Must Nonprofit Work be Chaos?

Transforming the Disorder of Nonprofit Organizations With Technology: MBA @ Work

In between the start of grad school and when I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, I had the unique opportunity to work at Art Omi, an eclectic international arts center in New York. While working in a variety of special project’s I often reflected on how disorganized, chaotic, and repetitive some of our main job functions were. Our digital presence to the public was good, but internally technology was either slow to be adapted, not used, or used by some and not others which further complicated staff’s efforts.

Background at Art Omi
Art Omi presents contemporary art over its 120-acre Sculpture & Architecture Park. It also offers residency programs for international artists, writers, dancers, musicians and architects. Open daily, Art Omi welcomes the public to its grounds & events free of charge. The multi-factored mission of the organization has led to complex and dysfunctional management which impacts the efficiency of the organization and the staff. The trend for nonprofit’s organization structure is divided into three functional areas–governance, programs, and administration. This can be further subdivided within each area, depending on the purpose and goals for that year.

Scope and Recommendations

In my time working at Art Omi, and living in the realm of Non Profit life, I found five key areas (among many others) to address in regards to general nonprofit issues that can be addressed by adopting a more digital approach, which I will explain through the lens of Art Omi for simplicities sake.

Massachusetts Nonprofit Network - The voice of the nonprofit sector in  Massachusetts

Strategic Business Planning:

This should involve looking at the future needs of our visitor and artist populations and will determine what is successful and what is both demanding and not providing returns on investment. We should consider the human capital we have and determine where we see people and positions in the organization down the road. Something that is always left out is a plan to continue integrating and updating technology (like using a goal tracker or shared planning app, I enjoy Milanote!). Such a plan that details the comprehensive technology-enabled business management processes an organization can or should use to guide operations. It can serve in the same function as a 5 year plan that allows for forward thinking as a guide to tech related decision making, with information technology tasks prioritized and implemented using the framework created by management, with staff input.

Staff Leadership:

Staff evaluation (something that seldom happens) needs to occur to find out who possesses good leadership qualities in a role where it is demanded and who does not have the skills that management and their direct reports are expecting them to have. Where are the large amounts of time being occupied that should not take that much time? Having the right people in the right roles can go a long way toward efficiency. One of my favorite soft assessment tools are the psychometric tests, like Suited, that can point out potential personality conflicts, or let others know your communicative strengths and weaknesses in a way that can facilitate a positive exchange instead of “per my last email” “as noted above” “DID YOU READ MY EMAIL?????”

10 Things Every Non-Profit Can Learn From The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge -  TakeTwo Services

Executive & Board Leadership:

The Executive Director, as well as the program directors and the board of directors, middle management, etc. The questions that need to be asked are how can we efficiently utilize everyone’s talents to best serve the organization? Are there gaps, or inefficiencies that exist that are not being addressed, or is there a need for streamlining communication or perhaps adding another position to field some intake requests? Part of this is connecting leadership to the lowest levels of any organization. A car runs well when it is connected, not when its tires fly off at 80mph on the Mass Pike. I think the best tool to solve this is Slack. Slack, among other intraoffice networking platforms, allows for information dissemination and absorption of any and all happenings in the work place at the pace of a text message. Managers can read and see what people need, what problems are happening, and where to direct attention.

Management - Meme Guy

Work Flow Processes:

Work flow considers the way in which tasks come in and are compiled and ultimately completed by employees. How is staff currently managing their work load and is there a method to their madness? By streamlining and prioritizing tasks, it is easier for employees to know what is expected of them and additionally, the organization has a clearer sense of purpose. We used what I would call a Window’s 95 free service that was awful and 75% of employees gave up on and didn’t use. Instead, I would recommend a service such as ProWorkFlow which is a management tool that primarily focuses on visibility and control in managing a centralized workflow. It gives organizations a quick overview of active, finished and future work, with all of the modern functionality that we crave (and NEED!).

Evaluation and Outcome Measurement:

This tool allows one to think critically about others job performance, but should also include feedback from each employee on their own strengths and weaknesses, how they could be better supported by management, and to reiterate what is expected of them. I, along with many others, found myself actually craving an employee review so I could have a chance to share my feedback, hear where I am failing, and continue to grow as a successful employee. My HR friends rave about Trakstar, which is a performance evaluation tool to measure job performance and recognize and reward top employees for a job well done. It uses reliable quantitative measurements and trends that help deliver real-time, tangible data to help your organization. Long are the days of annual reviews or employees who are fearful of retribution with taking the awkwardness of a one on one meeting.

Conclusion

For anyone who’s worked or will work in the nonprofit world, it’s a learning process. One thing that will remain the same is, with staffing shortages or an overwhelming amount of job responsibilities, the more areas that can move to a digital platform, the more I think other areas that could be integrated for even more resource savings will appear.

Not only did digitizing some tools help make it easier to share information our nonprofit had, but it also broke down some barriers that were slowing collaboration and efficiency. In evaluating ways to digitally transform more of what nonprofits do to reduce the drain of resources, and labor burnout, I learned to work smarter, not harder which one could say is the very foundation of any digital transformation. By using these technologies, any nonprofit organization is able to able to think about their workflows, processes, communications and long term goals.

But ultimately, understand that it’s an evolution and nothing can be completed overnight (unless your boss says so!)

Digital Transformation cartoon | Marketoonist | Tom Fishburne

11 comments

  1. Karl, really impressive experience and post. Thanks for sharing. I am really curious about the Suited app you mentioned (“One of my favorite soft assessment tools are the psychometric tests, like Suited, that can point out potential personality conflicts, or let others know your communicative strengths and weaknesses in a way that can facilitate a positive exchange”). Did it work? My work did a personality test (the name of which is now escaping me), but I found it to be spot on.

    I’m also curious about whether you actually used all of these different apps and, if so, whether you could it useful. The CIO at my company likes that method – using a bunch of different softwares and using them for their discrete best feature, instead of using a one-stop shop/jack-of-all trades type. I see the benefit, but I think there’s a very fine line and it is easy to go overboard –> technology fallacy.

  2. Karl, I was in IntEnt last year through BC and worked with a non-profit for the year. It was fascinating to learn the challenges associated to working at a NP, many of the same that you pointed out in your article. I think the biggest change and hurdle for me was learning how non-profits can and cannot raise capital. I think it would be really interesting to develop a capital raising digital technology platform that streamlined grant application writing and other types of applications to help non-profits attain funding that often comes with a lot of labor involved. Interesting topic to blog about!

  3. Great post! I have a few friends who work in the nonprofit sector and a common theme I’ve long heard surrounds the chaos/disorganization, as well as the compounding effect of staffing and labor resources. I think technology, if invested in and used appropriately, will be a major source of competitive advantage in this sector (perhaps way more impactful than in other industries) as you highlight: “Not only did digitizing some tools help make it easier to share information our nonprofit had, but it also broke down some barriers that were slowing collaboration and efficiency”. I love how you broke out your experience and tips – I plan on sharing with my friends!

  4. This is a post I can easily relate to. Before switching to the corporate side, I worked in the nonprofit world for the past six years. We were aware of the importance of digital transformation, but had no idea where to start for the first few years. Our first major move towards digitalization was building a CRM. This digital database allowed us to track all of our external communications and map out how we engaged with our partners. Training our employees to effectively use the CRM was equivalent to pulling teeth. Our older employees refused to accept the benefits of a new system and the majority of the organization had little comprehension of how to use the CRM within the first six months. Over time, these issues were resolved and for the next few years the CRM was directly responsible for attaining new business and increasing our impact. Overall, even though it is challenging for a nonprofit (especially a small one) to digitally adapt, it is critical for long-term success.

  5. Hi Karl really enjoyed your blog. I think the overall structure you outlined (Strategic planning, leadership, workflow processing, and measurement) is applicable for all businesses, not just non-profit. The background experience you identified added validity to the topic and recommending tools to address each pain point was a well thought out idea. Something I learned during business school in undergrad, was that as organizations grow they begin to require additional tooling/support systems to maintain efficiencies. The challenge is implementing the correct tools for your company and at the right cost. Related blog on this topic: https://thenewstack.io/designing-organizations-for-scalability-building-the-structure-to-scale/

  6. Great post, Karl! I have definitely held some interest in working for a nonprofit after graduation or sometime in the future. This will definitely be beneficial to understanding how it works and what needs to be done. Also seems like this is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s a lot more that can be discussed for the digitalization of nonprofits.

  7. Thanks for sharing, it is really interesting to hear everyone else’s profesional path to get to BC for their MBA! Those issues you listed out at different levels of the organizations seem to stem from a central lack of platform standardization. Obviously working in the tech field, I see the application of agile frameworks as the answer to many of these problems. By setting up a framework that utilizes the different process and assessment tools you mentioned, everything can be streamlined into a single framework so that the confusion around priorities and lack of accountability can be transparent and mitigated as much as possible. But ultimately you hit the nail on the head- these different tools that are becoming more and more readily available are absolutely necessary if non-profits want to remain relevant. Great post!

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I share some of the frustration of out-dated business processes and technology when I use to serve in AmeriCorps as a community organizer at a CDC. I remember conducting numerous survey’s using a paper form and had to knock on people’s door to get a response. The problem wasn’t so much about carrying around a paper survey, it was the manual tallying of responses that drove me insane. I also found that collaborating with other non-profits is extremely challenging because not every organization has the same tools or resources. Great post!

  9. I think your point on leadership was really important. An experienced person who is equipped with digital skills could be so beneficial to Non Profits. I wonder if the reason for the chaos is the boxes that leaders have to check in non-profits have nothing to do with digital capabilities or vision. Maybe by recruiting leaders that have the digital vision, non-profits can transform the way they do their day to day work.

  10. This was great, and I also appreciated the simplicity of some of your recommendations. It can be really frustrating to be able to identify the problem and a potential solution but to still have the problem persist due to lack of buy in from the group.

    While working at a school like BC is different than a non-profit, I think some of the same issues exist. While COVID has been really quite awful, it did end up forcing some of the advances that our office needed to implement — I wonder if the same thing happened for your former employer? Great blog!!

  11. As someone who works for a non-profit (BC) my first thought when I read the title was “Yes”. I think that being a non-profit means we (and others) have somewhat of a lower emphasis on efficacy and digitization (or at the very least it means being behind the curb by a few years or so). It is as much as cultural problem as it is a managerial and structural one.

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