Ensuring the Success of Your Tech Investments: What can foundations borrow from Agile in a post-COVID world?

By Mariana Catz

This article was originally published on PEAK Grantmaking’s Insights blog on November 5, 2020.

To say that 2020 introduced challenges to the philanthropic sector would be a vast understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged organizations to demonstrate the ability to pivot, show resilience and agility from all perspectives: people, process, and technology. Few of us saw anything close to the likes of COVID-19 coming, nor did we envision its effects and the resulting changes that forced us to adapt to in the way we operate. How can we apply the lessons learned from this pandemic so that in the “next normal” Grantmakers are not just surviving but rather, thriving? With 25 years of personal experience in driving change within organizations through the introduction of technology and data, I can candidly say that 2020 has in a way, given us the gift of learning to accept change as the new normal. The silver lining in all of this is that we can now truly see the benefit in creating Agile organizations that can adapt quickly to the unprecedented pace of technological and social change that we are seeing. With an Agile culture, we can then introduce new technology into our philanthropic work in a way that serves the communities we aim to help the most. Agile methodology is well-known to those in the tech sector. Essentially, Agile means the final product is delivered by taking an end-user centric approach through continual, iterative steps. Agile cultures demonstrate behaviors that can adapt to drastic changes or simply new ways of working. The single greatest challenge often faced when introducing new technology within organizations is resistance to changing the way people work. As many have stated: take a bad process, apply technology, and you will get a faster bad process.

So how do you apply this mindset to ensure that your technology investments yield true impact to how you operate your foundation, and how can it help you better serve your grantees? Here are some best practices that both research and personal experience have shown to be successful in adopting new technology:

1. Start with a vision and strategy

First and foremost, ensure that everyone in the organization understands the Why of the change. How will this serve our communities and key stakeholders better? Will we be able to measure impact and make more strategic funding decisions? What is in it for me as a team member to work more efficiently and effectively? People can get behind what they are most passionate about: your foundation’s mission.

2. Leadership and resilience through the waves of resistance

The leadership team must have clarity of vision and deeply understand what lies ahead; some of it being known, some of it being unknown. There will be resistance though, that is guaranteed. An Agile culture will necessitate honest and sometimes challenging conversations with those who resist the change in adopting new ways of working, and sometimes they come as a result of your technology investments. Only when everyone fully understands the mission and the long-term value it will bring will you be able to get past the fear of change and drive a path to success.

3. Adopt an organization-wide Digital First mindset

Many of the organizations we work with are still moving from paper-based or legacy databases to modern systems in the cloud. Take the opportunity when introducing new technology to make a shift in the core skillsets that are required to succeed in your foundation. This is a unique opportunity to make Digital First part of everyone’s job description. This will take partnership with your Human Resources leader and a map for building the capacity over time combined with hiring a different profile in the future. The COVID-19 “working from home” shift proved that we can be Agile and operate differently. I have seen this done in organizations so we know it can happen with the right people strategy.

4. Articulate the vision you want to accomplish

Everyone spends so much time choosing what technology to buy, whether it be rigorous Request for Proposals processes or numerous vendor evaluations. Yet, few organizations spend the same amount of energy creating a “blueprint” for the long-term value they want to create to benefit their culture (ie. attracting top talent), people (ie. ability to do value add work instead of redundant processes), and grantees (ie. simplifying the application process and reducing time spent on applying). Investing the time upfront in clearly articulating the vision of what is going to be different and how it will enable you to achieve your mission and impact, will ensure that your investment achieves what you hoped for.

5. Don’t leave data and impact measurement for later

“We are drowning in data but starving for information.” Introducing new grants management systems is the perfect opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on how you will articulate the impact of the money you invest in your grantees and communities. Do not leave these crucial elements as afterthoughts. By its very nature you can now embed a data model that collects the right data points, at the right time, without much effort, so that you can report them back in a timely and meaningful way to all those who need to know.

That said, when I did this work a decade ago, we did not have the flexible platform-based technologies that exist today. Talk about agility! The key difference is that a platform-based grants management system can grow with you long-term and help you in becoming (and staying) Agile. You can phase in automation at a pace that your foundation can absorb. Many, but not all, platforms are flexible by design to accommodate change in all forms – whether it be process, people, or technology oriented.

Be cautious with customized solutions – versus ones that are configurable – which may not always stand the test of change in the long-term without significant effort and cost to re-customize. Rather, using a best-of-breed approach towards configuration-based technologies, such as SmartSimple Cloud, that excels in interoperability, security, and ease-of-use will better serve your foundation for many years to come.   Lastly, avoid doing this all alone. Finding a dependable and experienced partner to help you on your transformation journey is critically important, especially if you have failed to see the change you’ve been wanting to drive for years. reSolved has a team with 30+ years of combined experience to help you with all aspects of your journey: strategy, change management, impact measurement, and of course, system implementation. We believe that changes that organizations have made during the pandemic will already give you a head start on your way to a fully evolved Agile culture. With the right partner, you can make those successes more impactful, sustainable and long-term.

Mariana Catz is Managing Partner at reSolved

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