Navigating the Nonprofit Tech Space: An Expert's Guide
The title of this post is going to lead many people into thinking that what follows will be technical and geek-oriented.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Because virtually all technology in the nonprofit world has moved away from the static, only updated annually (or at best semi-annually) products you had to instill into your local technical environment. It has moved to a radically improved paradigm. (We will describe in detail in a moment...)
The local technical environment was hardly ever up-to-date due to the budget and IT expertise constraints endured by the majority of nonprofits. This morass often meant that even when new releases of existing technical applications were shipped to nonprofits, the current technical environment could not support it. Believe me, I lived through this for years and years in the ’80s and ’90s. I often hoped and dreamed of a better way!
No wonder people thought they needed to evaluate technology in a function-by-function or feature-by-feature manner back in the day. In many cases, those functions were unlikely to change!
Radically Improved Paradigm
Welcome to 2019, where technology changes weekly, if not daily!
Literally, every application for your computer, your laptop, your tablet and, yes, your phone resides in the cloud at some highly sophisticated managed server farm, most likely Amazon or Microsoft, and delivered at high speed via the Internet.
Not only are the applications and your data housed in the cloud, but it’s also safer than ever due to multiple levels of security and back-ups that could never be replicated at any nonprofit except those with multi-million dollar technology budgets and a full IT staff.
Even large charities can now benefit from this new paradigm, often saving hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hosting applications and technology in-house.
A Different Type of Expert Guide
Those of you expecting to see a multitude of checklists or evaluation guides are perhaps about to be disappointed or hopefully gleefully delighted.
Yes, there still needs to be evaluation criteria, but of a different nature. You still need to feel comfortable that your basic needs are being met. However, this does not need to come from a Request For Proposal or from a spreadsheet-based checklist. (Both of those once useful tools are incredibly hard to understand and use, except in the hands of expert consultants, who use them throughout the year for larger nonprofit clients who can afford them.)
I am going to propose a 2019 enabled “Expert Guide” that is much easier to understand and use with much lower costs depending on the value of a few hours of your time.
This new expert guide is based upon the criteria more suited for this rapid changing cloud-based technology.
The underlying essence of this new “Expert Guide” is what questions need to be answered to find and select the right partner to bring this rapid change to you and your team for daily usage that will not be interrupted over the next 10 to 20 years. Yes, why not find a strong 20-year partner? Especially since change can be somewhat traumatic for smaller nonprofits, in which everyone wears multiple hats.
A strong partner will be agile enough to rapidly add to your functionality, since product updates are constant. Strong partners strive to both innovate and fully understand your needs as they evolve. Many of the questions below, help you know the potential partner’s track record and adherence to satisfying customer needs.
Key Questions for Selecting a Long-Term Technology Partner
1. How many customers of your size and type do they have? More importantly, how many more are being added monthly or annually?
This allows you to determine if real day-to-day needs are being addressed versus being sidetracked by a seldom-used shiny object function. A large number of customers, just like you, being added each year is a much stronger indication of a good fit than asking a person who has never evaluated any technology to determine if product X is better than product Y. So often, the choice is based upon the personality of the salesperson representing the product being one liked better than the personality or actions of the other salespeople.
Yes, that is often the case...
2. What is being said on customer review sites like G2 Crowd and others?
Such sites are often much more telling and accurate than trying to check references yourself because the people posting there know what is important to their daily work. Beware if you do not see a relatively poor or even a bad posting about the companies you are considering. Every company has a customer who may not be capable of using nearly any product, so there will be a poor posting from time to time. If not, the postings may have been fabricated in some manner.
3. Is the company you are considering profitable, and will the company need to be sold in the near future to provide a return to one or more venture capital firms?
Both parts of this question are quite enlightening when it comes to finding a 10 to 20 year partner. Obviously, a business can only go so many years if their business model does not allow for a profit. You don’t want to be the customer who hears the business is closing down or, just as bad, being sold to another business or financial partner to allow the venture capital firm an exit. The list of technology providers to the sector who fall into this group is several hundred in just the last decade or two and is growing monthly. Also, beware of seemingly free solutions. When you aren’t paying the company, you run the risk of ineffective services and getting involved with one of those companies that frequently changes hands.
4. How many people are actually employed to support me on an ongoing basis?
This is essential to know unless you want to ask questions to third-party consultants at a high cost or, worse yet, have nobody to turn to because so few people use or know the product you are considering. Customer support is the single biggest differentiator between outstanding technology success stories and mediocre technology usage.
5. What percentage of the potential partner’s business comes from nonprofits and is that increasing or decreasing each year?
You and your team do not want to be part of an ongoing experiment by some company. Resources are required for keeping any product updated and well-supported. Beware of combined companies comprised of numerous previously independent firms being lumped together. Often, in those situations future resources, talent and funding is not equally distributed to all of the divisions. You do not want to be using the division with the short end of the stick in resources!
6. What does the past year’s and future year’s product road map consist of?
Do they even have one? What is the pace of innovation and commitment to improvement? What sort of resources are allocated to the exact product you are considering? This question can be quite enlightening as to what you and your team are about to step into. Feel free to ask about the size of the product development team and their annual budget.
You and your team can only take full advantage of this new paradigm for technology-based upon agile and constant improvement if your future partner is executing in this manner. If you’re looking for further information about buying fundraising software or other establishing other technology partners, check out this article by Bloomerang.
I will apologize again for my meager checklist of just six questions for those expecting 250 or more in some sort of an attached spreadsheet.
However, I will also submit, in the search for a true 10 to 20 year superb technology partner, those six questions will be far more enlightening than using 206 rows of some spreadsheet. This is especially true when the person using the spreadsheet has really no deep understanding about what half of the rows are even addressing.
I recall far too many demos where I had to explain to the nonprofit decision maker the definition of the feature or function they had just asked me a question about. It made for some very interesting scenarios.
Everyone reading this post now has a fair shot of finding a strong long-term partner. The best way to describe the resulting happiness and productivity resulting from just such a partnership is to recall the respect, love and feelings being exhibited at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
You and your team deserve that same feeling of respect and admiration over the long term with each of your technology partners!
Jay Love is the co-founder and current chief relationship officer at Bloomerang. He has served this sector for 33 years and is considered the most well-known senior statesman whose advice is sought constantly.
Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and co-founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth.
He is a graduate of Butler University with a B.S. in business administration. Over the years, he has given more than 2,500 speeches around the world for the charity sector and is often the voice of new technology for fundraisers.