How to Improve and Develop Process at Your Nonprofit

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Developing process is tricky. In the world of for-profit businesses there are myriad books, webinars, and even conferences you can attend to help you become a “process” master. Yet, when it comes to nonprofit organizations the literature is fewer and farther between.

It’s not that business process is exclusive to businesses (some of the same techniques, tactics, and best practices from the for-profit space work just as well at nonprofits), it’s that nonprofit organizations face some highly specific and niche challenges that business-focused resources tend to overlook.

Recently a blog subscriber mentioned to me that she is interested in learning more about “defining and implementing process improvements in nonprofits.” This is timely considering our team at MarketSmart is currently defining and implementing improvements in our processes.

Unlike other for-profit focused resources though, I have great empathy and understanding for the unique circumstances and challenges nonprofit organizations face. How then can we take what is considered best practice in the for-profit space and make use of it at your development shop?

Let’s identify why process is important, where you should look to implement process at your nonprofit, and then discuss how you can go about doing that. We’ll address how nonprofits can overcome common process pitfalls and identify actionable next steps that you can take when you get back to your desk.

Ready? Let’s go!

What is process and why is it important?

Process is relatively simple. For our purposes, let’s use this definition: a set of sequential activities and tasks that, once completed, will accomplish an organizational goal.

Our definition of process seems very straightforward and like I mentioned above it is sort of “simple.” However designing and implementing process in practice is the opposite of simple — it tends to be quite challenging. There are a variety of factors that play into why implementation of process is taxing, the least of which is executing change management amongst your team or staff.

Nonprofits struggle to implement process for a few reasons, namely:

  • Lack of time to properly develop and design the process;
  • Lack of resources, both internal and external, to facilitate the process;
  • Lack of buy-in from leadership to endorse the process.

This is shame, because process shines brightest within an organization —that’s where it can have the greatest and most meaningful impact.

Think about process on a personal level for a moment. Take for example, brushing your teeth in the morning. If you’re like me, before you commute to the office, you brush your teeth. It’s convenient to have a routine and set of steps to make sure your dental hygiene is well maintained, but it isn’t the end of the world if you forget, or simply decide not to do it. On a personal level, process is beneficial because it yields comfort, however it generally isn’t “business critical.” For example, if you did forget to brush your teeth this morning, you can simply do it this afternoon. No big deal.

Think about your organization now. What if your organization didn’t maintain its dental hygiene (and for your sake, let’s get rid of the bad metaphor now)? More presciently, what if your organization didn’t maintain its data hygiene? What if on an organizational level you did not have a procedure that was set in stone for how to operate a specific practice (entering new donations into the database, for example).

Process shines brightest when it’s implemented at scale. Maintaining clean, consistent, and accurate records in your donor database is hugely important, and it’s sort of like brushing your teeth (you have to do it and it’s part of your routine), but if the process fails, a lot is at stake. Unlike the reality of process on a personal level (if you forgot to brush your teeth this morning you can always make it up at lunch or in the evening), you can’t catch-up on an organizational level, at least not as easily.

Process is important for a few reasons:

  • It allows your organization to accomplish goals consistently;
  • In a repeatable and understandable way;
  • And with consistent investment (time, money, energy, resources, etc.).

Process helps make a system dependable — you put one input in and know what output you can expect. As an organization that’s all you can ask for.

Let’s continue our discussion of data entry. Without a determined and documented process, the system by which data gets entered into your donor database could corrupt donor records.

If Jane donated last week, but it accidentally was marked as John’s contribution, the organization would be in trouble when it comes time to mail out thank you letters. However, if the organization has a dependable process in place to recognize, organize, and reconcile donations in the database then they wouldn’t have this issue. (Extra props if the organization also has a process in place to follow-up with constituents that inevitably do get the wrong communications/solicitations).

Again, process is simple to describe in the abstract and much (much) more challenging to design and implement in reality. But the threat of not having a process in place can be detrimental to your organization in terms of lost donations and donors.

Where should my nonprofit implement business process?

Process is best implemented where multiple tasks are needed to complete something of high importance on a recurring basis. Our conversation above regarding donation data entry is a great example. Your organization relies on donations to function. Capturing, organizing, and reconciling donations is a multi-step system. Your organization receives donations many times (hopefully), not just once. Boom. Donation data entry is a set of tasks that would greatly benefit from process.

For-profit organizations think of process in terms of how it can help them better deliver their products/services with less friction. For your organization that may mean:

Process should support your key activities. For nonprofits that tends to be communicating with donors and supporters. Think about the current systems you have in place and how well they support your efforts to communicate with donors, supporters, and prospects. Analyzing your existing systems and processes is the first step towards implementing improvements or developing new process all together…

How to improve or implement a new process

To finally get to our readers question from above relating to “implementing process improvements in nonprofits,” it’s quite simple (again, I mean simple in the abstract (to talk about), but challenging to execute on).

Changing or developing process first requires an audit of the existing system. Let’s continue with our example of donation data entry. If you had a hunch that there was room for improvement with regards to how your team was capturing, organizing, and reconciling donations, your first order of action would be to audit the existing process. If this is your first time conducting an audit, don’t be surprised if a lot of the “process” is in one or two people’s heads.

Writing down, visualizing (sometimes with workflow maps), and analyzing an existing process will give you the foundation to determine what is necessary, what is missing, and what the new system may look like. I frequently refer to this as “documenting the as-is state.”

Some resources recommend that you first experience the existing process before making improvements to it (i.e. you enter donations into the database for a few days to fully understand what it requires), but I have found in my experience that simply mapping out the existing process (through interviews, questionnaires, etc.) can work just as well.

Once you have an outline of the existing process it’s best to suggest improvements to one area of the system at a time. When you change one aspect of your existing process you’ll be able to measure the effect of that change.

If you were to completely upend the existing process and replace it was something new it would be challenging to know if what you did “worked,” and what you did that made things less efficient. By changing one component at a time you’ll be able to measure the effectiveness/success (which you should define before your new process so you know when you’re successful) of your change and also manage the change management process with your team.

Applying this at your shop

If you’re looking to introduce new business process at your organization or improve upon an existing system, you have a brave, but worthwhile endeavor in front of you! Process is most important at organizations, yet it is also most taxing to implement at this scale. When you get back to your desk keep this in mind:

  • Conduct an audit of existing process before making any changes;
  • Introduce one change at a time to measure effectiveness;
  • Implement process in places where you communicate with supporters.

Best of luck!

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