Quick wins in the adoption of software by nonprofits

7 min read

It may come as a shock to some, but I don’t see nonprofits as all that different from for-profit enterprises when it comes to their software needs and, of course, the gains that can be derived from the right use of the right tools.

There are obviously specificities, but as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sang: potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.

Let’s consider this: it is crucial for both to get to know and communicate with their clients (or audiences), both need access to knowledge that allows them to make informed decisions, both benefit from monitoring their performance and results, both may have to be accountable, both gain from harmonising work processes and enhancing collaboration among employees, and both have clear advantages in reducing time spent on manual or redundant tasks, among other similarities.

The big difference lies between organisations prepared for this transformation and organisations in the process of getting prepared.


Success factors in software implementation

Before we get to some (almost) immediate wins that social organisations can obtain from using software, it is important to understand that software will only help an organisation that is prepared to be helped.
So, this journey begins well before the software is used and before we start looking at “pretty graphs.”

Management commitment

For full software adoption in the medium and long term (of course, the article talks about “quick wins,” but let’s not rush), it is essential for leadership to be truly committed to this approach.

This commitment implies an understanding of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), which is nothing more than the combination of direct and indirect costs involved in this adoption. There may be licensing costs or consulting costs, which are quite direct financial costs, but management must be prepared and comfortable with the time their teams will need to invest at many points in this journey, as both the development phase and the learning phase will have their demands.
It is also up to management, in the first place, to constantly advocate for and motivate the good adoption of these tools.

If leadership is not prepared to bear the costs (direct and indirect) associated with this transformation and is not committed to advocating for it, then perhaps this is not the right time to take the step.

Understanding needs and goals

It seems obvious, but before adopting any tool – or set of tools, it is important to understand the organisation’s needs and goals. It is at this stage that leadership should involve different stakeholders, particularly internal audiences, understand their main pains and concerns, and gather insights. Involving users in the solution design phase is an important part of ensuring that the solution will be accurate and well-received.

List the requirements

Once the needs and objectives have been identified, and insights and concerns from future users have been incorporated, it is now time to turn this information into a list of requirements. It is important to prioritise these requirements and, if possible, write a short user story for each requirement, describing in detail how the software is expected to meet the requirement.

Choosing the right software(s)

Only at this stage does it make sense to consider what solutions to adopt. To do this, you must first define the criteria for evaluating and selecting the solution. These criteria depend on the project, but some should always be in the mix, such as:

  • Ease of use and the learning curve required: is it simple enough for good acceptance by those who will use it?
  • Scalability of the solution: is it capable of incorporating the evolution we plan for the organisation in the coming years?
  • Investment needs: in addition to the initial investment, what costs do I have in maintaining the solution?
  • Compatibility with other solutions: how is the new solution compatible or integrable with other solutions I use?
  • Existence of user manuals and tutorials: is there a knowledge base available for easy reference?

In addition to a detailed analysis of these criteria, the nonprofit should seek to learn from the mistakes and gains of other peers, through reviews or direct contact, understanding what they use, recommend, and especially, what they advise against and why (learning from the mistakes and bad experiences of others is considerably faster and cheaper).

Seeking digital transformation experts with experience in the sector may be advisable, depending on the complexity, risk, and investment of the project. Many software solutions offer special prices for nonprofits, and almost all offer free trial periods. Look for and take advantage of these benefits.

Custom solutions are almost always discouraged because they represent dependence on a supplier and future costs of development and maintenance, among other risks. It is advisable to look for robust Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions with a track record in use cases similar to that of the nonprofit and, it cannot be emphasised enough, with manuals, tutorials, and/or online support available.

Defining a good data strategy

In some projects – especially in complex databases that aim to understand the reality of a population or evaluate the impact of an intervention, for example, tools will only work as expected if there is a good data strategy because there are no good outputs without good inputs.

It is essential to plan the organisation’s data model in order to avoid redundancies and overloads, never losing sight of the type of data that needs to be analysed and the knowledge to be generated. It should be a goal to keep the data structure as ‘lean’ and objective as possible, bearing in mind that the quality of information does not usually mean quantity.

Investing in training and promoting ‘power users’

Training moments are crucial for the successful adoption of software solutions. Not all users will have the same aptitude for using digital tools, so it is important to respect learning rhythms and ensure that all users are familiar with the tasks they need to perform. In the initial stages, it is important to keep an open communication channel to clarify any doubts that may arise and monitor the adoption of the solution, ensuring that everyone is on board.

Another good practice is to promote ‘power users’. These are people who have a solid knowledge of the nonprofits’s processes and are especially comfortable with the use of digital tools, being designated champions for the internal adoption of the solution, motivating and clarifying sceptical or less trained colleagues. This point is all the more important the more complex and relevant the solution is in the nonprofit’s daily life. Power users are a critical success factor in the implementation of complex projects, so if applicable, it is important to allocate some hours of their working time to this topic, allowing them to study the tool and support other colleagues.

When I mentioned Total Cost of Ownership a little earlier, this is also what I refer to. Training moments and the hours of these ‘power users’ should be considered a crucial investment in the implementation of some solutions.


Some quick wins for nonprofits

But after all, with so many factors to consider for the success of software implementation, with the associated risks and investments, is it worth embarking on this journey to ‘transform’ a nonprofit?
Yes, it is.

What can you gain from it?
It depends. It depends on the nature of the organisation, its needs and goals, the selected software, the capacity for investment, and the organisation’s human resources.

However, here are some common quick wins for almost all nonprofits:

Professionalize fundraising

Real change and social or environmental impact require resources: it is not possible to change the world without being able to pay for it.

For example, like companies, nonprofits need the best on their side; they have to be able to pay for them. Professional fundraising management is crucial for a nonprofit to achieve its financial sustainability, attract and retain talent, invest even more in becoming known and relevant, and thus improve its potential for quality of service and impact.

5 quick wins resulting from using software for fundraising:

  • Simplify donation processes, for example, by allowing uncomplicated payment methods such as PayPal or recurring payments;
  • Manage donor databases and engage them in digital fundraising campaigns;
  • Focus all past interactions on the donor’s process across different communication channels;
  • Monitor the efficiency of fundraising campaigns/messages and financial donation data;
  • Automate donor communications (requests or acknowledgments, for example).


Improve efficiency and service delivery

We all agree that quick intervention improves service effectiveness, and human error is undesirable in supporting beneficiaries of a nonprofit. However, there is a limit to the speed of response when all information about a nonprofit’s beneficiaries is hardly accessible when needed or when, even if accessible, it is organised inefficiently in a data analysis logic. It is also not shameful to admit that human error becomes inevitable when the nonprofit keeps all its records on paper and pen, in Word or Excel documents.

5 quick wins resulting from using software for user and activity/service management:

  • Work on a single source of truth, with a harmonised data structure where team technicians collaborate;
  • Manage beneficiary databases and have data from their processes accessible in a couple of clicks, at any time and from anywhere;
  • Monitor statistical data on beneficiary characteristics and activities carried out;
  • Automate service and reporting processes, reducing time spent on manual or redundant tasks;
  • Ensure data security and compliance with privacy guidelines (GDPR or HIPAA).


Measure intervention outcomes and report to stakeholders

Many social nonprofits are required to report on their accounts and activities. In addition, it is relatively peaceful for most nonprofits today that it is necessary to monitor the ‘impact’ of interventions.
It is often this demonstration that validates the services provided by social organisations and legitimises fundraising campaigns, access to social investors, or applications for funding essential to the financial sustainability of nonprofits, and last but not least, motivates volunteers, social workers, and the leadership to continue to be involved with the organisation’s purpose.

5 quick wins resulting from using software to measure and report outcomes:

  • Visualise and analyse the services provided by the nonprofit (outputs);
  • Define outcome objectives and understand the state of compliance with objectives with a click;
  • Interpret trends and the performance of interventions to make data-driven decisions and not rely on intuition (e.g., innovation opportunities);
  • Motivate and rigorously evaluate volunteers and workers;
  • Effortlessly report to all stakeholders through parameterized reports.


Here are some examples of quick wins that seem quite tangible and relatively easy to implement in most nonprofits, regardless of their nature. While I do not believe in the possibility of gains without a serious commitment (quick wins may not necessarily be easy wins), I am convinced that this commitment will materialise in visible results and greater efficiency in pursuing the nonprofits’ purpose. So here is my word of encouragement for the reader who leads a social organisation – or who wants to lead this process of change – not to waste any more time, and reach out to us.

The path is not without difficulties, but it will surely take your nonprofit to a higher level.


This article was written for the 2nd edition of the book “Visões da Economia Social”, an initiative of Sector 3 – Social Brokers, in partnership with the Ageas Foundation Portugal.