6 Ways for Nonprofits to Prepare for Digital Transformation Projects

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

10 minutes

Digital transformation projects give nonprofits the data they need to determine which activities yield the most impact. Ultimately, digital transformation allows nonprofits to carry out their mission more effectively and efficiently, equating to more lives improved or even saved. Accurately measuring performance can help nonprofits streamline their processes and justify their budgets to stakeholders, donors, and grant committees.

Unfortunately, nearly 9 out of 10 nonprofit organizations don’t believe that their digital technology implementation is of a high enough standard. Further, the Charity Digital Skills Report demonstrated that only 50% of charities have a digital strategy, and only 9% have been through the digital transformation process. This article defines digital transformation, explains why it is important, and offers six practical tips for nonprofits preparing for their digital transformation journey.

What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation doesn’t refer to a single process but instead describes overarching changes to how a company does business. For nonprofits, this means instituting new methodologies for engaging with the populations they serve, their employees, and their volunteers. Automating lengthy, manual processes and digitizing physical information allows nonprofits to be more nimble and enables employees to focus on more strategic tasks.

What’s an example of nonprofit digital transformation?

Let’s take a more concrete example of nonprofit digital transformation. Say a nonprofit doesn’t have an integration between their CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and their SMS (Short Message Service, otherwise known as “texts”) communications software. Every time an upcoming event is about to happen, a staff member has to export lists of contacts from the CRM, download the .csv file, upload it to the SMS software, and then send out the campaign.

After the campaign is finished, the staff member has to manually review campaign stats and mark whether each contact (a) received a text and (b) ended up coming to the event. For every contact with an invalid phone number, the staff member has to find out why and replace it with a better one.

Although this process may not seem significant, having ten or more slow processes adds up, wasting precious time and money. A better integration between the CRM and SMS software could give that nonprofit a 360-degree view of their population, help them personalize their communications, and achieve a better attendance rate.

A better integration between the CRM and SMS software would allow the organization to focus on the value derived from its communication strategy as compared to the processes required to operate its communication tools. It can hone in on its primary strategic goals, such as increased engagement, personalized messaging, and developing a comprehensive 360-degree view of its constituents. In the above example, a low-friction integration could allow a team to focus on increasing the number of verified accounts within its database so that it can ensure that its data is reliable and high-quality.

6 Ways to prepare for a digital transformation project

Digital transformation projects can seem overwhelming, but there are ways to get ahead of nonprofits’ everyday challenges. Below, we outline six ways to get your ducks in a row before embarking on your transformation journey.

1. Data should be your change agent

Data can empower nonprofits by helping them prioritize the most meaningful tasks, quantify their impact, and pinpoint areas for opportunity. With these outcomes in mind, you are better equipped to build out your requirements list and evaluate potential tools. Most importantly, thinking in terms of data keeps you on the path to achieve your goal.

Although reporting and analytics are often the last steps in digital transformation, thinking about your data structure should be one of the first. Taking the time to map out the types of data you need is essential to designing supporting architecture. If you are still completing paperwork offline, ask yourself what documents need to be converted to digital ones. Reflect on what you want to know about your volunteers, donors, and constituents. To get started, consider:

  • What metrics will help you forecast your demand and budget?
  • Are there any data visualizations your stakeholders have been asking for that would help you solicit more donations?
  • What trends would be excellent to showcase in grant applications?
  • How can you keep better track of your progress towards funding goals?
  • What data would reveal the true impact you’ve had on your community?
  • What reports would help you more efficiently leverage your limited resources?

2. Perform an audit

If you don’t have a complete picture of how things are currently working, it can be tough to envision a fully transformed future. Performing an audit of your systems will highlight how well or inefficiently your organization is operating. The first step in this process is to write down what tools you’re using, how they are connected, and the standard operating procedure for each. Set up time with relevant team members to review each one in detail.

Take detailed notes and turn them into a list of requirements. Also, write down valid questions and employee trepidations. It’s normal for them to be fearful of new tools and processes, so try to anticipate and assuage their fears as often as possible. Here are some questions to get everyone’s juices flowing:

  • What are your biggest daily challenges?
  • Are you performing rote tasks that could be automated?
  • Are volunteers or parties we serve frustrated by certain aspects of our process?
  • How long are processes taking, and could they be shortened with a better tool?
  • Are there external requests we can’t deliver on because of the technology we have?
  • What is going well that we need to carry over into new systems?
  • Do our peers use tools that we think might be useful and in-budget?
  • What features are must-haves versus nice-to-haves in a new tool?
  • How much are we paying for software and related services? Are there areas we can cut down on spending or be more efficient with our budget?

3. Pick the right tools

No matter how much you prepare, digital transformation projects cannot be successful without the right tools. To ensure you select the right software, compare your list of requirements against vendors that seem applicable. Begin narrowing your list down to the 2–3 that could reasonably meet your needs by reading reviews and trying to get an understanding of the ROI for each tool. When you feel comfortable with a few vendors, start scheduling demos.

While you watch the demos, fill out a comparison matrix based on your requirements list. This way, you can evaluate each tool fairly and ensure each is well-suited to your unique use cases. Even if you feel like there is a clear winner after a few demos, it’s vital to get references from other nonprofits who have used the tool you’re thinking about buying.

This is a significant investment, so you want to make sure you hear raving reviews before pulling the trigger. And always ask about nonprofit discounts to stay on top of your budget.

With the advent of low-code development platforms and API-driven SaaS solutions, nonprofits should seriously consider partnering with software developers to build white-glove solutions tailored to their needs.

An example of this is Twilio, an API-driven communications platform that allows companies to build engaging services with a personal touch一often difficult to find with off-the-shelf software products. Another low-code platform called Mendix allows its users to make high-quality, customizable apps in very little time.

4. Get ready for change management

People aren’t usually fans of change — even when they are excited about what may result. It can be frustrating to switch up the status quo without advanced notice or adequate training. That’s why keeping everyone informed is key. Your staff should know roughly what’s coming before you even embark on a digital transformation project.

Communicate timelines regularly, especially if you need staff input during requirements gathering. Try to frame the project in terms of its benefits to the users. Digital transformation is not just about spending less time on tedious tasks or making processes more efficient, it’s about having the energy to focus on bigger picture, high-value work.

Once systems are ready for use, think about who needs to know what and the best way to disseminate information. Certain staff and external users may not need to know in-the-weeds details, while others do. Keep in mind that some people learn better during in-person workshops, while others prefer to learn independently from a series of guides and videos.

Consider using in-app push notifications or pop-ups to get people to follow the correct processes as they use the new technology. When some employees start getting the hang of new tools, shout them out for it publicly. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage staff to learn and adopt new systems quickly.

Don’t forget to collect feedback from your power users regularly. After all, they are the ones interacting with your constituents daily and are a good barometer of how your project is going. Lastly, be prepared to spend extra time and money on external processes. These often require more hand-holding, so try to develop the most user-friendly, fool-proof processes to save your support staff from headaches in the future.

5. Keep your audience in mind

Getting everybody excited about a digital transformation project is easier said than done, but getting people on board is critical to getting your project to the finish line. Internally, digital transformation should function as a way to make employees’ lives easier. As mentioned, you need to build in time to listen to your employees about what they need in new tools.

Two good options for soliciting that feedback are individual or small group interviews or surveys. These methods make people feel more comfortable sharing their honest opinions about what’s working now and what needs to be changed in the future. And this shouldn’t only happen at the beginning of your project. Engage your employees throughout the project, allowing them to watch and participate in demos and test out certain functionality pertinent to their role.

Once you’ve established a good cadence for checking in with your internal team, it’s time to put your external thinking cap on:

  • How can you make it simpler for the people you serve to get the money, food, and support they need?
  • How do the people you serve access information about your organization?
  • Do people want to receive emails or text messages from your group? If so, what kind of content should be in those emails?
  • Is the donation process easy to follow?
  • Do people want to give feedback on your events?
  • Would young people be more interested in working for or volunteering for your group if you posted regularly on social media?
  • How would potential volunteers like to sign up for shifts? Would they want to be reminded of their commitments, and if so, how often and through what means? (email, text, app notification, etc.)

To get even more context, interview people from external groups. You could even show them mockups or demos if you feel comfortable. Their comments and suggestions will help you in the long run一not only in relation to your project, but also in terms of your relationship.

Also, identify advocates and champions who can encourage your internal team to keep charging ahead when the going gets tough and give their input throughout the project. After noting the pain points your constituents might be experiencing, think about how technology can address them. Set realistic goals based on your interviews and regularly check in on progress to make sure you’re on the right track.

6. Ask for help

Digital transformation can be an arduous journey, even for the most organized nonprofits. Even if you feel like you’ve queued up a solid foundation for the project, you’ll be glad to have a second set of eyes on your work and take advantage of their learnings from previous projects. If you have the funding, it can be worth bringing in experts to help. Besides speeding up the transformation process, consultants often serve as an unbiased third party to keep internal teams on track.

That said, be sure to do your due diligence. Look for consultants with specific technology and nonprofit experience. See if your goals align with the consulting firm’s mission statement. Press for details on their expertise and the types of projects they’ve completed.

If a consulting firm has worked with similar nonprofits in the past, they may have connections to a broader network or other brands that could be helpful even beyond your transformation project. If you’re not flush with cash, you could try applying for grants or taking advantage of consulting companies that pair up with software companies to give discounts.

Start embarking on your journey

In our connected world, it’s important to stand out among the crowd. Nonprofit organizations often have a harder time putting themselves and their work out there because of their resource constraints. The good news is that with the proper digital transformation strategies, nonprofits can make more data-driven decisions, decrease costly human errors with automated processes, and reduce IT overhead with cloud-based software.

At the same time, digital transformation projects keep your employees happy with tools that minimize repetitive work, nurture valuable partnerships, and provide a more intuitive and coordinated volunteer experience.

Having said that, hiring the right team to guide you is crucial to avoiding rip-and-replace projects and achieving the outcomes you want. That’s where Entidad comes into play. Entidad is a mission-driven technology services provider that develops innovative solutions to help improve the quality of life for underserved communities.

Since 2018, Entidad has worked with nonprofits to help them digitally transform their services to reach more of their target communities, grow their online presence, and unlock the value in collaboration. Check out the Entidad website to learn more about the fantastic work their consultants are doing.

Related Articles

​​Ready to start your digital transformation journey?

By sending this form I confirm that I have read and accept the Privacy Policy.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization