A funny thing happened a few weeks ago at the Bridge Conference in DC. Well, it would have been funny if the stakes weren’t so high.

I was leading a group of nonprofit accidental techies through an exercise to rate their general satisfaction with the platforms they use to raise money, run events – the usual digital engagement software mix. When folks shared their satisfaction ratings with the group, Darla rated her systems with an A. She couldn’t be happier, everything was fantastic. Sitting next to her was Ben. Ben rated his systems with an F. Couldn’t be less satisfied – and he was just about ready to sell his soul for a new system.

Can you see the punchline coming? Everyone was shocked when it was revealed that Darla and Ben are using THE SAME EXACT SYSTEM! GASP!


There is No Perfect System

Why would two similar organizations have such different experiences with one platform? A commonly held misconception is that a platform is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Platform Zebra is amazing, and Platform Wombat is terrible. That’s not the most helpful way to look at nonprofit technology. Sure, there are important differences in things like cost, integration, and admin interface. But when you come right down to it – nonprofit platforms do a lot of the same stuff in similar ways.

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Your Mileage May Vary

Working with different teams and systems over the years has taught me that the system used by Organization Apple may be a massive fail for Organization Banana. Get information from trusted colleagues – don’t expect to have the same experience as your advisor.

Sometimes, dissatisfaction is truly caused by functionality – the system just doesn’t do what you need it to do.  (You need integrated social media functionality and your current software doesn’t support that.) As modern nonprofit software continues to evolve, I’m not seeing this scenario as often.

These days, most situations with nonprofit software present as complaints about functionality.  When we go a little deeper, problems are usually related to one of these four root causes:

The Initial Set Up was Rough

Implementation may take just a few months, but it has a major and long-lasting impact on satisfaction.  Were the requirements defined well?  Did the implementation partner explain things in understandable terms? Sailing through the set up without a fuss can result in high level post-launch satisfaction.  If the project was a bumpy one, it’s easy to have worries right from the start. Unresolved worries are bound to color your future experiences

Administrator Training was Light

How was your team trained on the new system?  What’s the process to train new members of your team? There’s a lot to learn when you begin to use new digital engagement software.  If you received less than 4 hours of training, that’s not good. Lack of knowledge leads to donation forms that break and email messages that don’t look good on Android phones. Satisfaction rates soar when end users feel confident that they are using the software properly.

The Relationship is Shaky

It’s super important for the software company and the nonprofit team to maintain a healthy, supportive relationship.  Nonprofit staff need to know how to get help.  They must trust that the software support team is giving them correct answers to their questions and is generally invested in the organization’s success.  On the flip side, the nonprofit team should demonstrate that they have reasonable expectations for advice and support.  Requesting help today with a campaign that kicks off tomorrow isn’t realistic, and that sets the vendor up for failure.

The Investment in the System is Shallow

This one is owned by both the organization and the software vendor.  The organization needs to invest the time and energy in growing their use of the system.  Keeping staff trained up, creating internal guidelines and staying current on using the platform is the organization’s responsibility.  The software vendor needs to add updates and enhancements regularly and should respond to bugs and other system-wide issues with speed and clear communication.


Finding Your Root Cause – The Five Whys

There are many different methods of problem solving – but they all start with some sort of root cause identification.  One of my favorites is the Five Whys.  Created by Sakichi Toyoda, it was originally used at Toyota and has been adopted by countless leaders in for-profit and nonprofit communities. It’s simple and effective and can be a great introduction to systems thinking.  A quick Google will give you zillions of examples and templates to use.  Buffer has an excellent post on how their team uses the Five Whys, complete with detailed instructions. Here’s an example of the Five Whys using Ben and Darla.

Ben:  System Wombat is horrible.

Darla:  Why?

Ben: It’s too hard to use.

Darla:  Why?

Ben: The system was updated a while ago to match our new website and now we can’t just make copies of our old forms.

Darla: Why?

Ben: Um, the old forms don’t use the new template.

Darla: Why?

Ben: Because no one has been trained to make new forms in the new template.

Darla: Why?

Ben: That is a damn good question, Darla. (Pings supervisor and requests approval for training money.)


What’s Your Real Problem?

No one wants to be dissatisfied with something as important as digital engagement systems.  And no software provider wants unhappy customers.

If you’re dissatisfied with your digital engagement software, grab a buddy and try using the Five Whys to get to the bottom of it.  Your root cause could be something small that has a big impact (training), or it could be something that seems unrelated (staff turnover on the software vendor’s team).  Take 30 minutes to figure out the real root cause before you toss that legacy system out the window – you’ll have a much better chance of fixing the right issue.


Your Turn!

Have you used the Five Whys or another problem-solving process?  Share your tips in the comments!