Do a Google search for nonprofit sustainability and you’ll find a ton of articles about the importance of metrics and quantifiable data to evaluate the work you’re doing. This dialogue focuses on how to appease donors and keep the money rolling in, rather than how to increase results and community impact. Sustainability in finances is indeed an important part of the conversation, but we also need to address sustainability in implementation.
You may be thinking that a mobile app or custom database solution would be a savior from the skies, automating business processes, engaging more of your target population, and cutting down on volunteer time needs – if only you could fund it with tens of thousands of dollars, or find volunteers with the necessary technical expertise. This may sound like an efficient and sustainable solution; however, it comes with huge upfront costs to get the product built (which always ends up taking more time and money than was initially quoted), as well as ongoing costs for maintenance, bug fixing, hosting and other technical infrastructure, feature changes, updated design – the list goes on.
It’s time to replace these visions of shiny apps and sugar plums with a fresh approach, one that emphasizes simplicity and maintainability over high tech magic. Don’t focus on a desired solution at this stage, especially a custom technical solution. When we face new problems at Healthify, we start by focusing on our users, whether the users are caseworkers in the field using our search platform, or they’re our own data team validating thousands of data points a day.
Empathy with our users — internal and external — helps us develop the most impactful products and processes possible. Instead of making assumptions about your users’ needs and how you’ll address them, revisit your original problem by hearing from the users themselves, define their needs in simple terms, and then do a bit of research with an open mind. You’ll likely find plenty of tools that already exist that you could utilize.
Take this as an example: Your problem may be that the only way the community can get in touch with your organization is through phone calls and emails, and the process for getting a client’s information into your system is arduous and takes an hour of a volunteer’s time per person. After identifying your needs and getting feedback about what your community and your organization would like to see, you determine that you want to build a website that allows visitors to submit their information, which then gets dumped into a database that you can use for analytics and triggers an email is sent to notify one of your team that you have a new submission. Let’s say that this process even creates a calendar invite for an introductory meeting and automatically saves the visitor’s photo in a designated folder in Dropbox.
Use Free or Low-Cost Tools to Improve Systems
This may sound like the perfect candidate for a fancy new website, mobile app, database, or a combination of all the above, but you don’t need any of that. Enter tools like Zapier and IFTTT, which allow you to connect your current business tools and apps easily, along with largely free or low-cost cloud software like Google Forms. If you have an hour or two to read the guides and try things out, you’ll be well on your way to creating a simple, cheap, and streamlined solution. In the above scenario, you can embed a Google Form on your website, which sends submissions into a Google Sheet, which you can perform analytics on or export to Excel or Access, and you can set up simple rules in Zapier to send the email, create the event, and upload files to Dropbox.In the end, you have a solution that cost nothing or very little to build, is flexible and easy to change as you gain new insights into your problem or needs, and requires no upfront coding or ongoing expensive technical support.