Salesforce for Nonprofits: Start Small, Dream Big

I was recently in Detroit with a friend, and had the opportunity to witness firsthand some of the challenges faced by the city and its efforts at renewal.  Because I’m part of the Cult of Nate Silver, I also caught this article on FiveThirtyEight that does a deep dive into the perils of Detroit’s infrastructure and services, and the workarounds being employed to keep everything moving forward, some of which literally include soda cans and doorbells.

I was humbled by the tenacity of City of Detroit employees, and it kicked off a thought exercise for me regarding how much in common the issues faced by Detroit have with those many nonprofits also face.  Listing some of these problems outlined in the FiveThirtyEight article that I saw:

  •      Antiquated Technology
  •      Lack of Funds
  •      Poorly Implemented Technological Advances
  •      Misunderstood Departmental Needs
  •      Segregated Data and Communication Systems
  •      Missing Key Features
  •      Do-It-Yourself Workarounds

The good news for Detroit is that a major investment of money is on the horizon.  But:

  •      Will monetary investment alone solve these issues without replicating existing problems?
  •      Will the new investments be implemented as a series of small fixes, or will they be a holistic project?
  •      Will Detroit bite off more than it can chew by trying to fix everything at once?

Here are my answers:

Will Monetary Investment Alone Solve Things? No, it won’t.  Throwing money at problems seldom solves them, but does create a more expensive project.  It’s how this money is connected to a long-term vision that can help determine what gets bought now, what is budgeted for the future, and when these investments are made.  Monetary investment needs to be connected to organizational alignment around an implementation, and time needs to be created to ensure business processes are properly reflected in the new platform and conform to best practices.

Small Fixes or Holistic Project?  Small fixes are sometimes necessary to keep up both momentum and stop real, immediate problems.  But don’t give in to the temptation to keep fixing things small-scale.  Draw a line when your organization wants to move from small-scale fixes to working within the big picture so you don’t keep reacting, and can start being proactive.  Part of drawing this line is knowing yourself and your key metrics as an organization, and making this knowledge shared throughout.

Fix It All At Once? Putting everything into Salesforce all at once may sound like a great way to make a big splash, but it also creates a giant wave of administrative, budgetary, and training overhead that may crash once an implementation partner pulls out.  As evidenced by some of the lessons from Detroit’s own past, raising expectations that everything will be fixed, and then finding out that it can’t, creates havoc and sets the stage for disconnected data and processes.

When your nonprofit does finally receive that large grant to address outdated infrastructure, or is even just planning what to do with the money it has, here are a few thoughts of my own on how to prevent getting trapped by any one of these approaches. These are particularly relevant for nonprofits on the verge of implementing Salesforce, or, as we’re now encountering, re-implementing because of some of the factors listed above.

Less is More: The same amount of money and time is better spent on implementing a few things well, rather than everything at once.  This can both produce a better sense of how Salesforce will really be a “win” for an organization, and model happy users who are comfortable with the platform for the rest of the organization to buy into.

Saying No is a Good Thing: This has as much to do with managing overall expectations as it does with preventing an organization from overreaching in an implementation, and keeping balance in an implementation against future needs. What may solve 100% of one department’s needs could actually reduce the ability to solve even 80% of another department’s needs when they start using Salesforce.

Fix Immediate Issues Mindfully: There are always emergencies, and the trick here is to understand what deserves the immediate attention an emergency constitutes versus what needs to have greater examination. Organizations that spend time understanding their core metrics and needs before implementing will have a greater chance of defining a real emergency (what’s not meeting these metrics and needs) than those who haven’t.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good: As I’ve presented on in the past, there is no perfect database or CRM for any organization.  Trying to hit 100% of the needs 100% of the time actually takes an organization further away from meeting any needs at all, rather than closer.

Start Small, Dream Big: The ideal implementation is mindful of where an organization wants to go, and not just what it needs to solve for in the short term for the project – make the implementation successful, rather than just the project.

Nonprofits are more frequently entering an environment where the difference between a sales pitch and a real solution are becoming increasingly blurred.  The temptation for nonprofits is to let these purported solutions drive how they acquire technology, rather than an organizational alignment around the acquisition and a strategy for its implementation. There are many amazing organizations, such as NTEN and Idealware, that help nonprofits educate themselves as to how best make decisions in this arena.

In the end, every project must chart a course that balances needs vs. wants, attainable vs. wishful, and immediate vs. strategic.  But knowing your true capacity – that of people, time, budget, and other factors, can help your organization more successfully implement for the long haul.

Co-Founder, BrightStep Partners • Salesforce MVP

Tagged with:
Posted in Adoption, Change Management, Implementation Success, Organizational Management
2 comments on “Salesforce for Nonprofits: Start Small, Dream Big
  1. […] wide swath of a fission project is selected because the perceived value is greater than one that starts small and focused, with time for alignment, engagement, and organizational leadership to emerge around a […]


  2. […] not “Done.”  All of the principles and premise of change/transition management, starting small and thinking big, developing an organization wide system of peer-to-peer training, governance of your Salesforce […]


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