Building Your Nonprofit Technology Stack: Which Approach is Right for You?

In a recent blog post, we described four distinctly different approaches to building out technology ecosystem to help nonprofit leaders navigate increasingly complex and varied choices in the marketplace. These different approaches are product, solution, platform, and ecosystem. Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks.

Because there is not a single structure that works perfectly for everyone, your job as a leader is to set up infrastructure that will best support your organization’s particular needs. With that in mind, you can think much more strategically about the considerations these different approaches present.

Let’s briefly revisit the four options. Then we will share practical questions to set you on the right path toward making your decision.

Four Approaches to Nonprofit Technology: What’s Your Perfect Match?

For an overview, here are our working definitions of the four approaches:

  • Product is a single application that solves a specific organizational need. Products are relatively easy to deploy and hone their offerings to specific functional requirements. However, products likely will not support all organization needs across the departments.
  • Solution is a suite of offerings, including multiple products and services brought together by a single vendor. Solution providers bring together products via integrations and built-in connections to support organizational needs. With more complex offerings you can expect additional management of systems.
  • Platforms (such as org’s Nonprofit Cloud or Microsoft Cloud for Nonprofits) offer a foundational layer that allows organizations to connect a variety of functional areas through pre-built applications, API connections, and custom configurations. Platform setup is dynamic and nonprofits that choose this approach ought to have expertise and resources to manage technology as it continues to evolve.
  • Best-of-breed is a strategy for evaluating and selecting the right combination of products and platforms for your organization’s specific needs. Think of best-of-breed as a platform taken to the next level, with strategic planning to develop an overarching vision.

Technology Strategy for Nonprofits At Any Level

Before we dig into specific questions for you to consider, we want to suggest you take the time and invest in strategic technology planning. Even if you are looking for the easiest and most basic resolutions to your business problems, a blueprint of the future state can help you make more informed choices. That planning can also help you determine if you need to roll out your technology and related business changes over time and help you plan what that phasing might look like. That minimal short-term investment of your time to do strategic planning will almost certainly save your organization time, resources, and pain in the long term.

Read how we partnered with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley to create a technology roadmap that guided them through a multi-year implementation: Download the Case Study

Questions to Consider

When our team of experts sits down with clients to map out their long view technology strategy, we review their strategic goals and plans, business needs and requirements, work to understand organizational culture and ask questions about resources and budget to support infrastructure. The following questions are a good place to start and are designed to help you identify which approaches will or will not support your needs.

Does your organization, at some point, want a true 360-degree view of constituent data?

If yes, you will not get that with products. If that isn’t one of your goals, any option could work!

Does your organization have constituents who become volunteers or donors? Do you have partner organizations that make financial contributions and also plan group volunteer activities or sponsor events? If this overlap of data is a common occurrence for you and if this type of holistic view is a priority, it is important to build out technology that can support those objectives. Another common requirement related to this question is around email marketing and the desire to communicate with your constituents in a way that reflects a true understanding of the individual’s relationship and engagement with your organization. You may not get this kind of insight with a pure product approach where data is in disparate systems. However, this would not be a concern in a platform ecosystem where the attributes of an individual are centralized in one system and can then be used to build out segmented lists and engagement plans.

Will your organization need the ability to customize a system or a process or an entity in the future?

If your answer is “yes,” it is fairly unlikely you will get that with a product. If your organizational culture tends to adapt to systems without a lot of customization, then your answer is likely “no,” and any approach could be fine.

Here are a few examples to put this question in context: Your organization requires a significant number of new fields or entirely custom entity relationships added to your system’s architecture. You might also require specific picklist values for standard fields that are relevant for your constituency. As your organization evolves, you anticipate different automation logic, additional notifications, or other custom workflows or processes. It is also common for organizations to identify a new source of data you anticipate fully integrating in the future.

While some products do offer options for customizations, many products are tightly managed. You should discuss this with product vendors to ensure you’ll be able to fully control the features or functionality that are core to your business operations or future state goals.

Will you want vendor(s) to support your systems so that you do not need in-house expertise on a given platform?

If you are nodding yes, you should utilize products. If you’d rather take full ownership of your infrastructure, consider other approaches.

Many products are implemented by the product vendor and support, training, and ongoing enhancements are also provided as a service. This can be a huge benefit if you don’t have the technical capacity or resourcing available to take on that effort. However, it can be a drawback if you prefer to be in control over your systems and your data.

Is your organization comfortable with duplicated data housed in different systems?

In this scenario, your organization will have to devote resources to data alignment – perhaps through a master data management (MDM) strategy and data warehouse or custom integrations – or accept the risk that data in different systems will not be aligned. If you are comfortable having data exist in different systems, any of the four approaches would still be worth considering. If your organization has prioritized data alignment and wants to achieve that with minimal maintenance, you should avoid point solutions and products.

Does your organization have resources and expertise to actively set up and manage integrations?

Depending on what technologies you select, either products or solutions may require this, but it is more likely that you will need to manage integrations when choosing products. Platforms more often offer on-platform products that do not require integrations or provide a marketplace of pre-built connectors or applications.

As you narrow in on the best approach for your organization, the key takeaway that we want to share with you is to remember that there is no single right answer. Create that future state vision and then determine which approach is best suited to your unique needs and circumstances, and only then, select the specific technology.

For 25 years, Heller experts have worked with more than 1,000 nonprofits on technical strategy and implementation projects, large and small.

Read more about Heller Consulting’s strategy services  

If you work with us as a client, we will meet you where you are to understand your needs and resources first. We work collaboratively to put together a blueprint and a strategy that’s right for your organization. Get in touch with us below to get started.

About the Authors

Kate Bennet
Before serving nonprofit organizations with the Heller team, Kate worked with small businesses and nonprofit organizations for 18 years. Her work included responsibility for business processes in advancement for the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and it was there that Kate... Read More
Jeffrey Appell
Jeffrey began working with nonprofits in 1997. Starting out as an intern at the San Francisco chapter of the Anti-Defamation League he went on to be a Development Associate at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and then at... Read More
Catherine Moore
Catherine has served the nonprofit sector for over 20 years, defining and guiding the strategic pathway for technology, digital transformation, marketing, and fundraising at the Canadian Cancer Society and others. She is skilled at understanding and addressing the human concerns... Read More
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