And if they haven’t defined what they really want to accomplish, then they need to sit and figure that out. If we know what their goal is, we can help them work toward that goal. But a lot of times it’s just that it sounded like a good idea or a board member said, well, we should be able to do this. Well, just because you should be able to do it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to or need to. That’s where we give them guidance. We turn around and ask the questions that they need to think about to make that happen.

Mr. Clolery: Is the technology now pushing you to do things that you normally would not necessarily think about doing and provide certain services or provide certain backup to the technology that you wouldn’t have normally had to think about?

Mr. Haji: I think that’s true. I think in many ways the tools that are out there create more work. The online tools allow for beautiful personalization and segmentation. But to take advantage of that segmentation and to really talk to all the different segments of your constituents in a one-to-one manner, you have to create a lot of different copies of the email. That’s more work, no two ways about it. But it’s not all negative. If you look at traditional direct marketing, retention rates have been very low, in many cases averaging less than 50 percent. Traditionally direct marketing has been blasting one message to all folks. If you think about retention rates of less than 50 percent, that’s poor. The opportunity to create a personalized Web experience is immense. You can ask people what they are interested in, what moves them and really provide the right message at the right time that speaks to them in their voice. So while I agree that it does create more work, if done appropriately, it creates more work with huge benefits.

Mr. Fink: Let’s say you have a fundraising project and it comes with an accounting interface built in with it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should actually integrate the two systems. I think a lot of people feel the pressure for integration. It could be from an IT person or the board. It doesn’t always make sense, necessarily, to do it. You should consider it carefully. And in that example I just used of an accounting interface, just getting the two systems to reconcile via reporting can be a challenge for many organizations. You need to carefully consider which pieces of the integration puzzle will provide the most increased efficiencies within your organization.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: I think we all agree that data should be integrated and that there should be a reduced number of data sets. We should tear down silos wherever possible. But, there are certain tools or applications that should be able to use that data set for one person looking at a constituent need to see certain information and others can be minimized or just summarized. That’s a real difficult challenge to get all those pieces put togethe. They want to create a custom environment that’s very similar to the house down the block with just enough difference. If we can bring that forward into software, I think we’d have a thing going.

Mr. Haji: There are two important ideas in what you just said. One is providing tools to a lot more constituents. As we go deeper and deeper in the content management and content publishing space, we’re seeing a lot of clients who used to have just two or three administrators to having 40, 50, 100, sometimes thousands simultaneously using the product. Organizations are now empowering their volunteers to create mini Web sites and raise money for them or empower their affiliates like they never did. It does create a complex set of challenges related to integration, but also empowers folks to manage their own lists. The second one you mentioned is the importance of having systems talk to each other. There have been some really fabulous advances in the world of Web services. And forgive me for using some tech mumbo-jumbo here but API’s – application programming interfaces — really do make it easier, in theory, for Convio system to talk to Telosa systems. If we as a vendor community can embrace open APIs — which make it easier for databases and systems to talk to each other —  and make a commitment to having interoperable systems we will create a big opportunity for this market.

Mr. Fink: And because you can’t always anticipate, for example, a client trying to interface with their Convio system and the walk-a-thons that they’re doing, APIs are almost going to be essential because it’s going to allow them to integrate online and offline systems on their own terms.

Mr. Haji: A client recently pointed out to me one of those creative sites — AFSCME — and it was a virtual protest. It was basically an interface of the Convio advocacy system with a Google mash-up. We would have never come up with that. To enable that kind of creative energy from our clients and from the consultants does depend on a very strong commitment to APIs.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: Allowing more constituent-client access to their own data creates opportunities that I think we’ve demonstrated here. What are some of the risks of allowing that kind of access and the second part is, how do we mitigate those risks so people have a higher comfort level of creating more self-service and donor-actualized stewardship of a cause?

Mr. Haji: One of the clear risks on data being distributed is privacy and security. Those are broad terms. Folks are very concerned, and rightfully so, about personal data being compromised. So as soon as you start talking about allowing either individuals or other entities to pull data in or out, that’s a clear issue. Data hygiene is another issue. As soon as you distribute tools to update a database, what’s the integrity of that database? Those are some of the risks.

Ms. Hoyt: Well, I’m as concerned as you are, and also I’m a past development officer. So that whole idea of having somebody else, who isn’t in a controlled environment getting into that data, makes me anxious. And I know, there’s always the conversation about letting the donor get in and update their own record. And I’m asking why? If the nonprofits have standards and procedures of how they are going to manage data in their office, which we really encourage our clients to do, do they want somebody who doesn’t know their procedures to go in? That becomes an issue.

Mr. Rusche: That’s a good point. However, I believe donor self-service is a key part of the relationship-building organizations will have with donors. We live in a self-service world. We are used to the convenience of doing things when we want, where we want without having to go through the interactions of people, if necessary. So I think the technology supports a secure access to data. I also think good design of technology can limit the disruption someone can cause to the data by inappropriate entries or data hygiene issues. Oftentimes it can be as simple as limiting the fields they can have access to, limiting fields they can update, or running it through an approval process before those updates are posted. You can give the donor the experience of validating their information to say, “yes, this is my correct email address so I do know I’m going to receive information appropriately.”

Ms. Hoyt: I think you’re right, Steve, but I think we have to be really careful that the safeguards are built.

Mr. Clolery: The donors are an important part of this process, obviously, and it’s important for them to be involved in some of the decision-making. But at what point does the organization say, you know, we are running this organization and it’s time for us to say, no. Being involved is terrific. But there are just certain things that we cannot have the donors or an outside constituent doing in regard to information services.

Mr. Rusche: That’s completely up to the organization to determine what the donor has access to and what opportunities they have to change information. I don’t think this puts control in a negative way into the donors hands. I don’t see the risk being that the donor starts to drive the ship, if that’s where you were going. A typical organization is going to have donors in various age categories, various educational elements, various comfort levels with technology. And the great challenge is that you have to try to accommodate everybody to some degree. So you’re going to have the 20 somethings who really want to have full interaction on the Web. They want to be able to see their online profile. They want to get access online. They want to make their donations online. Then you have another group who maybe likes a little bit of the Web access but not all of it and they would prefer to talk with someone. They like the direct mail piece. And then you have another group who wants nothing to do with that. So the challenge for the organization is that you’ve got to play to all of these groups to be truly successful. That’s where it gets tough.

Ms. Hoyt: My own experience, it’s real hard to build a relationship with somebody if I never look them in the face. So how do you build that aspect into it? That’s a hard one.

Mr. Rusche: I agree with you personally because I have the same issue. But I see a whole lot of young folks with instant messaging and the other online tools who build relationships and have almost no face-to-face interaction.

Ms. Hoyt: Those people aren’t getting married. We have this whole group of people between the ages of 25 and 35 who haven’t even been married their first time because their whole life is text messaging. It’s not going to lead to a proposal. And, how long down the road do you sustain those folks? I think that’s going to be something that we aren’t going to know for almost another decade. If it stays on the Web level and stays on the e-messaging and whatever, how are they going to be sustained as donors? Are we going to see them giving the second gift and the third gift and the fourth gift?

Mr. Clolery: Technology is not new and online giving is not new. What are we already seeing about these donors? Have they given the third and fourth gifts online, Sheeraz?

Mr. Haji: I think they have. What we’ve seen from our research is that client organizations that have an email address for a donor and have both an online and offline relationship with that donor are seeing these donors renew at the highest rates and make the largest gifts.  But having said that, our data shows email and online communications can absolutely strengthen the relationship. Organizations need to build relationships both online and offline — all the stats are stronger than just the online only.

Mr. Mills-Groninger: It boils down to having a multi-channel relationship. There’s lots of opportunities to provide information and to receive information to be energized, to be informed and a wise investor.

Mr. Haji: Our data is unambiguous about that. You raise a very important point. I strongly agree an in-person conversation is more powerful than a phone call or email. One of the interesting trends that we’re observing with advocacy and political organizations is using online tools to encourage face-to-face activity. Moveon.org ended up using the Internet to enable some 8,000 house parties and 7 million phone calls as part of the 2006 elections. So clearly that’s an acknowledgment that a phone call or a meeting in person is more powerful than just sending an email.

Ms. Hoyt: I think a lot of that, the online, is a very good cultivation tool. If a nonprofit has done something very exciting or just gotten a new grant and they want to get the word out immediately to their donors, then that tool is the fastest way. Or if they need their donors to react to a negative crisis, they can grab them that way faster.  NPT