Nonprofit organizations are notoriously hesitant to adopt new technology and business practices. Because so many nonprofits operate from hand-to-mouth, they often fear that one false move could have huge negative consequences. In some cases, this hesitance can protect an organization from impulsive mistakes, but eventually you cross the line that separates caution from self-sabotage.
Development and donor engagement are two areas in which nonprofit technology and online platforms have made huge strides. The decision to invest in a new fundraising platform or change your donor database may not be in your hands, though. In order to drive your nonprofit toward a change in technology or operations you have to research your options and present a sound argument to those with the power to institute change.
Identify the Decision-Maker
If you’re going to transition to a new online tool, your first step is to find out who can make it happen. This is actually a common sales technique. You don’t sell to someone who has no say in the purchasing decision. Even if the change in platform or system primarily affects your department, you may still need to convince the executive director or CEO. With larger organizations, it may take some questioning to find out who the final decision-maker is.
You should also consider your nonprofit’s board. At some organizations, a change like this may need approval from the board, often due to budgetary concerns. If the board must be convinced, you should still seek buy-in from executive-level staff. A united front will be much more convincing than one person asking for change.
Once you have identified who you need to convince, you can now look at how they make decisions and what sources they trust. Ideally, your executive will trust your judgment and hear you out, but even then you will need some external evidence.
Show How Others Have Succeeded
There’s a reason Nike gets some of the best athletes in the world to endorse their equipment: because people want to be like their heroes. A lot of people bought Air Jordans because they wanted to be like Mike.
You may not be asking your executive director for some fancy sneakers, but it can help to show how well-respected organizations have used the platform or system you are proposing. If your boss or board are big fans of Pencils of Promise or Oxfam, then they might see value in adopting some of their practices. In this regard, it helps to know what other organizations your decision-makers admire.
It is also important to include some relatable examples. It’s not enough to see what some big names have accomplished with a tool, you need to show decision-makers that nonprofits like yours have also benefitted. Many tools and platforms like to highlight successful customers, so you may not have to look far for examples.
If you’re having trouble finding successful organizations like yours, though, you can ask some comparable nonprofits which tools they use. In a tight-knit nonprofit community, the endorsement of another local executive director can carry a lot of influence.
Build a Strong Case
Beyond examples and endorsements, you will also need to approach your decision-makers with strong reasoning for why this change is a good idea. At first, you may only have a hunch or vague conviction such as “this tool will save us time and money” or “this platform will increase our fundraising revenue.” While these are exciting hypotheses, they won’t get you very far.
There are three main points you need to cover when trying to convince your organization to try something new.
1. What are we doing now?
You first need to establish what your nonprofit is doing in this area right now. If you want to use a new email service, for example, walk your decision-makers through the current process. What are the limitations of this way of doing things?
2. How is the new option different?
Now you explain how the new email service would change things, either procedurally or through different results. Would there be fewer steps or better reporting? Does this email service, unlike your current one, integrate with your donor management system?
3. What are the potential risks and rewards?
This is where you give them the bottom line. What do you stand to gain by making this switch? Whatever this change will do, it helps to translate it into something that can be measured, such as time, donor engagement, or fundraising dollars. You should also be upfront about the cost and potential risks of switching to a new service. If it will cost more money, you need to show that the added value justifies the investment.
Hitting these three points will allow you to show why this change is a smart move. You begin by explaining your current capabilities and limitations. Then you introduce an alternative and show why it’s a better value for your nonprofit.
You should also be prepared to answer some follow up questions when you propose a new system or tool.
• What will be the upfront and long-term costs?
• How long will it take to implement this transition?
• Who will be responsible for leading the transition?
• Are there benefits of our current process that aren’t included in this new option?
(One example would be if the new tool doesn’t directly integrate with your donor management system and the old one does.)
The more you know about your current process and the new system you want to incorporate, the better prepared you will be for any questions or concerns.
Ultimately, you will have to abide by the judgment of the decision-makers in your organization. If they are not willing to make the change you ask for, respectfully ask why they came to this conclusion. Once you know what’s holding them back, you can clarify any misunderstandings or look for another solution.
Don’t be afraid to discuss the issue again in a few months. In these situations, a “no” can often mean “not right now.” Creating an open dialogue could lead to a “yes” in the future.