Planning for Your Next Technology Project

by Elaina

A technology project can be a large source of stress for nonprofit organizations. Not only is this likely going to be an expensive addition to your budget, but, as many nonprofit leaders don’t have a technology background, it can be hard to have faith that you’re going to end up with a tool that meets your needs well.

A great way to reduce that stress is to do some planning for your project on your own before starting to get bids. This kind of planning doesn’t necessarily require tech skills, but just an understanding of where you are and where you’d like to be.

Taking on some planning on your own will not eliminate the need for any planning to be included in your technology project, but it will help you better ask for the features that you need, make better choices about your options, and stick to your budget.

Here are some key planning steps that will help with any technology project:

Flickr image from michaelcardus

1. Corral your key stakeholders for your planning.
To ensure the success of your project, you want to make to gather input from everyone who will be regular users of this tool. For instance with a donor database project, make sure to include your development director, the development assistant, and anyone else that will be spending a significant amount of time in the system. If you leave out the data entry staff, you will likely miss key needs to help them use their time more efficiently, and if you leave out high level staff, you will miss features relevant to the overall strategy.


2. Decide on your project goal and definition of success.
What will your organization look like if this project is successful? Will you use your time more efficiently? Will your system be more stable? Will have deeper relationships with your constituents? It is all right to come up with a few goals, but it’s a good idea to rank them. Your list of goals will help you prioritize the features requested from your staff, and it will help you at the end of the project to determine if it was successful.


3. Identify pain points and positive features of your current tool.
Outline the problems with your current tool to make sure that you address them in the new system, and list the positive features to make sure that you don’t lose them in this process.


4. Brainstorm and prioritize the features you are hoping to gain.
Plan to spend a good amount of time on this stage, as you want to be sure not to miss anything. Make sure that staff know to suggest any minute feature and to not to hesitate suggesting something that has already been said.

When you have a good list of features, then start prioritizing them. If you’re able to rank each feature individually that’s great, but you can also place them into categories like: “Absolutely necessary, required for success”, “Important feature, but can be put off”, “Would be great, but only if it’s free”. It’s often possible to have multiple phases to a technology project to mitigate budget strain, hence the “can be put off” category.


5. Decide on your timeline and identify events pushing that timeline.
Do you need the new donor database to be up before your annual event next March? Do you need it done in time to run your year-end appeal? Decide with your team how strictly you need to stick by your timeline as well – are these hard-and-fast deadlines, or is it more “it’d be nice to get it done by then”.

Generally speaking, the further out your timeline is, the more flexibility you will have in terms of tools, consultants, and budget. Project length varies depending on the number and complexity of features to be built or added, but it’s not unreasonable for a custom database or website project to take six months or more. If you want a big project to get done faster, expect to sacrifice features, pay significantly more, or both.


6. Decide on a budget for the project.
I put money last for a reason. While money is always a top concern for nonprofits, it’s important to consider your needs first. This step may also require a bit of research. Speak wth nonprofits similar to yours to find out what they use for this technology need and how much they spent on their solution. You may decide to call around to consultants to find out a range of costs for that kind of tool – keep in mind, that without learning a fair bit about your needs, you will likely only be able to get broad ranges from them.


Write up notes from your planning process and keep them handy when you have your initial calls and meetings with prospective vendors and consultants. Even if you work with volunteers, your notes will prove invaluable when scoping your volunteer project.

I hope that these tips help your nonprofit achieve success on your next technology project.   Be sure to subscribe to my blog via RSS or email, as next week I will be following this up by discussing Total Cost of Ownership in terms of nonprofit technology projects.

Has your nonprofit used a similar planning process before? How did it work for you? What else would you add to this list?


Update: These new posts are great follow-up reads to this one: