For nonprofit leaders frustrated with inefficient, legacy processes in their organizations, introducing software systems to automate operations may seem like a cure-all.
Maybe you are changing your accounting system to provide more intelligible financial reports to managers. Or, you are debuting a program database to store information electronically and finally retire those paper files. Or, you are swapping out the human resources system that stores staff data, to make processing paperwork less painful.
Regardless of what you’re trying to fix, fancy systems are usually not the complete answer. Unless your staff is motivated to learn the new technology and evolve their work habits, your improvement plan will stall. How you introduce the new system into your organization may ultimately trump which software vendor you go with.
Here are three management practices to help bridge the inevitable gap between the promise of new technology and the reality at your organization:
1. Form a team
For any large-scale technology change, leaders have an important decision to make: How do you want to engage staff who will ultimately be impacted by the system you choose?
Not everyone needs to (or should) be a decision-maker. Value people’s time by being strategic about whom you invite to participate. If, for example, you are switching from paper timesheets to electronic timekeeping, some cross-section of program managers and human resources, accounting, and IT staff could be at the table. Use focus groups, software demos, and other interactive venues to draw people selectively into the mix.
One of my clients, a large international nonprofit, struck this balance between inclusion and efficiency particularly well. The CFO entrusted two mid-level managers to lead the process for selecting an enterprise-wide software system. Through facilitated group feedback sessions and surveys, they collected input from a cross-section of staff.
The CFO recognized that tenured staff, representing a vocal majority, would resent the new system if their opinions were not solicited. Wisely, she did not rely on her authority to mandate the system change. Her ability to share power and be open to other voices created room for a democratic decision-making process. It also fostered goodwill towards the new system.
2. Learn first
A lot can be learned by soliciting input beyond your organization’s walls. Before committing to a new system, take some time to understand how others have tackled operational growing pains similar to the ones you are facing.
For example, are you dealing with an influx of government funding, requiring more rigorous reporting and cash management on your part? Maybe you’re facing tighter restrictions from private funders, forcing you to monitor your spending more closely. Or, perhaps a growing number of your employees are based across multiple sites and geographies, which demands more standardized practices and protocols.
Try to zero in on the challenge you are trying to address through the new technology. Then, track down an expert on organizations comparable to your own.
Seasoned leaders in nonprofit operations – the Director of Finance and Operations types – harbor a wealth of wisdom. However, their perspectives are often underappreciated because of the internal nature of their roles.
This upfront learning can save you time later. Why build from scratch when you can benefit from someone else’s experience?
3. Customize less, not more
Once you have chosen your new system, it is tempting to adapt it to exactly match how your organization currently operates. Rethink this impulse. The more hyper-customized a software platform, the more challenging it is to maintain as the technology evolves.
Plus, the technical support available at the vendor may not meet your continuing needs. In the long run, it is probably in your best interest to favor the original system configuration and only do minimal customization.
This can get tricky. Nonprofit organizations tend to choose their software first and then figure out what it will mean for their business operations. This often leads to extremely specialized practices that are difficult to scale as the organization grows.
Take the time to step back and break down your program delivery approach when choosing a new technology: What is essential to meet the needs of your constituents? What can be simplified or made more predictable and consistent?
Be ruthlessly objective. Test your assumptions around what practices are perceived as sacred or immutable.
For example, one of my clients, an established community agency, had developed a unique, largely paper-based, intake process for each of its many programs. While this worked initially, it became increasingly time-consuming and tedious to keep track of participants as they moved across different programs and as the number of participants grew. The Executive Director recognized that the agency needed to radically rethink its client service approach before moving to a new program database.
Perhaps running a smooth operation is not intrinsic to your nonprofit’s mission. However, error-prone, non-standard business processes destabilize an organization. They also distract program staff from what matters most: delivering high quality services to constituents.
By introducing new software systems, you can achieve tremendous gains in operational excellence, including greater efficiency and consistency. But the system itself is not an automatic fix.
Take the time to develop a team, learn what has worked for others, question your processes, and listen to your people. This will help ensure that the technology you choose best serves its purpose.
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