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How To Carry All Those Nuts

My work in data system consolidation is very rewarding; I greatly enjoy the challenges that our clients bring us, and love working with my team at OpenIssue to solve problems for those clients.

A few years back we established a pro bono practice and a series of low cost “kick start” conversion services (using a fixed fee model) and have treated those projects as some of our most important work because they are most constrained, and often the clients are most in need. The ones we love are referral, and fast. The ones we fear start with an RFP. We understand an RFP when its policy driven, but that is not often the case in the small nonprofit world.

We recently reviewed an 18 page detailed specification which described a very complex tool set and information system likely to cost at least $40k to implement and another $10k/year to maintain (at least!). The 2 hours I spent with the prospective client went into the document, and helping them understand their document’s content and its translation into real-world software options.

What they really needed instead was a $5k, two week “quick start”.

We understand (and see quite often) the incentive for a small nonprofit to write a big spec to allow for catching as much as possible (from funders, from software, etc). Low or no-cost systems like Salesforce™ allow groups to move quickly into new systems without the former complexities of server and installation. With the ease of communication with other users and ecosystems of advisors and consultants, why are these groups not simply taking the free stuff? Vendors (like us) will quote (and build) the world for a client – if that is what the client asks for! So is the RFP helping then?

Its tough to get folks to:

  • See the value in simplicity and speed of transition with SaaS tools
  • Realize data conversion is complex and should be done by experts

In search of council, I turned to a friend (we’ll call her “S”) and client who was familiar with the RFP process and the prospect’s situation, and I asked “How can we help these folks go after more realistic, and sensible goals?” The reply we got was:

Watching her the and struggle with figuring out systems, reminds me how much time is wasted, and stress is caused for people trying to do awesome work. And how regularly non-profit leaders have to make game changing decisions about stuff they don’t have capacity to understand.

Keep doing what you are doing – providing authentic, nonpartisan (ha!), trustworthy leadership in this space. I’ll chew on how to help the little orgs better, but I think you are already well down the path.

This is officially a “favorite” email ever. Thank you again “S”, and to all our great clients and ecosystem partners and allies.

Here is the prescription I wish I could write for all nonprofits and higher ed groups:

  • Consider an advisor who has made this type of transition a few times. If we can’t help you – we can find you a few folks who can.
  • Lean on incumbent tools if they can be improved – as an alternative to switching.
  • Be honest about your operational needs from a software system (rolodex, lists, email, donations).
  • Consider the Agile/Iterative model – some of these people have good advice on that:
    • Guy Kawasaki  -Iterations and fast/frequent work product to garner feedback is more valuable than the “perfect product” (which never appears…)
    • Eric Ries  – The idea of the “Lean Startup” and “Validated Learning” further supports iterations, and small steps in the right direction – not plans that map the whole journey.
    • David Kelley, IDEO – Kelley believes that how quickly you create an initial prototype is directly proportional to how successful a product will be. Essentially, given a set project deadline, the earlier you invite feedback, the more chances you have to revise and improve. He calls this “enlightened trial and error.” (citation source: