Digital Transformation: More than meets the eye

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The Transformers franchise is all about an intergalactic, millennia-long war between the Autobots (the good robots, er, cars, er, robot cars?) and the Decepticons (the baddies).

The digital tools that your small nonprofit organization uses probably fall into either the Autobot or Decepticon camps. Good tools automate processes with seeming ease - making your workday THAT much easier by relieving you of manual data entry or report building. Your donors auto-magically move from payment processor to email list! Talk about optimizing your primary fundraising process!

The tools that you struggle to work with are the Decepticons. They promised you so much potential and power over day-to-day tasks, but now, at best they languish unused, powered off so as not to do any damage, or at worst they consume far too much time and attention to get any functionality out of them. What was the promise of great data and efficiency has instead become a giant deception. Megatron strikes again!

In the Transformers, what makes the Autobots good, and the Decepticons evil is anybody’s guess; or maybe it’s a well-documented part of the mythology...don’t @ me. In the case of your nonprofit, it’s a bit easier to determine how Autobots become forces for good, and Decepticons become a living nightmare.

The secret to great digital transformation and to fostering Autobots and rooting out Decepticons in your midst is that tool selection is both the first and the last thing that you need to focus on. I know that sounds confusing, but it’s actually quite simple.

There is one fundamental piece of technology that will determine much of how you move forward with the rest of your tool selection and digital transformation process.

Your email client and core office productivity tools.

For most of you reading this, you likely fall into one of two camps. GSuite or Microsoft 365. For those of you reading this who are in neither environment, this will be a straightforward recommendation for your digital transformation; bookmark this article, switch to either one of these platforms (here’s a good guide as to how to choose between them), and then come back to read the rest of this article.

For those of you already using either Microsoft or Google products, the next step is clear. Make the most of them. Subscribe to the feature-release or produce updates blogs so that you know more about how to maximize your use of these incredibly powerful suites of tools. Google’s product updates blog can be found here, and Microsoft’s here.

The next step is to forget about signing up for trials of email marketing tools, donation management systems, CRM’s, CMS’s or anything else and evaluate whether or not your organization has a relatively good level of digital competency.

Digital competency is the culture-piece, the way of working piece. It’s understanding that some essential principles, as well as technological understanding, underlie good selection, provisioning, adoption and effective use of digital tools.

If you start adding tools into the mix and designing new digital services with consultants, and haven’t thought about your organization’s level (either current or aspirational) of digital competency, you’ll likely choose badly when it comes to comparing tools, or become techno-dependent on external consultants for the rest of your digital days.

For that reason, Mady Hoyt notes that “digital is not just about technology, it is about developing the skills we need to work better together”. Check out this handy draft guide defining digital competencies.

You’ll notice a stark lack of references to tools, data or APIs. That’s because successful digital transformation rests on your small nonprofit’s ability to empathise with and adapt to 21st century expectations of how work gets done, information is accessed, and services are provided. Scopism offers a handy, free digital readiness assessment that may help your org understand where best to focus your efforts to build digital competencies before your embark on the digital transformation journey.

When you’re well and truly ready, and have defined the processes (be they internal business processes or stakeholder facing services) that you’re going to focus on digitizing, you can finally get to thinking about tool selection. Creating a tool selection checklist before looking at a single tool will mean that you stay focused on the right tool for the job (the Autobot) and not be fooled by a great sales or marketing flow (beware Decepticons!). That checklist could look something like this:

Business process: Registration for workshops

Guests should be able to:

  • Register from any internet-enabled device
  • Not have to create a username and password to register
  • Be able to pay with a credit card or Paypal
  • Request a refund
  • Have the event added to their calendars after registration

Our organizations should be able to:

  • Have registrants added to our database automatically
  • Ensure direct-deposit of registration revenue to our bank account
  • Create custom fields in the registration form
  • Easily communicate with guests pre and post workshop

And so on and so forth. The important takeaway is that you must spend time defining yours and your users’ needs and expectations and then evaluating them against what tools are available that complement a) your budget, b) your in-house digital competence and c) your core productivity tool (Microsoft or G Suite).

This process of digital transformation is not an overnight one. Nor is it one that you have to go alone. Rely on the resources outlined in this article and apply a methodological approach. You’ll begin to see your strategy take shape and be more likely to choose a heroic Autobot and avoid those disruptive Decepticons.

With more than nine years of experience in development, staff and stakeholder management, strategic thinking, partnerships, board governance, program development and digital operations, Aine McGlynn is a diversely talented self-starter committed to finding creative solutions in unexpected places. She holds a doctorate from the University of Toronto with a focus on global activisms and gender formations and has published widely. Aine is the Chief Operating Officer of The Good Partnership - supporting nonprofits to build the digital infrastructure and processes to fundraise and operate more effectively.

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