Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Having clarity of purpose is key to successful IT projects, yet we often spend too little time asking the hard questions early on. To have a positive effect, change needs good reasons. Of course, change also requires effort, so the value of introducing new technology must be unambiguous. Not-for-profit organisations have an implicit accountability towards their supporters, donors, funders, clients and stakeholders for what they do, and why they do it. Here are the three whys NFPs should ask themselves before embarking on that digital journey.
The first why is about having good reasons to go down the path of technology change. For non-profit organisations, outcomes should not be about the technology (e.g. a prettier website or a faster case management system) but about benefits that can be tied to purpose (e.g. attracting more donations or helping more people in the community). When you explore the idea of digital change, look at the following key drivers and qualify which ones are relevant to you:
organisational growth and sustainability: will technology help you increase your income, boost your fundraising, fund more programs, enable your teams to deliver more services? Will it support your long-term plans for growth? Will it help you overcome challenges you face with the way you operate now?
social impact: will technology help create better outcomes for your community, clients or supporters? Will it help you reach more people and create more benefits for them? Will it contribute to creating systemic positive impact?
efficiencies: will technology help your teams be more productive? Will it help you deliver faster and better? Will it enable you to generate costs savings and direct more of your resources to critical programs?
compliance, governance and risk: will technology help protect what you do and keep your organisation safe? Will it allow you to operate with clear accountability and within the constraints of your particular sector? Will it enable you to make better decisions and mitigate your risks?
staff and volunteer engagement: will technology make your team’s life easier? Will it help them feel more empowered about the good they do? Will it help create a strong and cohesive culture, and attract and retain the talent your organisation needs?
2) Why now?
We all want that new IT system yesterday, but we also all know IT change doesn’t happen overnight (and that it almost always takes longer than you expect or plan for). Projects are inherently full of unknowns, and that uncertainty combined with the capacity constraints typical of most non-profits can make timelines even more challenging to meet.
When asking the “why now”, consider the following two aspects of technology change as it relates to timeframes:
the urgency of change, and how quickly you need to deliver the outcomes. Does it have to happen now, and how quickly? Are you clear as to whether you’re addressing something urgent, important, or both? Are there other things that need to happen first?
the concurrency of change, and how it needs to fit in with everything else that’s happening in your organisation. Is the timing of the project integrated with other major initiatives and events (no one wants to go live with a new online donations platform the week that big Christmas appeal is scheduled to go out)? Is your organisation resourced to take on the additional work and sustain the pace that will be required? Will the IT project complement or compete with other initiatives?
3) Why not?
Change is naturally met with resistance and the idea of new technology will prompt many questions from your stakeholders. Asking “why not?” forces you to consider sooner than later what may hinder success and identify potential barriers to technology adoption. “Why not?” can trigger two types of answers:
“we can’t”: you may find that your organisation is not (yet) able to take on the change because of capacity or mindset, even both. Limited budget, resources constraints, inadequate specialist skills, lack of stakeholders buy-in and external factors (such as regulation changes) can all affect dramatically whether taking on this project is a good or a bad decision.
“we shouldn’t”: it’s not because you can that you should, and it’s important to anticipate possible negative impacts. This will help you identify upfront the challenges you may face (e.g. resistance to change, conflicting priorities, high risk of failure, etc.) and what you need to resolve and mitigate beforehand.
Whether you have an idea involving new technology, or need to talk to others about investing into digital tools, or have to make a decision about a new IT project, practice the three whys. The answers will help you make the decision that’s right for your organisation and give you focus and direction for successful implementation. Knowing your why is key to working out your what, your when and your how.