Nonprofit technology adoption strategies are critical.

[Podcast] 4 Things to Remember Before You Choose a Nonprofit Technology with Rubin Singh

Noah Barnett

Rubin Singh, the CEO & Founder of OneTenth Consulting, joined us to discuss the obstacles nonprofit leaders need to navigate as they adopt new technology, common mistakes that drive many nonprofit CRM implementations to fall flat, and the needs related to people and process that must be central to your platform adoption plan.

Rubin is a seasoned professional with over twenty years of experience in the CRM (constituent relationship management) space, and over ten years in the nonprofit sector. Throughout his career, Rubin has pursued his passion for social impact through empowering and enabling nonprofits through a variety of roles in technology, strategy and organizational management.

4 Things to Remember Before You Choose a Nonprofit Technology

Adopting a new technology, whether it be a nonprofit CRM, donor management system or other software, is a process. In this episode, Rubin generously shared a lot of wisdom on change management processes, promoting user adoption and leading your nonprofit into new technology the right way. Within his advice, we identified these four guiding principles, but check out the episode transcript for the full picture.

1. A Nonprofit CRM is Not Magic

Even great technology can’t transform your nonprofit alone. Often, Rubin says, he’s worked on projects where all the tech was in place, but when he wrapped it up, he still felt unsure that an organization would reap all the benefits from a new system. “It’s largely because all the other supporting components to make that technology successful are not there,” he says.

When he’s called in to consult on tech solutions, he often finds, “You might have a technology problem, but that’s the least of your problems. You have a lot of other things going on here. There’s no clear vision. There’s no clear strategy. People are not using the system the same way. There’s no real training done. People are still using your spreadsheets outside of the system.” The real issue is a lack of clear strategy.

Before you jump into comparing nonprofit CRMs and searching for tech solutions, first take a look at your organizational strategy and your fundraising strategy. “Is that fundraising strategy supporting your mission and vision in the way it’s supposed to, and the way you want it to with the values that you have?” Rubin asks. Make sure you’re not looking for a technology solution to a strategy problem.

2. Don’t Force Old Processes Onto New Nonprofit Technology

As you consider your requirements for a nonprofit CRM or donor management system, it’s easy to get lost in what you’re already doing and replicate processes that you don’t actually need.

Rubin tells the story of a gift processor who listed a complicated automated coding system for gifts as a requirement for any new system. Faced with what looked like it would be an expensive customization, Rubin started to peel back the layers on why they processed gifts that way. He found that it was leftover from a previous development officer who no longer worked there, who had needed the code for an Excel spreadsheet.

He says, “So here, years have passed, and nobody has questioned why this process is in place, but here we were about to spend a ton of time and money in building it out again in the new system. And it’s just a clear example of really, when you’re ready to move into a new system or ready to rethink your system, it’s always a good idea to rethink your processes.”

Before you settle on your requirements for new technology, ask yourself: Is there something we’re doing we don’t need to do? Is there something we should be doing? Can we do something in a more efficient or optimal way? How did we settle on this process? Does it still serve us?

3. Change Management Helps People Adopt New Systems

If you drop new technology onto your organization without any preparation or change management, you’re likely to run into problems. Instead, take a change management approach to prepare everyone for the change.

Rubin recommends, “Really working with them from day one, and engaging with users and saying, ‘Okay, these are the things that are going to change. These are the things that are going to stay the same. These are things that are going to get worse in the short term, because we need to get used to the system, because we don’t have all our integrations in place,’ and really just kind of walking them through the process.”

Let people get familiar with the new technology before you roll it out. Align their expectations with the phases you intend to implement. Promote buy-in by explaining all of the good features and how they will improve workflows, processes and address day-to-day annoyances.

4. Work in Phases

While it’s tempting to overhaul everything at once, it’s usually better to adopt changes in smaller stages. “Let’s do small phases,” says Rubin, “Let’s see what are the things that we can take this crawl-walk-run approach.”

When you work in phases, you can take what you learned in one phase into the next. “We can kind of talk through it, see what works, see what didn’t work, where we need to pivot, what we need to tweak, rethink about our priorities, and then start building accordingly,” Rubin advises.

Virtuous · Rubin Singh On Nonprofit CRM Adoption Planning & Essential Practices

Full Episode Transcript

Rubin Singh: The real issue is just a lack of clear strategy. So that’s something that I really encourage organizations I work with, is before you jump into the system, the technology’s not necessarily the first thing you want to work on. Take a look at your organizational strategy, and then take a look at your fundraising strategy. Is that fundraising strategy supporting your mission and vision the way it’s supposed to, and the way you want it to with the values that you have?

And then from there, once we’ve defined all that, now let’s find out how the technology can support that.

Noah Barnett: From Virtuous, I’m Noah Barnett, and this is the Responsive Fundraising Podcast, a show where we talk with fundraising leaders and thinkers to uncover how today’s top nonprofits craft remarkable donor experiences and build lasting relationships at scale.

On this episode, I’m joined by Rubin Singh. He’s the founder and principal consultant at OneTenth Consulting, who works exclusively with nonprofits to provide strategic guidance, implementation services, and change management support as nonprofits consider how they can adopt technology as a part of the broader systems they’re using to connect their supporters to their story.

This conversation was incredibly packed with insights, and anyone who’s thinking about how they can adopt new systems or CRMs will highly benefit from Rubin’s experience of over 20+ years helping nonprofits navigate how they should adopt CRMs, if they should adopt CRMs, and what are the other parts outside of the platforming that you need. How do you adjust processes? How do you move people? How do you drive adoption? Buying for the future.

There’s so many brilliant insights in this conversation, so let’s dive in.

How Should I Choose a Nonprofit CRM or Donor Management System?

NB: Rubin, you’ve spent the bulk of your career working alongside nonprofits as they acquire and maximize the use of technology as a way to drive their mission forward. What are some of the common pitfalls you’ve seen organizations fall in as they approach adopting technology?

RS: That’s a great question, Noah. I think if I have to narrow it down to one thing, it’s that assuming that the technology alone is going to solve the problem.

I’ve just seen it too many times in my career, especially working with product companies, CRM product companies, where we have checked all the boxes of what we said we were going to accomplish.

We finished on time, we finished on budget, we implemented everything we said we were going to implement. But walking out of that last time… “I don’t know. I don’t know if this is going to go too well. I don’t know if they’re really going to reap all the benefits that they can out of the system.” And it’s largely because all the other supporting components to make that technology successful are not there.

NB: And I think that brings up an interesting question, because a lot of times we think about technology, or even adopting technology, as going around looking at different vendors, scoping out the capabilities we need, demoing with a bunch of products, including maybe us here at Virtuous, because we are a CRM and we see this often.

Or they have a checklist that they send to all these vendors, and they’re like, “Let’s do this,” and there’s kind of this big raw initiative. But there’s more to it than that, and I think we even encourage our prospects who are considering our Virtuous CRM to think through some of these things.

What Else Should I Be Thinking about When Choosing a Nonprofit CRM?

NB: As you’ve advised nonprofits and worked alongside nonprofits, what are some of the other things that they need to be thinking about, outside of what solution or software should we choose?

RS: I don’t want to discount the importance of the technology side of it as well. I think even that often needs some guidance and some thought put into it. I often advise my customers that before you are to engage in a demo, let’s say, make sure that you have your requirements ready to go. Otherwise, if you are just there to be entertained in a demo… Okay, you’re going to get what you’re going to get.

But if you kind of come in with very clear requirements, and you have a conversation with a vendor ahead of time… And most CRM vendors and product companies I’ve worked with, they would much appreciate that, to have sort of a very clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish with those requirements. That way the demo itself, the product conversation itself, is a lot more useful.

So I think from the technology side, there’s things that can be done just to make the demo and the decision, that side of it, more useful. But some of the things that I try to advise my customers on, especially the things that are supporting it early on in the process is… I guess the best the way I can describe it is with a quick story.

Sometimes I get called in as a nonprofit technology strategist. I get called in and the customer says, “Our nonprofit’s having a real big problem. The system’s not working.”

And usually when I go in, I have conversations, I start meeting with users, I take a look under the hood, and I think to myself, “My gosh. You might have a technology problem, but that’s the least of your problems.

You have a lot of other things going on here. There’s no clear vision. There’s no clear strategy. People are not using the system the same way. There’s no real training done. People are still using your spreadsheets outside of the system.” So the technology may be a challenge, but the real issue is just a lack of clear strategy.

So that’s something that I really encourage organizations I work with, is before you jump into the system, the technology is not necessarily the first thing you want to work on. Take a look at your organizational strategy, then take a look at your fundraising strategy. Is that fundraising strategy supporting your mission and vision in the way it’s supposed to, and the way you want it to with the values that you have?

And then from there, once we’ve defined all that, okay. Now, let’s find out how the technology can support that. And that’s easy to do for some organizations, to kind of go through that process, but for others, they need help. They need consultation, they need guidance, and so there’s plenty of organizations out there to help them with that.

But that’s something I’ve really encouraged folks to do, is really focus on the strategy, make sure that’s clear, and then have the technology support that.

Another example of where I’ve seen things go awry, or where the technology can’t solve the problem is just business processes themselves. I’ve always encouraged organizations I’ve worked with that, “Hey, before you jump into another project, let’s reevaluate your business processes.”

One scenario I ran into once, and this was a recent one, is I’m sitting down with a gift processor during a requirements gathering session, and I said, “Okay, so tell me exactly how you’re processing these gifts and what you’re tracking.”

And they said, “Oh, well we have this automated coding system for every gift that comes in, and it needs to be automated on how we code it, based on the allocation units and so on, and so forth. You need to make sure that you customize this in the new system.”

I was a little worried, because I said, “Oh, this is pretty custom, and this is going to be very time-intensive and costly to build,” and then I started peeling back the onion of like, “Well, why exactly do you do this? What’s driving this?”

And as I started learning more, I realized that this process was something that was designed years and years ago by a previous development officer who doesn’t work there anymore, that they were producing some sort of dashboard in an Excel spreadsheet, and they needed this code there.

So here, years have passed, and nobody has questioned why this process is in place, but here we were about to spend a ton of time and money in building it out again in the new system. And it’s just a clear example of really, when you’re ready to move into a new system or ready to rethink your system, it’s always a good idea to rethink your processes.

Is there something that we’re doing that we don’t need to? Is there something that we should be doing? Is there something can be done in a more optimal and more efficient way? And let’s make those smart decision as we move into something else, because the last thing we want to do is take broken processes in an old system and move those broken processes into a new one.

NB: And you bring up a really valid point that we talked a lot about, is that when you’re thinking about evaluating solution, it actually is kind of… There’s three components to that. There’s the processes you just mentioned. There’s a platform, the technology, maybe it’s multiple technologies pieced together. It’s kind of just the functionality of how this fits into your organization.

But there’s also this other component which is people, and I know you kind of addressed process, and we’re going to get into how you address platform, but you kind of alluded to this at the beginning where you walk into an organization and you realize that there’s no alignment in kind of how we process things or who does what.

And then you obviously have that rogue employee that’s anti-CRM, anti-software, because they either decided that it’s not for them, they’re older, they do it old school. They have their Rolodex and their sticky notes. How do you address those problems?

What Is The Change Management Process for Adopting a Nonprofit CRM?

NB: I think in some ways, we have strategies and frameworks to look at process, and we have frameworks to look at platforms, but people are hard. So how do you advise organizations on that?

RS: Yeah, I hear you. And to be completely honest, usually there’s a wide spectrum of opinions and perspectives, and you just kind of defined a lot of those opinions and perspectives that are on that spectrum when I walk into an organization, and there are some that you just can’t convince. They are going to stick to their Rolodex no matter what you do.

And so as a consultant, I do my best to hear, to listen, to see, is there some low-hanging fruit or is there something that we can take from them that they can see advantages of in a different direction that we move? But I also know that the organization still needs to move forward, and it’s not going to be able to please everybody.

So that’s one thing that I’ve kind of learned the hard way is trying to please everybody in a system. But the other side of that is being very clear on the expectations, and so that’s what I think from the people side, there’s two things that I really focus on.

One thing is being very clear on the expectation. When you have a sales person come in, do a demo and say, “Hey, here’s all the bells and whistles. Here are all the things that you can accomplish with this great CRM,” and then the roll out happens a few months later and none of those things are there. That’s sort of the beginning of the end of your user adoption.

That’s not to say that the salesperson did anything wrong. That’s not to say that the users had the wrong expectation, but it’s that area in the middle where there was no real communication. That, “Oh, by the way, this first phase is really just getting our data over,” or, “This first phase is really just focusing on one component for one business unit.”

So that sort of lack of communication is always a problem, and I’ve seen other organizations do a great job in communicating and having regular meetings and demos and newsletters and everything to take people through the process.

The other component that I think helps in the people side of things is change management. I know that’s sort of a buzzword, and people often think of training when I say that. Yeah, training is a component of it, but it’s really working with folks as early as possible in the process.

Let’s say it’s a new CRM implementation, really working with them from day one, and engaging with users and saying, “Okay, these are the things that are going to change. These are the things that are going to stay the same. These are things that are going to get worse in the short term, because we need to get used to the system, because we don’t have all our integrations in place,” and really just kind of walking them through the process.

Also, getting them familiar with the technology long before it comes out. So these sort of steps of aligning with expectations, being very deliberate about what changes are coming, so that when the actual system rolls out, it’s not a shock. It’s not a surprise.

But by then, hopefully they’re going to be cheerleaders of the system, especially if you can, as you’re describing all the changes that are coming, talk to them about the advantages that they’re going to gain.

“Here are some short term advantages you’re going to gain. Oh, this information that was never surfaced before, you’re going to be able to see it on a dashboard every morning.” Or, “This tool has a great duplicate management feature, so you’re not going to see five records of the same constituent.” Or, “This has a really one click email feature that you’re going to be able to click your email constituent without having to leave the system.”

Being able to articulate those positives that they’re going to get, and that helps sort of balance the opinions on it before the roll out comes out. So setting expectations and really guiding them along the changes that they’re going to expect so that once the system is rolled out, there’s no surprises.

NB: Yeah, and I think the second word… You talked about expectations. The second word that I heard or thought about when you were talking about this is just exposure, and being very clear continually.

You kind of described what that looks like, this idea of exposure to what is coming, what’s not coming, what will change, what benefits we will get. I think exposure with expectations is kind of what we’ve also seen organizations leverage to drive success outside of the technology implementation, because there is a people in process implementation that really has to come along with this.

RS: Absolutely.

NB: And a lot of this stuff that we’re talking about really requires two things that I think are less discussed, or at least we don’t hear them considered as often. And the first that this takes bold leadership, and deep buy-in from leadership, where it’s not just Dawn down in data management being the advocate for this. It really requires a leadership buy-in across the board.

And second, it requires… There’s additional cost to acquiring new systems that aren’t always considered, but there are also additional costs that you incur when you don’t switch systems. So I want to kind of address those two in parallel, but first is the leadership thing. Let’s say you’re not a leader, but because you’re on the front lines, you realize our systems out of date, you realize that our platforms are not positioned with the capabilities that we need to kind of drive towards maybe the vision or the strategic plan that the board or the executive leadership have laid out.

How Do I Get Leadership to Adopt New Nonprofit Technology?

NB: How do you drive leadership adoption? How do you drive from the bottom up, to think about technology and platforming as a key part of us hitting our goals that we have as an organization?

RS: Yeah, and that’s an excellent question. I think that it’s something I’ve struggled with, because oftentimes I walk into an organization, and they have said, “Okay, here’s the IT team. We sign all the contracts, the leadership is there to meet everybody on the kickoff to give an inspiring speech,” and that’s it, they’re out. They’re out of the picture.

And just to be frank here, sometimes the leadership does not want to participate in the whole delivery of a solution or implementation of a solution, because A, they’re too busy, or maybe they just don’t feel like they know enough about the details to participate. Or sometimes, they’re not really confident about it, and they don’t really want to invest too much time in it in case things go wrong, and that way they can feel like, “Hey, it was not my fault.” I’ve seen it all from the leadership side of things.

But the organizations that have been most successful are the ones who, when there’s an implementation, for example, or a team that is owning the CRM from that point forward, there’s a cross representation of the team. They are people who are end users, there’s IT representatives, there’s development or fundraising representatives, and then there’s leadership involved.

When there is that sort of governance structure or decision making body where everybody’s involved and everybody has skin in the game, that’s absolutely where it’s been most successful. Where the leadership is engaged from the beginning at least to some capacity, and knowing exactly how things are going, the decisions that are being made, and they’re participating in it.

Not only does it ensure that we’re aligning with the vision of the organization, but it sends a message to everybody else that the leadership cares about this. They are moving along with this direction as well, and if we want to be good contributors to this organization, we need to move as well along with that leadership.

The other thing I’ve seen is a very tactical thing that I encourage every single time I sit down with an executive director or a president of a nonprofit. I say the moment that…

Let’s say you have a high-touch fundraising group, and we’ve now just trained them to stop using their spreadsheets and now start using the CRM to track all their interactions and what they’re proposing, and solicitations that they have going on, and really use the system for that. That way everything is tracked, the institutional memory and history is there.

The moment that the leaders start saying, “Okay, that’s all nice. Make sure I have my spreadsheet every Monday morning,” you’ve thrown user adoption out the window. So this is where leadership needs to come in and say, “Okay, I’m now running all my weekly sales calls or fundraising check-ins through the system, so if it’s not there, it didn’t happen. So let’s sit down together, let’s open the system. Let’s look through it and let’s talk about where we are.”

The moment that leadership takes that initiative to be users of the system, or at least proponents of the system in that way, then you’re going to start seeing the user adoption. The moment that you start asking for things outside of the system or don’t really give it the respect it deserves, you can throw your user adoption out the window.

NB: Yeah, and I think all of those elements come into really an important play, because I do think that what you’re describing is that leadership, even though they don’t necessarily need to be in the weeds, they should still have a posture of positive towards the change, and presence, but then also kind of remaining accessible and active as the process builds on. And I know that’s kind of with any change, I think.

Leadership needs to continue to reiterate the why behind the change and the importance of that throughout the process, not just at the beginning and the end.

But it’s like, how do you continually kind of press on that drum, even if it’s repetitive? Especially a larger organization, where you’re trying to drive adoption across a variety of stakeholders that have various opinions about this new system, and likely it’s because they’ve gone through other implementations or system changes that honestly didn’t do them any good. I think that’s the reality.

RS: Yeah. No, I agree 100%, and I think the words you chose in the question are important, like bold leadership. And that’s because to your point, they may have seen some disasters in previous lives. I mean frankly, just Google it, CRM implementations, and it’s going to give you all the horror stories. So you’re absolutely right, it takes that bold leadership to say, “Look, I’m all in on this and if problems arise then we’re going to course-correct.”

And I don’t see that. Especially with a lot of the larger nonprofits, I see oftentimes the executives are kind of hedging their bets. They’re like, “At what point do I jump ship, or start the blame game, or disconnect myself from this rather than making the hard decisions?” So you’re absolutely right, it takes that bold leadership and the right level of engagement.

NB: Rubin, I know you’re a consultant on CRMs, but you know you get hired half the time just so you can be blamed, right? Let’s just be honest, that’s why we hire consultants.

RS: That’s part of the job.

NB: So we just spent the first 15 minutes of this conversation talking about all of the challenges and kind of hurdles we have to overcome as a nonprofit to even be able to move forward, whether it’s adopting new processes or platforms or changing people to really move our organization forward.

But we know, and I’ve seen this here at Virtuous, and I know you’ve expressed this as well. When it’s done well, the outcome is tremendous, and the momentum that this moves someone forward is there. So the outcomes are good but the process to get there seems really hard, and so what we find is our biggest competitor to changing platforms and processes and people is inertia.

Because everything we just described… Honestly if I was listening to this, I’d be like, “You know what? That system we have right now? Not too bad, not too shabby. I can continue to do the work around that takes me 20 extra minutes, but everything else feels really tough.”

How Do I Convince My Nonprofit that We Need a CRM?

NB: So my question is, what should organizations be doing to sell the investment internally? Because we’re not just talking about the CRM cost, the subscription cost that you’re paying, or the consulting cost. There’s true cost here, but there’s also cost to not changing.

How should organizations consider these things, and then sell this internally? Because it typically is a large investment, and we either… Our two biggest competitors even here, when prospects are like, “We’re on board, we’re doing this…” The two reasons we lose business and aren’t able to help a client is because of inertia or the lack of desire to make the investment.

RS: Yeah, that’s an important point, and I think what I tend to do in this case is even as simple as in the requirements process… There are some things that I often get requests for, or, “Oh, it would really be great if we do X.” And I know in the larger scheme of things this is not super important. It is not going to structurally change the organization. It’s not going to transform things.

And as a consultant, I’m normally told to stay away from that. Make sure you go for the biggest bang for the buck type of solutions when you’re designing something. But I don’t take it that way, I don’t approach it that way, right or wrong.

When I listen to users and some of their pain points, in my notebooks or my notes I will always asterisk some certain things that I think will be… I call it low-hanging fruit, the things that will really benefit folks.

Even if it’s a small thing, even if it diverts us from the main areas of the scope for a little bit, but those little things that will help make people happy, whether it’s a particular dashboard, whether it’s a particular notification, whether it’s an integration with their Outlook on integration with their Gmail, something where they can make an easy click.

Because for me to sit there and say, “You’re going have all your data consolidated in one place,” that might seem like a great thing to me and might seem like a great thing to leadership, but all they want is to be able to send an email out without having to go into Outlook. They just want to do it in their CRM.

So I think it’s really balancing the big picture items from just the tactical, tangible things that make people happy, because if we ignore the happiness part of this, then we’re going to lose those users and maybe lose the success of the overall thing.

So that’s something I try to encourage folks to do, is really catch those things in the requirements and the design or before you roll things out to make sure you have enough of those little things that can make people happy as they transition to a new system. The other thing, and this is less exciting to be honest, is having a clear road map.

So the moment you roll something out and people say, “Okay, this is great, but this is not really all that I thought I was going to get. What about the events management tool? What about the mobile access? What about the volunteer management side of things?” We talked about this a few months ago, and realistically, and frankly at OneTenth, we recommend not doing these big bang approach implementations. We like things to be in small phases.

But having a clear roadmap is helpful, because telling a user that, “We’re not going to do volunteer management,” or, “We don’t have a plan for it,” that’s not a great message. But to say, “Okay, well in Q2, these are the features that we’re going to address or roll out or enable,” that’s a much better thing. Even though I might not be happy with waiting three or six months, knowing that it’s on the road map is is definitely keeping me more positive about it and keeping me engaged in the process.

So I think those are those are two things from an implementation perspective, finding that low-hanging fruit that can really bring joy to the system and to the users, but also having a clear road map so people feel like they’re being heard, they’re being listened to, and this is just an iterative process that is working and evolving along with their organization.

NB: And there’s two things that came to mind on the latter point on having a road map. I think the natural instinct, at least from my experience when i was running growth for a nonprofit, was that in the absence of clear communication, the assumption is no one has a plan or no one has any idea what’s going on, type thing.

And so even if that’s not true, it’s the absence of that clarity or communication that drives fear or content in some ways, because it’s like, “Literally you don’t have a plan for this? What are you, stupid?” And I think that’s just a natural thing where it’s like, “Wait a second, you don’t know?” And so I think that’s so important.

The other thing I think was really interesting that you mentioned, and it came up the other day on a sales demo here at Virtuous, is that the points of joy or points of relief, even if it’s for one person in the organization… And so there were two things that happened. One was that in Virtuous when you login and you have assigned donors, you only see your donors in kind of the dashboard for your major gift officers.

And that’s something that we talk about, but we don’t necessarily show it, and we showed it, it was like, “That’s amazing.” It was just this simple thing that was like, “Really?” They felt what it would feel like if they had that visibility, and it kind of presented this joy. Even though maybe it wasn’t a huge deal, but it was like for them it was a big deal, for this one person.

RS: Right, and as technologists, we often ignore those things because we’re kind of looking at the big ticket items where our engineers have spent a lot of time investing in it. But sometimes they’re just like, “Can this screen be blue?” or something like that and I have to kind of back up for a second and say… I have to kind of stop looking at it from my lens, and look at more from theirs.

NB: Yeah, there were three other things that happened. One was we have… When you look at a donor’s profile, you see all the donors that live around them, like we have a map built in that you can see, “Oh, all these donors live around here,” and you can click through and explore. That was amazing for a major gift officer.

The other was when we deliver mail from the system, because can you can send mail, we actually give you the USPS delivery notifications in the profile, so if a major gift officer will know when their donor received a piece of mail. And they were like, “What? I could then be notified to call them like, ‘And you received this,’? “type thing.
And the third thing was is that we said that, “Hey, major gift officer, you can just send emails from Outlook and they’ll record on the donor’s profile. You don’t even have to leave Outlook.”

RS: Exactly.

NB: And they were like, “That’s brilliant,” and the sales rep was like, “Why’d they get so excited about this?” And it’s like, “This is amazing, you don’t understand.”

Before, they probably either had to go into the system, copy the stuff go in back into Outlook, send the email, copy the email, paste it back in the note. Even though that’s five minutes, it’s a pain in the ass, and you know that you shouldn’t have to do that in today’s day and age. It’s those little things of joy that maybe they’re not gonna sell the organization, but you’re going to win the heart of the individual.

And honestly at the end of the day, we’re all in a people business. It’s people coming together to work on a cause that we’re trying to move forward, and we have to remember the humanness of this process, even as we’re an organization implementing this. What is Jane going to care about? What is Bill going to care about? How do I sell that internally? And I think that’s so important. I’m glad you kind of surfaced that.

RS: Yeah, and those are just all amazing. As you gave those examples, I can think of all so many customers that would love something like that. And as a consultant, something that I have to continue to remind myself two things of, is that although I sit and talk about gift processing all day, I’m not a gift processor. I’m not sitting there. The example that you described as a major gift officer copying and pasting it in Outlook, they might be doing that 20 times a day, and I have to realize that that’s not my job.

Even though I understand it, it’s not what I do every single day, so I can’t fully empathize until I really listen to them and really try to see their process, and that’s the only way I’ll be able to uncover these small things or things that I perceived as small, and how to add value to it.

And then the other part that I have to check myself on is recognizing that no nonprofits…While the industry has a lot of standards, the way one gift processor handles a soft credit is not the way the other one does. And really listening to it, so sometimes I come in really excited about a particular solution, and then they say, “Oh, no, that’s not the way we do it.”

So I have to also be very careful to make sure that every nonprofit is also kind of unique in their own way, and I have to make sure I’m listening and paying attention to those things to make sure that we have the right solutions for them.

NB: Absolutely. And I think one thing that we talked a lot about is obviously doing an internal assessment. It’s obviously understanding who the stakeholders are, listening, humanizing that process, realizing that it’s not just platform, it’s people and process as well as we implement new solutions towards our growth goals.

How Do I Choose Nonprofit Technology for the Long-Term?

NB: But there’s something I think… And I don’t think this is specific to this. I think this is, again, a human quality, is that we tend to solve for the problems we have today, and it’s difficult for us to lift up and solve for the future or buy for the future and think long term and almost like, “Oh, if we do this then this will happen, and that results,” like second order effects type stuff.

How do you advise organizations once you’ve done kind of the, “I understand what you need or what you think you need, or what you want today,” to then think bigger than that and say like, “We’re making a anywhere from 5 to 15 year decision depending on how who you ask.”

How do you buy for the future, or how should an organization consider buying for the future?

RS: Yeah, that’s a good question, and that’s why, to be frank here, when I worked with other product companies in the past over the course of 20 years working in CRM for product companies, this is what I felt was missing. Because we were just solving technology problems with technology, and when I started having conversations about strategy, it was like, “Oh, that’s not what you’re here for.”

And so that’s why I went off and started OneTenth Consulting, is because I believe that the people, the process, the technology, the strategy, all of that needs to be holistic or else you’re going to end up in trouble. And so this is why I always encourage all these organizations, they don’t always take me up on it, but to really have those strategy conversations up front.

Let’s forget the technology for a second. Here is your mission, here is your vision, here are your values. How do you foresee this going in the next 10 to 20 years? What needs to change? What’s working well? Do our SWOT analysis, all the typical things that you might see in a strategy session.

We just did this for an organization a couple weeks ago, and it’s been so eye-opening. What are your values as an organization? Even your theory of change and… How do you want your constituents to perceive you? How do you want your beneficiaries to perceive you? Really asking all these questions before we get in the business of, what fields do you want and what picklist values do you want?

So what I try to do is take them through the process. Start with organization strategy, then go to fundraising strategy, and then let’s talk about the technology. Now, there are some other organizations that are very sound with their fundraising strategy where we may not need to go through it, but let’s use that as a starting point.

So those are things that I really encourage, is to have strategic conversations, because I’m not interested in implementing solutions that are only good for a few years. I really want you to be in it for the long haul, and I want to advise you on the right decision. So I want to know, what direction are you going?

The other part of it is, especially for CRMs that allow you to customize a lot, is I don’t want to box you into a solution. So if I have a sense of where you might be heading or programs that you might be considering, especially now as a lot of organizations are pivoting a little bit or saying, “Oh, how can I make things more virtual?” Really trying to understand the direction they want to go, and I have to make sure I don’t design a system for them that is going to box them in to where they are now.

And that’s on the consultant. That’s on the implementation partners, that’s on the vendors to make sure that they are guiding in an educated way technically, to not just over customize or build certain boxes that just are where they are now, but really supporting the strategy that looking forward.

NB: Absolutely, and I think some of those things are so key and important, especially now, and I think we’re more hyper aware of this because of the moment we’re in, in 2020. Almost halfway through, and it’s like… Oh, man. There’s just lots of uncertainty. I think there is a lot of innate fear.

You already mentioned organizations are having to fundamentally pivot maybe their operations, like their strategies, everything. And I think that the summary we’ve come to hear at Virtuous, and it’s something that we kind of posture towards even as a company, is that we live in a world that’s quite complex, and complexity requires different things out of us to be able to navigate this well.

And there has to be a posture towards learning and continually listening to what’s changing, what’s moving, but then also being able to be adapt and nimble to be able to kind of accomplish that. And so one thing that we talk about a lot is even when we’re advising nonprofits, and whether they buy our solution or not, is that we believe nonprofits don’t need more vendors. They need partners.

And I know platforms and technology… Maybe that’s like I’m getting up on a high horse and being like, “We’re not technology. We’re your partner,” but I really fundamentally believe this. And I think we live in a world that’s changing so rapidly that as you consider who you’re bringing along, whether you’re hiring you and OneTenth, or you’re hiring us at Virtuous, we’re bringing together partners to help you grow into a future, and it really does have to be that partner relationship.

How Do I Build Nonprofit Systems for Today and the Future?

NB: And so I guess my question to you is, how should organizations thinking about continually iterating through their systems and making sure that there their systems are responsive and flexible while also still accomplishing today’s task?

RS: Yeah, and you’ve hit on a key point here, Noah. And I’m so happy to hear that this is the perspective at Virtuous, and it’s something that I push for. That trusted partner concept is something that often gets lost, and it’s honestly something I never felt really good about.

In some of the consulting agents I’ve been in prior to starting OneTenth, I feel like the consulting model itself is not really doing the best for nonprofits. It’s taking a very for-profit approach of consulting, and trying to squeeze it into nonprofits.

Everyone agrees that it makes more sense to have these small phases and iterate over time. You just said it, I say it, and all the consulting companies out there say it, but then oh, by the way, we’re going to do this 24 month project for $1 million.

Why? Because from a consulting model perspective, that’s the most efficient, and it’s the most cost-effective. I can keep all my resources, I can keep them all engaged, they’re all billing. I can project my revenue out of this project, so on and so forth.

I know I’m not making any friends in the consulting business by saying these things, but the consulting model itself doesn’t support that, and that’s not the way nonprofits, in my opinion, not the most effective way for them. I think they are busy solving the world’s problems, and the technology is important, but as we talked about, there’s so many components of it.

And we cannot take everybody away to make all these decisions for long periods of time like that, so that’s why I always encourage, as you described, small phases. Let’s do small phases. Let’s see what are the things that we can take this crawl-walk-run approach.

Let’s build out the fundraising side, and then hold off on the volunteers, hold on the programs. That way after each of these phases, we can kind of talk through it, see what works, see what didn’t work, where we need to pivot, what we need to tweak, rethink about our priorities, and then start building accordingly.

Or, we make some different decisions. This is where we might need a third-party tool. I know we said we will build it before, but now that we know more, we’ll make a smart decision and integrate with a third-party tool. But that requires the vendors, the consultants to be more patient, and it requires us to rethink our consulting models a little bit and say, “Okay, that might mean that we don’t necessarily have two years of bookable revenue.”

It means that we’re going to do things in chunks, we’re going to do things with phases. There might be pause between two, and that requires a different consulting model. It requires a different thing, but I believe that’s what nonprofits need and that’s what they deserve, is to really have those trusted partners do things that make sense for them and not just what makes sense to a spreadsheet on a bottom line, and monthly revenue projections.

NB: And you resurface something I think is so interesting, is that a lot of organizations see new solution or system adoption as a project, and I think I would advise that we look at it more as a platform so that it’s an ongoing thing that we’re continually doing.

There might be projects within that, but this is like a living thing that is going to help inform our organization, and that platforming could be platforming and processes, and ultimately that kind of makes up the systems.

How we talk about it is that there’s three key things in your organization. There’s your stakeholders or your supporters, which can be donors, staff, board et cetera, beneficiaries et cetera. And then you have your story, which is like your impact, your mission, et cetera. And then you have your systems, which includes platforming, processes, business procedures, people, all of these different things in your system, and the system is connecting the stakeholders to the story.

That’s an ongoing thing. That’s not a project. Implementing new technology is not a project, it’s a platform. You’re really adopting something new, like how we manage our platform here at Virtuous every day, and we’re changing it every month and updating it and learning and advising, and taking things away and adding new things.

It’s the same thing with a nonprofit, and that capability I think is quite difficult for organizations that don’t have sophisticated IT or product teams to really kind of adopt, and I think this is leading to a question.

Who Owns the CRM within the Nonprofit?

NB: So who owns the CRM or the system or the platform? Who owns that in an organization at the nonprofit? Because I do think someone at the nonprofit needs to own this. Who’s in charge of this? That comes up sometimes when we’re talking. Who owns this?

RS: Yeah, and I agree with the points that you brought up leading to this question. From what I’ve seen, and this is hard to do, I preface this by saying that, is the best case scenario of ownership over the system is really having a cross-functional team.

Call it what you want, a center of excellence, or the CRM group, or what have you, but the most successful organizations I’ve seen with ownership is when there is this cross-functional group of people, even if it’s five people, and they take ownership of the system.

So it’s really owned by the nonprofit. It’s really not owned by one department or another. If it’s owned just by fundraising, IT can get very upset about, “Oh, they’re not really following our standards.” If it’s owned just by IT, development gets upset and says, “Oh, they’re not moving at the pace we need to. They’re not evolving with our new fundraising channels,” so on and so forth.

And there’s constantly this blame game. But if everybody, if each business unit or most business units have a little bit of skin in the game, and they have their team and they are the ones who, let’s say, evaluate changes, or evaluate decisions, or evaluate third-party tools on a regular basis, not taking too much time away from their regular jobs, that sort of representation of the different groups and having a diverse set of people making those decisions is where I’ve seen the most success.

It kind of cuts out all the blame game. It makes the decisions more consensus, and everybody’s on board. If things go wrong, things go wrong. You focus on the solutions and not really trying to figure out who messed up.

So who owns the CRM? In my opinion, it should be the nonprofit, and that should be a cross-functional small group of people. Now granted, they take input from end users, and they take guidance from leadership, and maybe some final decisions need to be signed off by leadership, but having that group in the middle that really is the cross-functional group that owns it is the ideal situation.

NB: Rubin, I think we laid the foundation for organizations as they navigate some of these changes, and I think what we just landed on is that there’s another layer to this question. We talked about people and processes and platforming, but there’s also this deep organizational structure and cultural twitch that needs to be changed for organizations to successfully navigate this, especially in our new world that’s relatively complex.

And that’s kind of this idea that you could be on multiple teams, and you have to rethink… It’s not just development and IT and marketing and programs or whatnot. There can actually be teams within teams, and that idea of having a team that actually owns this and it’s an autonomous team that they are responsible for this, even if those members are on other teams, is key.

Because I don’t think, and correct me if I’m wrong, that what we’re talking about is like a committee. I really think what we’re talking about is that there’s a team that has ownership and empowerment, the opportunity to really drive this forward and make sure it’s operating in the best way for the organization.

RS: Yeah, absolutely, and it is a culture shift. It’s a huge culture shift, because not only do those team members need to buy in, but everybody needs to buy in. All their managers, all their leadership. So it is not an easy task, and I would say only a minority of the organizations I work with really are willing to embrace that.

But we can either kind of rethink things, or we can follow the same paths as we’ve seen of systems gone wrong. So I think now is the time for that creativity, now is the time for that culture shift, and really to rethink what can be successful.

NB: Yeah, and there’s a great quote I want to end on, is that systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get. I think this is a huge part of that, and that this is a system decision, not just a technology process or people thing.

It’s really, you’re building a system to connect your supporters to your story, and that’s really what we’re talking about here. It’s not just buying a CRM or changing a business process. There’s a bigger upstream change that’s being made. So Rubin, thanks for your time.

RS: Oh, thank you, Noah. I appreciate it.

NB: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Responsive Fundraising podcast by Virtuous. Each episode we’ve designed to really give you the insights into the philosophy process and playbook of leading nonprofits so that you can grow giving and build deeper relationships with the people who matter most, your donors.

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