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Data management and digital transformation for not-for-profits

July 19, 2021

Authored by RSM Canada LLP

Kirby W. Houle, CPA, CA shared this article

Archived Article Please note that this article is reflective of the relevant legislation, regulations, and information at the time of publishing and does not contemplate any changes that have occurred since that time.


Data management and digital transformation may not immediately appear relevant as a strategy for nonprofit organizations (NPOs). However, digital transformation offers numerous benefits for NPOs, particularly those seeking to grow the size and level of engagement of their donor base as well as improve their operational efficiency. In this conversation, RSM Canada Partner Joan Valente interviews fellow RSM Canada Partner Ron Browning to glean more insights into these benefits. Ron shares his experience honed over the past 16 years leading significant digital transformation projects in the NPO space.

Joan: What do data management and digital transformation mean for NPOs?

Ron: What digital transformation means for NPOs boils down to a mind-set shift. It’s about actually thinking differently about what they're doing and how they're doing it. When any other organization considers digital transformation, caring about data in a new way, it tends to be more of a decision-driven way, a way to improve business, increase margins, that sort of thing. If you translate that to an NPO, it is more about identifying the means to create new campaigns and increase donations. The identifying action needs to leverage data to begin to target and focus efforts toward some of those particularly attractive donor groups and do so in a much more personalized, intelligent way.

Joan: What is one of the easiest approaches NPOs can adopt with regard to digital transformation planning and implementation?

Ron: One common approach is to simplify the operational environment and access newer technology. Organizations can start with the internal parts, and get onto different systems that are a lot more common and therefore much easier to manage. And more importantly, they can take advantage of some of those different providers, whether it's hardware or software, that have progressed their offerings specifically for NPOs. These are the types of operational situations that, on the surface, don't feel like they should have that massive of an impact. But they really do.

As an example, we worked with a very small nonprofit, locally, within Calgary. It was very small in terms of funding; only a couple of the staff members worked in a full-time capacity, while others worked part-time. Someone had the idea of leveraging Mac, and going in that direction, but that one technology decision caused serious challenges that turned into cost issues when trying to use some of its different programs, including email. That shift interfered with the organization’s ability to run campaigns and respond quickly to new potential donors. We helped the nonprofit reshape and evaluate the tools it was using from a technology and hardware perspective, and reassess how it had things set up. Internal operations are the key areas of opportunity to simplify and make the overall operations a lot more streamlined. Also, NPOs sometimes have a transient workforce where people are volunteering. It’s essential to leverage technology and provide a way for people to get on board and get active quickly.


Internal operations are the key areas of opportunity to simplify and make the overall operations a lot more streamlined.

Joan: How does that next level of digital transformation look for NPOs?

Ron: The next level for NPOs is data—understanding the data they have and leveraging it. There are organizations out there that have been developing a deep understanding of their data for probably the last eight to 10 years. It's not a brand-new thing; it's something that has been slow to enter en masse. But I think as an industry, data is where NPOs will realize the most serious benefit.


The next level for NPOs is data—understanding the data they have and leveraging it.

It's only now that we're starting to see some of those midsize and smaller NPOs recognizing that “Hey, if I'm not getting on board with this sort of concept I'm being left behind.” There is also the competitive consideration: NPOs that embrace data as an enablement tool will definitely gain the upper hand in the donor space going forward. So, data is basically the next step of evolution.

Joan: How do you recommend approaching the digital transformation conversation with the leaders of an NPO?

Ron: That's a great question because it is a pretty common one. Often, when we're addressing a large group, the reaction is, “Yes, this stuff is cool, but how am I supposed to get the money to be able to do this?” Cost constraints, especially for the smaller NPOs, are a major consideration. But investing in some of these areas helps them reshape what the focus is, and really direct energy and resources toward more meaningful campaigns with a higher potential of providing benefits and receiving much more substantial donations coming in. Ultimately, the answer is to focus on the return-on-investment calculations and show leadership: Here’s where we could go with technology.

If you've started to structure something in a very strong and meaningful way, you're going to see and capture insights, reshape and refactor where you need to, even in an active state, to be able to maximize those returns. Investing in data capabilities really helps NPOs analyze where they're going, and point and focus their efforts. It’s an evolutionary conversation.

Joan: How do you recommend NPOs approach technology in a way that is true to the values of a nonprofit?

Ron: So, when we talk about some of these organizations, they're there for a purpose—they're there because a particular need exists. The whole idea is that we're trying to help people; the values of what a particular NPO stands for, and the meaning that they have there, and the benefit, in a social responsibility aspect, or even in just a human aspect, certainly need to be at the forefront to make a meaningful difference.

Technology moves so unbelievably fast. And with the advent of some of these innovations—downloadable apps that allow you to donate, for example—people have so many choices and selections. In many cases, convenience sometimes outweighs that social responsibility aspect. But what I would try to communicate to a client is that you still have control over the reason why your NPO is there and the benefits it brings.

In closing, the critical message for NPOs is: If you're not aware of, and understanding, where technology is going and looking for ways to take advantage of it you're not going to be able to fulfil and support the cause that your NPO exists to serve. Look at technology as an enabler for what you're ultimately trying to achieve. Opportunities exist for NPOs to leverage technology in meaningful ways and significantly expand their ability to help people.

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