This is a guest blog post from Shannon Lin with Lindsay Ryder and Sarita Ahuja of Neighborhood Funders Group.
An almost 40-year old affinity group, Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) is currently in a period of tremendous growth and organizational change. In recent years, both the size of our membership and our staff have increased dramatically as interest in advancing justice and equity continues to grow in philanthropy.
To meet the challenges of growth and build new systems to manage our expanding network and programming, NFG joined the Knowledge Management Collaborative of the United Philanthropy Forum in 2017 as one of their national PSO pilots. We have been fortunate to have the help of the Forum in our journey towards better information management, and offer the following reflections from our experience.
Considering a new system
When we first joined NFG a few years ago, the staff had inherited a clunky database and a stagnant website. The website was hard to navigate and didn’t highlight our programming, resources, or our members’ work. Most of our team didn’t reference or update the database since it was difficult to pull information from. It became more and more challenging to stay on the same page with everyone as our programming grew along with the number of our staff working remotely.
To be fair, some of our problems were with data integrity or staff culture/training, not inherent in the database itself. Our staff preferred to use spreadsheets, and we needed a major data clean-up. But we also had issues with the limits of our database platform. Since membership at NFG is institutional, we needed a database that could keep track of multiple individuals’ membership status from their institution, as well as the main points of contact for each institution and its grants to NFG. We did not have the engagement and membership analysis capabilities we desired, nor the ability to overlay our grants/fundraising information with membership and event attendance to facilitate cross-program planning.
At first, we considered making do with the limitations of our database and just redesigning our website. In the end, it didn’t seem wise to invest in a redesign and continue to be tied to a database that couldn’t meet our needs. In exploring other database platforms, Salesforce stood out thanks to its data reporting capabilities and customizability. While Salesforce does provide a discounted version for nonprofits, we learned that customizing it to fit specific needs can be the most cost-prohibitive factor.
Partnering with the Forum
Through our CEO’s participation in the Forum, we learned that their Knowledge Management (KM) Collaborative had already extensively customized Salesforce specifically for philanthropic affinity groups. There really isn’t another group out there that has spent so many years developing a Salesforce package for our organizational niche, continuing to refine it for its users’ emerging needs and maintaining an integration with the Drupal website platform. Once we saw the platform and raised some funds to upgrade our systems, it really was a no-brainer to join the KM Collaborative and adopt the platform. We also realized that any such project would require a lot of staff time, and that we would have so much more support working with the Forum and drawing upon the many years of expertise living in the KM user group.
We were initially concerned about the costs and amount of staff time needed for the project. Buying into the platform includes both one-time setup costs and annual fees for Salesforce, Drupal, and membership with the Forum. But throughout the process, Forum staff were clear about anticipated costs and dedicated to keeping things within our budget. Joining the KM Collaborative also gave us access to cost-sharing agreements that offset the development of features and customizations that would otherwise be expensive. For instance, NFG has helped evolve the Salesforce platform for grants management. The 1:1 support and technical assistance from the Forum, as well as the peer support provided by the many other platform users, has proven to be an invaluable resource in the set-up and ongoing implementation of the platform.
As with any major project, we experienced a lot of unforeseen challenges. With the website project, we were simultaneously rebranding and chose to work with a firm that gave us beautiful graphics and exciting ideas for our online presence. While we were happy with our new look, this choice created a lot of technical challenges because our designers were not familiar with the Forum’s platform. We lost our web designer midway through the design process, and had not budgeted sufficiently to have web design support in the final stages. In retrospect, it would have been easier to contract with designers who had already worked with the Forum since their Drupal platform is so customized and closely integrated with Salesforce — we would recommend this to other groups considering joining the platform.
The setbacks with web design combined with limited staff time led to an extended timeline for completing our website. As a fellow affinity group (not a consulting firm), the Forum also has capacity limitations and we found ourselves craving more written guidance like template workplans that would give us a clear picture from the outset of roles, what to look out for at different stages, and timing. The Forum is aware and addressing the need for more documentation of the processes it manages for KM members. In the end, launching our website necessitated dedicating the majority of a staff member’s time to it for a long period and taking other projects and responsibilities off of their work plan.
Transitioning to Salesforce and Drupal truly requires a significant amount of staff capacity to migrate content and data, think through customizations, develop new internal practices and staff roles, and train other staff on the new platforms. We couldn’t have done it without the Forum’s staff, who are incredibly knowledgeable, responsive, and helpful. The Forum also offers affordable fee-based Managed Services for building out new features and customizations with their Salesforce certified staff and other KM Collaborative members, which has been a critical support to our limited staff capacity and expertise. Ultimately, the Forum truly maximized their capacity to support us throughout, was forthcoming about their limitations in capacity, and proactively and creatively worked to develop a solution to meet everyone’s needs. The KM Collaborative is a great community that provides invaluable peer support and even a budding consulting pool of expert users to help members like us.
Reflecting on our experience
For anyone considering joining the KM Collaborative’s platforms, you ultimately need both more time and more staff capacity than you think is necessary. This is probably true for any database and website build project, and it would have been much harder for us without the Forum. Our journey to a new database and website has admittedly been long. We began to evaluate our existing systems in 2016 and started our project with the Forum in 2017. It took until mid-2018 to get most our staff using Salesforce and until the beginning of 2019 to publicly announce our new website. We are still training our staff and working on shifting our internal culture to best utilize these new systems.
For NFG, one of the oldest affinity groups in U.S. philanthropy, it’s been well worth it to finally have a modern website that shows the sector what it means to be part of NFG and a robust database that is our single source of truth for tracking membership, fundraising, and engagement. Our team’s improved coordination and information sharing has already given us clearer and more accurate perspectives for strategy and planning. The tools and systems the Forum has helped us adopt have really built up our internal capacity and brought our systems into the 21st century.