On Using What You Have to Resist Buying What You Do Not Need: An IT Fable from the Front Lines

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Editors’ note: How do you increase your capacity and decrease cost all at once by considering the unseen resources at your fingertips? This article by Trish Tchume of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network is a great discussion of how that organization made its decisions about what technology it needed to support its vision. It is from the summer 2015 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly print journal, which focuses on wise budget decision-making.

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The Nonprofit Quarterly has heard any number of stories about nonprofits trying to piece together the right IT infrastructure only to be met with a confusing array of options. Each of the options carries attendant costs beyond the purchase or lease—sometimes up to and including the need to purchase another solution when the one opted for does not fit properly. We liked this story from Trish Tchume of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), who engaged people within her own network to help get the right fit. In the end, she wound up not only with a system suited to the network’s needs but also a group of people within that network who are ongoing and engaged resources for YNPN as it moves into a more sophisticated digital future.

When Trish took on the leadership of YNPN it hit a rapid growth stage, and over her three-year tenure YNPN has grown from twenty-seven to forty-two chapters, with an estimated fifty thousand members. That rate of growth called the infrastructure into question, particularly as it related to the organization’s ability to gather, sort, and use information. YNPN wanted to be able to communicate effectively across its dispersed network to help the organization move forward, and staff needed to get a better handle on the demographics and attitudes of that network. YNPN knew it needed a constituent relationship management system but had no idea how to choose the right one both to meet the variety of needs for chapters in the network and best suit the capacity of the national organization.

And this, as Trish explains, is where the challenges began. “When you mention that you are looking for a CRM system, people come out of the woodwork offering advice. Vendors, of course—many of them fast talkers who come with hard-sell tactics and a drive to sell you way more than you need or can handle—are sure that what they can offer is exactly the solution you need, never mind that they do not know the size of your budget, the capacity of your staff, or the particularities of your constituent needs. But peers, too, are surprisingly opinionated.” In particular, YNPN ran up against what Trish calls “the Salesforce problem,” when upward of ten peers urged her to go with Salesforce because it was free. Yet, as Trish discovered, it was free in name only: the attendant “costs” and challenges of tailoring the system to YNPN’s network and training countless volunteers on the intricacies of Salesforce were steep. And then there were the colleagues and advisors who felt a deep commitment to open-source tools like CiviCRM because the values behind open-source tools aligned with YNPN’s values—but even those required custom builds and created the need for expert staff.

So Trish did her own research, using resources like Tech Soup and Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), and she emerged from that preliminary research with a better sense of how to approach the project—and two key lessons:

  1. Your IT system cannot be considered a stand-alone project but rather needs to flow from and integrate into your larger organization—its plan, budget, culture, and capacity.
  2. Get help. It is not possible, wise, or cost effective to work on a project of this magnitude “on the side” of any staffer’s—especially an executive director’s—core responsibilities.

It was clear that YNPN needed someone with expertise but also someone who understood the unique organization fairly intimately, so that the understanding of culture and purpose and translation of terms would be less of a problem—and for that YNPN simply had to turn to its own network of young professionals, some of whom had been involved in similar projects.

YNPN ended up selecting and contracting with two chapter leaders known for their data systems expertise, who laid out the pros and cons of each option and whose contracts together totaled less than $7500. The contracts were scheduled to include the following:

  • Preinterviews with current federated database users;
  • Preinterviews with potential database partners;
  • Creation of a feasibility report based on data gathered in preinterviews;
  • Collaboration with YNPN to create a communications plan regarding the project and chapter participation in the project;
  • Presentation at YNPN’s annual conference on the data system selection process and chapter needs;
  • Generation of an online survey to determine the systems being used by current YNPN chapters as well as the hopes and fears regarding a national solution to YNPN’s database needs;
  • Writing of a request for proposal (RFP) based on data from chapters and preinterviews;
  • Distribution of the RFP to potential partners;
  • Assisting in the assessment or contract review process;
  • Creation of a recommended list of top solutions; and
  • Establishment of a group of chapter leaders for ongoing advice on the system.

In the end, the process delivered just what the network needed: a well-supported and tailored system that was neither too small nor too large but well matched to the needs, capacity, budget, and resources of the people in YNPN’s network.

  • nonprofitcommenter

    So… Which system did you choose? How has the worked so far? How did it increase capacity, and how did the particular system chosen increase capacity? How would it have been different had an alternative system been chosen? What are the ongoing costs? How long did the entire process take? So many questions.

    • Jim Hall

      I too, am interested to hear how things are progressing and what you may have done differently. Also, Did the infrastructure uplift include VoIP or other telecom?

      • Trish Tchume

        Hi Jim – see above for the answer to your first question.

        Re: VoIP – no not really. NationBuilder includes text capability but we barely ever use the phone. We share one “office” phone number and it’s a google voice number that patches to my cell phone. So VoIP was not really a priority for us.

        The only time we use the phone is for network-wide conference calls and trainings. For that we use a combination of FreeConference and Maestroconference depending on the functionality we need. Highly recommend both.

    • Trish Tchume

      Hi nonprofitcommenter – we ended up going with NationBuilder for it’s overall ease of use, breadth of out of the box features, and accessibility for our mostly-volunteer network of users. We are still deep in the onboarding process (the National office is on the system and we have 19 of our 42 chapters on currently with hopes of having 31 on by the end of 2015 and all on by mid-2016.)

      Ongoing costs include a monthly fee for the “parent nation” and a fees for the “subnations.” You can see sample pricing at Nationbuilder.com/pricing but they are very willing to work out accessible fee structures for groups (like ours) that are bringing on a whole network.

      The process from scoping to front end development to setting up the database to uploading data has taken us about a year but, as I mentioned, the process of getting all of our chapters on will take a little longer. We literally launched the new site last week so it remains to be seen how it will increase capacity. What we anticipate (and can already see) is that it will dramatically increase our ability to collect data on and communicate directly with our members across the network which has been a major barrier for us since our founding.

      In terms of what would have been different if an alternative system was chosen – I think about that mostly in terms of what would have happened if we built something vs. buying something. I think if we’d built something, we’d have a lot more flexibility and freedom. For example, there are some features in nationbuilder (for example their social capital tags) that we wish we could fully customize but they don’t allow it at this time. Feature changes or upgrades get put into a queue and then the company decides whether or not they are a priority. So that can be frustrating but the flip side would have been having to pay to build every feature that currently exists on NationBuilder, however imperfect.

      For an organization like ours that is very lean and just dipping our toe into the waters of shared data systems, this is seeming like the best choice. We are intentionally putting our primary focus on onboarding our network as efficiently as possible and building the culture of sharing data. The actual tool (NationBuilder) while very important we are trying to make secondary.

      • nonprofitcommenter

        Thanks! That is really interesting; I know a few other organizations that have gone with NationBuilder and been (mostly) satisfied. There was, at one point, a great hope that the programming behind our CRMs would become standardized enough that we could all use a common architecture and then essentially any developer could work on it, but I don’t think we have hit the spot yet. CiviCRM still requires so much custom work that it is hard to bring in multiple developers across different time frames. Salesforce appears to be fairly dominant but, again, the degree of customization requires an organizational investment that many are not prepared to make (or they go with Salesforce and simply lower their expectations- not always a bad idea, really).
        Most places I have worked have longed for that CRM/CMS/social integration but perhaps the greater wisdom is in realizing such a development would lock one into a vendor for a long, long time. For better sometimes, but more often for worse.
        Thank you for all your work at YNPN and best of luck with your future endeavors.

  • Brian B

    Thanks for recommending MaestroConference, Trish! It’s obvious from this article that you were very thorough in your due diligence! Kudos to you on achieving the rapid growth for YNPN! We appreciate your comment. Please let us know if we can be of any assistance for future YNPN network-wide conference calls or training via our interactive webinars and virtual “Breakout Groups”!