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Vermont Connected: Envisioning the Future of Vermont's Economy

6 Steps to Evaluate and Optimize Your Nonprofit's Use of Digital Tools

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Digital tools have the potential to revolutionize the operation of any organization, while at the same time befuddling even the most tech-savvy people. As the Nonprofit Adviser for the Vermont Digital Economy Project, I have had the pleasure of working one-on-one with more than 120 nonprofit organizations of all types, methodically evaluating their current use of technology, and strategizing how various online tools can assist the organization in becoming more effective, efficient and resilient. While each nonprofit has its own unique needs and challenges, my method of evaluation was similar for each. I encourage all organizations -- large and small -- to consider using this approach to improve their use of digital technologies. I will be walking through this process at a workshop at our Vermont Connected Summit on September 23. You can find all of our workshop descriptions here.

My approach involves the following steps:

1) Learn about the organization and the staff

My first step is always to spend time learning about the organization’s mission and work. I do this by visiting their website and social media pages to understand how they communicate their message. This is an important step, because the best digital tools to use will vary depending on what an organization is looking to achieve. Before meeting one-on-one, I also ask members of the nonprofit to take a survey about their organization’s familiarity and use of digital tools. This gives me information I need to help advise them, while also getting them to think about the potential of technology to improve their organization’s operation. The result, when I meet with a group, is a meaningful conversation about their mission and goals, perceived audiences, comfort with and effectiveness using their current digital tools, and, finally, how they currently manages tasks. My goal is to discover areas in which digital tools can make the organization more efficient, empowered, effective and happier.

2) Assess and build digital literacy

Most organizations are currently using some digital tools, yet are intimidated by others, such as the idea of the “cloud,” using social media, or managing their own web presence. For this reason, I find that when advising a group, demystifying the technology they currently use is as important as the technical assistance I provide. Without such comfort and confidence, the long-term capacity of a group to continue to adopt and effectively use digital tools is greatly diminished. Learning how to think about digital tools is the first step in effectively using them. A great example of assessing digital tools’ use and demystifying social media can be found in this article about reaching your audience with Facebook.
 

3) Review the organization’s current use of digital tools

The next step is to help the nonprofit determine how effective their digital tools are and how well they are meeting their needs. We start by reviewing their website, if they have one. We begin with the basics, not by diving into Search Engine Optimization or other more technical things. In evaluating their website, we look at the basic usability for the user and the organization, content, and integration of digital tools. I take a similar approach to reviewing their social media pages, mailing lists, and other tools. For more information about this step, check out this article about making sure your computers are up-to-date, this one about how easy it is to incorporate Facebook’s scheduling feature, and this one about organizing your website with the average user in mind.

4) Identify tools that can make an organization more efficient, saving time and money

Digital tools can vastly improve the efficiency of an organization, in terms of both time and money. To do this, I ask organizations to first identify the various work flows within the organization and between the organization and its audience or beneficiaries. Once the workflows are identified, I ask the organization to make a list of the most expensive or most time-consuming areas and start with those. I then assist the nonprofit in finding ways to automate or otherwise streamline these processes. These items may not be the lowest hanging fruit, however, finding solutions to them will have the greatest impact in terms of both time and money and probably also make the organization more effective.

Identifying tools to increase efficiencies has been especially impactful for food shelves. Salvation Farms used digital tools to automate its gleaning program and several food pantries have used tools to increase donations of both food and money. Other examples include an organization converting its multiple databases into a single streamlined Constituent Relationship Management system, one that used various Google tools to save money on email and phone service, and another that automated several steps to increase their services to area job seekers.  

5) Identify tools that can increase the effectiveness of the organization

In addition to providing efficiencies, digital tools, if used effectively, may enable an organization to raise more money, offer educational resources to a wider audience, and advocate for a cause or constituents more effectively. In discussing this area with an organization, we focus on who the organization should be reaching and currently isn’t and what needs to happen for the organization to be in a better position to achieve its goals. Quite often, leveraging social media is a great way to reach more constituents with very little cost or effort.

Here are a few great examples of nonprofits exploring the use of new digital tools to increase their effectiveness: Various organizations I worked with integrated video, gamification, and the ability to accept donations via mobile phones or their Facebook Page. Others examples include how a new community garden used Front Porch Forum to capture donations and recruit members and groups taking advantage of the Google Ad grants to promote their efforts.

6) Evaluate available resources and find opportunities to leverage new resources

Vermont is blessed with a growing, vibrant and fun tech community often looking to give back to the communities their employees call home. In this aspect of advising, we identify locals who can help with social media, website upgrades, or training. In the course of the project, tech professions have donated over 400 hours of web design assistance and 220 hours of social media assistance for nonprofits through Social Media Surgeries.

By focusing on the 6 steps above, a nonprofit can evaluate their own use of digital tools. The result should be a more efficient organization and broader reach for their mission and message.

If you would like to learn more about this process, please attend the Vermont Connected Summit on Tuesday, September 23rd. One of our eight conference tracks is focused on how to build a more effective nonprofit organization. My morning workshop will help you answer the question of “How can digital tools make you and your organization more efficient, effective, and even happier?” I’ll go into each of these steps with interactive exercises to assist you in evaluating your own organization. You can learn more and register here.

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