Your nonprofit’s outreach is powered by a range of software platforms that help you communicate with audience members, and that collect and centralize data on these contacts. As your organizational needs change, and new products and features become available, it’s inevitable that you will consider shifting or upgrading systems in your Engagement Architecture from time to time.

The challenge is that many organizations do not know how to strategically plan for the transition to a new system, such as a CRM, CMS or email provider. Even when it’s an unambiguously positive change, the shift to a new digital platform inevitably disrupts skill sets, processes and habits among your teams. It nearly always takes more time than expected, and requires sorting through tons of technical details. It’s easy for important work to get lost in the shuffle.

We don’t want this to happen to you! Through thoughtful preparation, savvy organizations can take advantage of five hidden opportunities offered by platform migrations to deepen audience engagement and improve the effectiveness of outreach.

Opportunity #1: Create momentum for positive change

As exciting and empowering as new software platforms can be, many organizations have seen disappointment with past migrations that failed to live up to their promise. Technology transitions require staff members to take time away from using their current platform, and commit to learning something new. This can be hard.

To overcome the anxieties created by change (and the “change fatigue” common among many decision makers), appoint a project champion to create excitement and build a shared sense of purpose for the future that will be set in motion by improved capabilities. Ideally, this project champion sits in a relatively senior role in the organization. They communicate the vision of where the organization wants to go, and how a shift in software platforms will contribute to getting there.

In addition to formulating goals for the migration that are clear and compelling, it helps when leaders are specific about the pace and cadence of changes that will happen, and how stakeholders will get to inform the process. Also, they explicitly acknowledge challenges and anxieties that people may have, helping to defuse avoidable pushback that can tangle up implementation further down the line.

Opportunity #2: Build and empower your team

With many software platforms (particularly CRMs), system ownership can be hazy. As a result, it’s helpful to treat a system change like any other important project at your organization, identifying formal roles like:

  • Owner/champion for the platform migration
  • Product owner—the person(s) who manages the platform day-to-day
  • Business owner—the person(s) whose unit funds the platform
  • Internal and external resources—the people helping you set up and implement the new system, and train and support users
  • Expert users (who can do sophisticated things with the new system if trained)
  • Non-expert users (who will need lots of hands-on support to use the system)

Once you’ve identified and built a strong team, it’s time to work together to chart a path that fully meets your goals. This involves collaboratively working through the following components of the change process:

  • Visioning: What does your team hope the new platform will achieve? Find the people who can think boldly (beyond mere tweaks to the status quo).
  • Strategy: How should the platform advance the organization’s capabilities? (For example, a think tank’s new email system might send messages primarily to influence policy, drive attendance at events, and drive donations.)
  • Discovery: What’s working and not working about the current platform? What would make people sad if it went away?
  • Research: Which software options are out there?
  • Requirements: What does the platform need to do and provide to meet objectives, and be workable to the people who have to use and maintain it? Traditionally IT drives this piece—but in order to avoid securing a system that checks all the technical boxes (but makes employees scowl when its name is mentioned), consider a cross-functional team to lead this charge.
  • Product Demos: How does the platform actually work? More importantly, how does it feel? Make sure to press vendors to give you meaningful software demonstrations tailored to your use cases.

Opportunity #3: Document and improve existing processes

For many organizations, a change in platforms is an excellent opportunity to assess and improve how the software is being used. Are these processes clearly defined, well documented, and consistently implemented across your organization?

For instance, in smaller teams it’s common for one staff member to be an expert on using the tool, with knowledge that’s informally passed down from person to person over time. This can work well for a time—yet be disastrous when this expert leaves the organization.

If your processes are ad hoc, outdated or poorly understood, make sure there’s a product owner responsible for clearly documenting how things get done with your new platform, and who’s charged with ensuring documentation is updated and communicated on a regular basis. And if users need more training or hands-on support to make effective use of your platform, build this into your implementation plan.

Opportunity #4: Refine your strategy

It’s easy to get bogged down in the weeds of implementing outreach. A migration offers a valuable chance to look freshly at the purpose of technology that’s been taken for granted:

  • What does the platform do for you, and why?
  • What business needs does it solve?
  • What does it do well, and what does it do poorly?

In particular, for platforms used by multiple teams, it is critical to reflect on the shared purpose of the tool. Are there ways it can support organizational strategy more strongly? Your fundraising team might make limited use of its CRM, for instance. Could a fully unified CRM system—one that’s integrated across your communications, program and development teams—unlock fresh potential for tailored outreach and smart marketing automation?

Also, a platform migration also allows you to link your technical capabilities with new communications, engagement, and/or fundraising strategies that have emerged since the last time you set up your outreach systems.

Opportunity #5: Define your audience

When you fully understand the needs and interests of your supporters, the effectiveness of your outreach skyrockets. Yet most nonprofits don’t yet have contact models that systematically capture this information across their organizations. Particularly if you’re considering a new CRM or email system, a platform migration is an outstanding time to set up relevant tracking and analytics on who your supporters are, what they care about, and what they’ve done to support your cause.

Developing and refining your organization’s contact model is one of the most important steps you can take to support deep fundraising conversations, implement effective campaigns, and empower data-driven marketing automation. Learn more about how to develop such a model here.

Opportunity knocks. Are you ready?

COVID-19 was a wake-up call that organizational agility is key to fulfilling your mission. It’s critical that your digital engagement tools give you the flexibility to respond to unexpected shifts in your strategy and tactics. If you’re pursuing a necessary software upgrade, keep these five opportunities in mind throughout the change process, you’ll be well on your way to a transformational migration that improves your organization’s effectiveness.