Companies looking to leverage the tech expertise of their staff to help their nonprofit partners would do well to focus resources on the front end of the process, experts say, to ensure the project’s success. According to Elizabeth Schwan-Rosenwald of the Taproot Foundation, tech-focused pro bono projects are too often limited in range or less successful than imagined, simply because the nonprofit and pro bono teams skimped on examining the needs of the organization in a holistic manner—when really, they should be looking at the big picture of how technology can help the organization succeed and grow.
“In the traditional way of doing this, we would look at a nonprofit’s tech-related needs—for example, a new website or donor database—and find the tech resources available and apply them,” she said. “Instead, we should be looking at the nonprofit’s overall challenges and letting pro bono tech teams find ways that tech can be applied to address them.”
Schwan-Rosenwald’s colleagues at the Taproot Foundation recently released a guide that walks nonprofits and pro bono teams through the process from start to finish. And the first step—what the foundation refers to as the Discover phase—is the most critical, she said.
“This is where you scope out the project and assess how tech can be used to address the various challenges facing the organization now and in the future,” she said.
The assessment looks at a series of core questions that lay out the nonprofit’s current and anticipated needs, as follows:
- What is stopping you from doing what you want to do today? For example:
- What do your day-to-day activities look like?
- Describe the tools and processes you use to complete your daily activities.
- What isn’t working as expected?
- Do you have new, legacy or outdated systems? How do they interact?
- Do you have staff who can address issues as they arise?
- What do you want to be doing more of? For example:
- Are there annoyances about your processes today that could benefit from being changed?
- Are there repetitive activities that consume large portions of staff members’ time?
- Do your people need new skills to be more effective in their roles?
- Are any of your goals being hampered by limited resources?
- Describe areas where you want to increase your reach or impact.
- Are your processes getting stuck in multiple handoffs or waiting for responses/approvals?
- What would you do with unlimited time and resources? For example:
- How might you more effectively and efficiently meet your constituents’ needs?
- How might you better engage with your stakeholders?
- Describe what success looks like for your organization in five years.
- If you could have three wishes about your organization’s operations and programs, what would they be?
- Describe an organization you admire. What are they doing that you aren’t?
It’s important that the pro bono tech team is intricately involved with this part, as they will see possibilities that the nonprofit’s staff will miss, Schwan-Rosenwald said.
“They have the tech knowledge and expertise—not the nonprofit,” she said. “They will see all the ways in which technology can be applied to the organization’s challenges.”
It’s also important to utilize a pro bono consultant who also has the tech knowledge and expertise to identify possible projects and knows which tech staff will need to be engaged—and where to find them.
“By bringing on the initial consultant, the nonprofit has an advocate in sourcing the pro bono resources. While the nonprofit’s staff might have some tech expertise, it won’t be nearly as much as a consultant that has gained that knowledge through involvement in the field,” Schwan-Rosenwald said.
The next two phases of the process—Design and Implement—are fairly straightforward. The pro bono team creates a solution that meets the requirements gathered in the Discover phase. And then the design is turned into reality with the official launch of the solution.
Crucially, Schwan-Rosenwald said, this should be done using established best practices from the for-profit tech world. Too often, pro bono tech projects are bogged down due to some perceived differences between the social and for-profit sectors. But every organization shares common constraints—budget, resources, staffing and time. By honing in on the similarities between the sectors, companies and their pro bono tech teams can better leverage their strengths to build nonprofit capacity, Taproot said. Instead of investing energy in creating new processes, pro bono tech talent can be more efficient and effective when they draw from proven practices.
The final phase involves the long-term maintenance of the solution—that is, tracking metrics to make sure it is working as intended, and updating as needed to ensure it continues to address the organization’s challenges. If the solution is not working as intended, the nonprofit and pro bono team should revisit the Design phase and make necessary changes. If all is working as planned, the team might want to ask whether there are new organizational needs that may require different solutions—and kick off a new Discover phase.
To read the Taproot Foundation guide in full, go to bit.ly/2p2QD79.