man working remotely on a laptop

Digital Transformation: What It Means for Your Nonprofit and How to Get Started

In March of this year, TechSoup — and much of the nonprofit sector across the world — was forced to rapidly transition to a fully remote workplace. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty, but it forced us to focus on how we operate and work together and how we push forward our own digital transformation. It also further highlighted the need for this transformation to occur in the nonprofit sector at large.

drawing of a woman working remotely on a laptop

Right now, nonprofits are facing a unique opportunity to transform how they operate. The imperative of the COVID-19 crisis and the widespread move to remote work has made the staff at many organizations more open to operational changes than ever. Additionally, new funding opportunities for digital transformation have presented themselves, because funders are either focusing new grants uniquely on capacity building through technology or they are allowing existing grants to be repurposed for this work.

But what do these changes look like? And how can you take concrete steps toward digital transformation, right now, at your nonprofit?

At TechSoup, we are thinking about "digital transformation" as a process that happens through a series of mini-transformations in the different areas of your technology capacity. We know many organizations operate in an ad hoc manner with regards to their systems — choosing technology based on current needs. Our goal is to move organizations to an environment where technology solutions are deployed and used according to sets of standards that apply to everyone in the organization. Standardizing in this way will enable them to continue optimizing their operations by building new tools that can be used to extend impact.

But in terms of what concrete steps nonprofits should actually be taking — this can be boiled down to two key areas of your organization that will enable you to make better decisions and become more adaptive:

  1. Enabling better, easier communication and collaboration among staff and stakeholders. The easier it is to communicate and work together, the clearer and more efficient your decision-making
  2. Changing how you collect and manage your data so that it's standardized, easily accessible, and, for lack of a better term, "combinable." The easier it is to look at and analyze your organization's performance data, the better your decision making about where to apply resources.

Let's dig a bit deeper into these two work streams, which need to be addressed in parallel at your nonprofit in order to start heading in the right direction toward digital transformation.

Improving Communication and Collaboration at Your Nonprofit

If you haven't already, you should be planning on how to move your basic operational systems and tools to the cloud, specifically email, document storage, and internal communication and collaboration tools (TechSoup can help). Why?

  • Cloud systems make it easy to give your staff access to your documents, files, and email when they are remote.
  • Cloud-based solutions that integrate your email, calendar, files, online chat, and video conferencing let your staff communicate with each other and collaborate on projects wherever they are.
  • Cloud systems are built around increasingly standardized data models that support the next part of digital transformation — how you collect and manage data.
  • Cloud systems also support communications and engagement with external parties — your constituents, your board, and your communities.

Here are two examples of how moving to the cloud might benefit your nonprofit.

  1. Instead of emailing files around for edits and updates, staff can establish an online "space" dedicated to their team's work or projects where they can store documents, chat online, quickly video-call someone, share a calendar, and attach meeting agendas and notes to chat channels. Furthermore, everyone can do this from home, the library, the cafe, or the train — anywhere an Internet connection can be found.
  2. Organizations that regularly meet with individual program participants can use online appointment booking tools that connect to staff calendars, letting participants look up and set appointments from their mobile phones.

There are a variety of cloud-based email, document storage, and collaboration tools to choose from that are business-grade, provide robust security and configurable feature sets, and are available at special nonprofit pricing. These include Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Box, Zoom, and Slack — tools for cloud file storage and communications and collaboration (including email), all with advanced security features.

And remember, as part of moving to the cloud you will need to make sure your computers and laptops have the capacity to handle cloud-based applications, which often need greater processing capabilities. Most modern mobile phones and tablets easily connect to these systems as well. It's recommended that desktops and laptops have the latest version of processors (i-series for PCs), and a minimum of 8 GB of RAM for best performance. Upgrading workstations before you migrate will reduce user frustration later.

Improving Data Management at Your Nonprofit

To change how you collect and manage your data, you will need to sit down and map out the processes and tools you need that will let you collect your data in a standardized and automated way, connect it easily with other data, AND make sure your data is protected from theft or hacking.

Start by talking to your staff. Here a few important questions to consider:

  • What data and information is most important to our organization?
  • What do we want or need to do with that data?
  • How do we collect it today, and what's good and needs to be improved about that process?
  • Which tools for collecting and using data that we use today work well and which don't?
  • What ideas do you have for doing all this better? Your staff probably has some really great insights.

Make a plan for collecting that data in the most efficient way possible. Some of this you can do yourself, and for some of it you'll want the help of an IT expert. (TechSoup also offers these services.)

  • Identify which data you already have or collect, what data you still need, and the sources of that data that you still need. You can make a list in a spreadsheet if that's easiest — and don't forget to note the exact data points you collect and how they are formatted.
  • Outline the ideal data flows and processes to collect, use, and manage that data. You can do this using PowerPoint, Lucidchart, or a variety of process design tools — it doesn't have to be fancy!
  • Identify the tools that can help you with that data collection, processing, and management, including software and hardware. For this part, you might need someone with knowledge of technical tools and systems.
  • Don't forget to consider what legal compliance requirements there are for the data you are collecting. Check with your legal advisor on this one.

Once you've done all this, you're ready to take the next steps. And they're big ones.

Getting Your Plan Together

Figure out which of these steps you are going to take first and start implementing your plan. We suggest you start with the basics and get your email, documents, and internal collaboration tools into the cloud. Our top recommendations are on our resource hub for nonprofits in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Then start on other areas of your IT infrastructure in an order that makes sense and is sustainable for you. These might include donor management tools (such as DonorPerfect or Little Green Light), external outreach and communications, financial management tools (such as QuickBooks Online), and client management solutions. All of these can be moved to the cloud, either by migrating them to the cloud versions of those applications if they exist or moving those applications to cloud-hosted servers. And get those servers out of your closet!

As you work through your plan, you'll want to make sure you are standardizing how you are collecting your data — what data points in what format — across each system and application. For example, will you use NAME fields or FIRST and LAST name fields; date of birth or age? Also make sure that the data is easily portable — meaning you can pull it out of each system easily for centralized reporting using either APIs or standardized CSV files.

Carpe Diem, but Digitally

Commit to creating flexible and dynamic communications and collaboration environments for your staff and establishing data collection and management systems that all and share data easily and securely. Doing so will set your organization up to start identifying other ways in which you can change how your organization works and how you can deliver on your mission. These might include

  • Creating real-time data visualization dashboards for clearer understanding of how your programs are doing and to make better decisions. An example would be tracking opioid overdose deaths in areas with new pilot programs to see if they result in fewer deaths than expected.
  • Developing mini-applications to streamline internal tasks and operations, like a regular internal staff assessment on technical skills or compliance knowledge, which then generates a rating for each staff member.
  • Enabling constituent-facing applications, available online or on mobile devices. An example is the app Range, which provides information on where children can get free lunches in the summertime. Range was developed by Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup.

There are moments in time that come along very rarely that present an opportunity to take bold decisions for the future. This is one of those moments — don't let it pass you by. Carpe diem, but digitally.

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