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Innovating for Impact: Overcoming Common Challenges

By August 29, 2017

By: Keith Heller, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Heller Consulting

Impact. It’s why we’re all working in the nonprofit sector – so we can make a positive impact in the lives of individuals, our communities, and our world. It was also the focus of the recent Expedition:Impact event in Washington, DC, convened by Key themes included harnessing innovation to drive impact and leveraging data and metrics to shine a spotlight on the practices and organizations realizing the greatest success.

Expedition Impact EbookOne of the most tangible takeaways is the white paper, 9 Challenges in Nonprofit Program Management & the Trailblazers Who Have Conquered Them. Covering topics in Funding, Operations, Collaboration & Engagement and Data & Analytics, the paper neatly summarizes key areas nonprofits often falter, describes how a contemporary CRM can help, and includes inspiring stories from peer organizations who are leading the way. Several points caught my attention and inspired me to rethink some key topics – I encourage you to download the paper and see what inspires you!

Right in the introduction, the paper says that your nonprofit is a “unicorn”. Honestly, I tend to balk when I hear “all nonprofits are different”. In my experience – which includes a couple decades of supporting fundraising, communications and related operations – this is often an excuse for neither learning about nor adopting tried-and-true best practices. I believe that adopting best practices in these areas provides a stable base of success that makes variation, experimentation and innovation possible – it’s hard to be innovative when you’re struggling to stay afloat.

However, in recent years as our firm has worked with more clients on program and mission-management efforts, I’ve come to appreciate that even organizations that appear similar vary in ways that are both necessary and beneficial. It’s perhaps for this reason that so many nonprofits end up with home-grown systems to manage their programs. And it makes sense that no single industry solution has become predominant in this area. But that’s also the reason that program management might be the best use yet for the flexibility offered by contemporary CRM solutions.

The chapter on “Collaboration & Engagement” tackles the topic of working with both external partners and with peer members of affiliated networks. One expects that efficient collaboration with external partners will present challenges, but it always seems like working with affiliated chapters of the same organization should be easier than it actually is. I found the technology solutions presented in this paper compelling for two reasons: first, that they offer extremely useful tools for change management within an organization and two, that some of them can be rather easily implemented.

In the past, collaborating across organization would require a substantial initial investment to meld disparate systems, which in turn required a nearly-insurmountable amount of negotiation and agreement. It was so difficult to achieve that few organizations succeeded. But contemporary technology offers some “on-ramps” for collaboration and resource-sharing that can be more easily adopted. An organization could begin by bringing both external and affiliated partners into alignment in small ways – by using private social-style apps for communications and portals for managing processes – and experience collaborative success in small ways before diving more deeply into larger scale system or process-sharing. In the process, people can build relationships and learn more about the existing similarities and differences, without having to make a wholesale change to the way they work. Everything learned through those efforts can be helpful in future projects and guide ever-critical change management initiatives. (This is one of our favorite topics, if you’d like to see more on this, check out our paper on the crucial role of Change Management in technology projects.)

Of course, anytime I see the word “Analytics” you’ve got my attention so the section on “Data & Analytics” was of particular interest to me. While the examples described were excellent, the fact that all the other parts of the paper culminate in the analytics section was not lost on me. I found myself thinking about the fact that analytics is the natural outgrowth of good reporting and good reporting is something that has always been challenging for nonprofits. It’s tempting, then, to dismiss this idea of analytics as a mirage and never realistically attainable.

However, the very fact that contemporary CRM solutions provide organizations with viable alternatives to home-grown systems means that there is room to move beyond the perennial reporting struggle and into more strategic measurement of programmatic efforts and outcomes. Effort previously used for inefficient data management tasks (aka – compiling spreadsheets, duplicative data entry, etc) can be redirected toward identifying critical organizational questions and identifying the best data points to answer them. As the organization evolves (which it will), new questions can be asked and answered as needed.

I appreciate that we now have multiple levels and layers of information tools available. Built-in reporting tools have become more intuitive, allowing non-technical end-users (most of us!) to build our own reports using drag-and-drop tools so we can follow our curiosity in answering questions and posing new ones. BI (Business Intelligence) solutions take us more deeply into our data, allowing us to pull from across multiple systems, and display the results thru visually appealing and information rich dashboards. And lest we be concerned about the effort it takes to use these tools, AI (Artificial Intelligence) is coming to the rescue, automating the generation of all of these, and even anticipating and delivering answers to questions we’ve not yet thought to ask! All of this will leave to us the task of acting on the information that is delivered to our fingertips – a simple but not easy assignment.

Download this paper, enjoy the ideas and stories, and see where your inspiration takes you!