Nonprofit organizations need to stay competitive with other nonprofits in the same space. One way that nonprofits can distinguish themselves is to allow technology to transform how they carry out their mission. But that isn’t without unique challenges.
Ash Shepherd is the Education Director for The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), which provides networking opportunities, education, advocacy, and research for nonprofit leaders seeking to advance their organization’s mission by leveraging digital tools. Shepherd educates NTEN members on optimizing their use of technology while also helping them avoid common technological pitfalls.
Here’s his advice to both nonprofit and for-profit leaders:
Shepherd told The Fast Track that, about three or four years ago, the nonprofit sector made a large global push toward collecting data, which it could use to draw their own data-driven conclusions.
But this has created a particular problem. “People have buckets and buckets of data, and they still don’t know what to do with it. They’re just data-collecting—but they’re really interested in getting to that next step, so they can use [the data] to make decisions,” explains Shepherd.
He says organizations need to answer a big question: What does your data mean for the work you are doing?
To answer that, you don’t need momentary snapshots of data— you need thorough analysis. And that means you need to track data over time.
Shepherd says, “You need to know what it looks like today compared to last month compared to last year. The true value doesn’t come out of these reports and snapshots. It actually comes from being able to spot trends.”
How do you move from data collecting to data analysis in a way uniquely suited to your organizational needs? Sometimes you have to build your own solution. This is where citizen development tools come in handy.
Thanks to cloud-based, low-code platforms (sometimes no-code), like QuickBase, you can now create customized apps for your specific needs. You can input data into these platforms through existing sources, like spreadsheets or CSV files.
You can then create highly visual, mobile-friendly dashboards to help you understand your data and to analyze trends. One great visual dashboard tool that Shepherd specifically recommends is Tableau, which can be used independently or as an add-on to QuickBase. Tableau even offers a discount to 501(c)(3) organizations.
He says, “The real value of a dashboard is that it takes raw data and puts it in a format that our brains understand.” He adds that nonprofit leaders need not be intimidated by the idea of creating their own apps, since low-code platforms are configured visually and require little-to-no technical training.
Replace Vanity Metrics and Click Bait with Storytelling
While websites and social media have greatly expanded nonprofit organizations’ ability to get their messages out, far too many organizations find themselves focusing on vanity metrics, such as the number of page views or social media followers.
Shepherd says it’s important for leaders to remember that websites and social media are mere vehicles for building quality community and momentum.
He emphasizes that it’s more important to produce committed volunteers than random followers that take no action. “Raw numbers have always been a mark of success for digital tools, but I don’t know a single nonprofit where the mission is ‘Let’s have a lot of people like us’ or ‘Let’s have a lot of people simply visit the website.’”
One tendency of organizations that rely too much on vanity metrics is resorting to “click bait,” fluffy attention-getting content that doesn’t add value, support the mission, or create supporters.
Shepherd says that if organizations share quality, mission-driven content, readers are more likely to share it, bookmark it and become engaged in your mission.
The best way to ensure you are offering quality content, Shepherd says, is to focus on storytelling. “Storytelling has been and always will be one of the most powerful strategies and tools that organizations have, and lots of organizations struggle to connect their various activities back to storytelling.”
A great way to integrate storytelling into your website and social media content is to create powerful visuals. Shepherd recommends Adobe Spark, which allows you to create free social graphics, web stories and animated videos. He also suggests Story Corp, which has a mobile app that creates high-quality interview recordings. Both tools help you tell the story of your organization’s mission in a compelling, highly shareable way—which will help build community and momentum.
Putting Technology in Its Place
Shepherd’s overall message to nonprofit leaders is that you must always put your mission first. He says, “It’s easy for organizations to forget that technology is still just a tool meant to help you accomplish something else.”
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