Geri Stengel

 
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A Nonprofit Case Study: Nonprofit Taps Technology Benefits to Improve Services and Save Money, Time

It's hard to believe but true: Some nonprofits aren't taking full advantage of technology. But perhaps they'll be inspired by the experience of the Council of Senior Centers and Services, a New York-based advocacy group.

free software, nonprofit technology, scalingThe Situation
CSCS serves more than 300,000 older New Yorkers through a network of 363 senior centers. Much of its work is advocacy. It has one direct service program: The Bill Payer Program provides volunteers to help home-bound seniors pay bills on time.

To keep track of its 77 clients and 100 volunteers, Program Manager Amanda Leis was using a r-e-a-l-l-y big spreadsheet: 26 columns of information about the client, the social worker, the referring agency, the volunteer, the status of paperwork.

In addition, duplicate paper files were kept, one with social work information and one with financial information.

Despite attempts to consolidate, all that paper and all those spreadsheet columns did not provide the information and flexibility needed nor the data security.

That's not good when you have written a business plan for a public/private partnership to expand the client base to 400. A database was needed. 

The Database Option
Sigh. Previous database experience was not positive: Too much jargon, too much computer knowledge required. Too inflexible. 

One option was to follow the example of three other senior-service agencies that had jointly paid a consultant to design a database specific to their needs. It had been more than a year in the making. Any changes, including adding in the Bill Payer Program, needed more consultant time.

As it happened CSCS was already using database software to keep track of its membership. And the software was free! The company, SalesForce, is a global company that has a "1 percent" philanthropic foundation. It gives software licenses to nonprofits and encourages its employees to take paid time off to work with nonprofits. 

One need only apply.

But its name said "sales" and this was social work, not sales. No connection, right? 

Wrong.

Karol Markosky, coordinator for the CSCS HIV education program, had been trained on SalesForce. The $1,500  (nonprofits get a discount on training fees) full week course had been an epiphany; one might say she'd had a religious experience. She was amazed at how powerful and flexible this free product was.

She asked Leis want was needed for the bill payers. No matter what Leis asked for, Markosky said, "We can do that." Those meetings started in February 2010. By April, the system was up and running. Set-up and design used 16-24 hours of this 2-person, inhouse team.

The new database is saving far more that in money (no consultants), time, and paper. It offers the potential for growth, for new techniques in fundraising, more program control, better communication.

The Benefits

  • Flexibility: Because the software is infinitely flexible and very user-friendly, Leis, who is self-described as computer-challenged, can add fields to the database as the need develops and can tailor reports to questions of the moment. Now she'll be able to include Medicaid and food stamp status, as well as more details about the reasons for a client's need for service or service-refusal.
  • Security: The one, fat database has field-level security. For example, the volunteer coordinator will not have access to fields containing monetary information. Also, all the data is in the cloud, where it is backed up regularly (at no cost). And only computers whose IDs have been authorized can access the database.
  • Fundraising: New fields – with information that had been in the files but not easily accessible –- allow reports customized to the audience. Such a report could be presented to a bank, showing how many of its customers are helped, when asking for a donation. Or to a borough president, showing how many people in his borough need help. At the agency level, nonmember referring agencies can be added to the CSCS mailing list.
  • Online training is available for Leis and other program managers, training that Markosky deems "exceptional."
  • Better Data: Rather than keeping manual case notes or printing out emails from social workers to add to the file, case notes are typed directly into the database and emails can be copied there. The result is a complete history of the client and any problems that arose, with no issues regarding legibility of entries. And it's more secure. Once in the database, the information can be put in a locked field, which email often is not.
  • User-friendly: Leis can enter case notes from her own computer after a field visit. She can change the fields in the database as she finds need for new information. She is not afraid.

Future Delights

  • Web-based referral form that will automatically create a new "pending client" entry in the database. No more manual entry of information.
  • Automatic notification of volunteer coordinator when new pending client is entered.
  • Tracking by neighborhood, not just zip code, so volunteers can be assigned closer to home.
  • Web-based entry form for bill payers and/or monitors that will feed into the database.

Lessons Learned

  • Look around at what you have. Many of us have powerful programs that we do not tap. Get to know your own people. Many of us have technically knowledgeable staff whose knowledge we do use.
  • Research organizations that offer free software, hardware or tech support to nonprofits, such as SalesForce or TechSoup.
  • Designate a technologically adept in-house person as the liaison with any consultant you hire or software you accept. Train that person so s/he can train others. "I have become a firm believer that you really need someone in-house to do this, to hold the hand of the consultant to make sure he doesn't lose sight of the needs of the organization," said Makosky.

As funders and rating agencies are beginning to realize, investment in software (possible minimal if you source it right) and training can lead to greater efficiency, ability to scale, and better service. In other words, better use of foundation and donor dollars.

Check it out!

What benefits has your nonprofit realized by upgrading technology? How did you pay for it? What problems did you have and how did you overcome them?