Blackbaud, Convio, Dessert and Digital Strategy

It was just two weeks ago today that a great deal of (electronic) ink began to spill and brou’s began to ha ha over the purchase of Convio by Blackbaud. For most of humanity (approximately 99.9% of it, anyway) this is about as relevant as the color of dried out chewing gum.

2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference
The masses assemble at 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Clearly, organizations have a thing for technology. Photo via VolunteerMatch

So, let’s write about it here, shall we?

Let’s say you work in nonprofit fundraising or marketing. Or perhaps you run an organization. Maybe you deal with membership or perhaps accounting. Then again, you might run field organizing or online campaigns. Maybe social media. You run the website, write the emails to donors, or research reports that end up on said web, email or social media channels.

If you do any of those things at a nonprofit (and there aren’t many other things to do, really) then your work is affected by the software that Convio, Blackbaud and their peers produce. You see, these systems don’t just run email lists. These are CRM’s, CMS’s, donor management, social media, membership and advocacy systems. It’s no surprise, then, that 0.01% of the population (and a fair chunk of the 17 people  reading this) get worked up about the impact these companies (and their business practices) have on nonprofit organizations.

What does it mean?

Some are justly concerned about companies merging and making many millions of dollars on the backs of nonprofits struggling to improve the world, feed the poor, help children and protect clean air. Others point out that this reduces competition between the two biggest players in the market while creating opportunity for newer and/or smaller (and more nimble) operators.

Issues of fairness and business opportunity aside, we’re skeptical that this will mean much of anything for customers of Blackbaud or Convio over the next few years. Convio products are mature enough (and complex enough) that it seems unlikely Blackbaud will begin to move customers off Convio to Blackbaud products. Plus, members of both teams probably learned some lessons from Convio’s migration of GetActive users to its platform after the GetActive-Convio merger (let’s just say it wasn’t good). We can hope that documentation and support improves. Perhaps more innovation arises. Who knows, really?

Pass the turkey. Let’s eat.

Let’s stop talking about dinner and get down to the business at hand. Organizations are far too dependent on outside support for technology/digital strategy. And by technology we don’t mean office networking and coding websites – the sorts of things that are truly arcane and best left to those with real experience (be they inside or outside the organization, itself another issue).

We mean the concepts around technology-driven human networks. Digital systems (CRM, CMS, social media) are pervasive in everything organizations do now. That’s not changing anytime soon.

More than ever, it is incumbent on nonprofit leaders (boards, executive directors, senior level muckety muck types) to understand technology and the role it plays, the relationship between tech vendors and staff, the cost, time and training involved in technology projects. And it is critical that we take ownership over the people aspects of digital in our organizations.

I don’t mean to say that executive directors should know how to write php or be conversant in responsive design for mobile devices. Some experience working directly on the web or building programmatic applications wouldn’t hurt but hard to say it’s absolutely necessary.

But technical experience and familiarity with network concepts is going to be (already is) needed for conceiving, managing and successfully implementing most any fundraising, membership, advocacy, marketing, outreach or internal communications project in a nonprofit. Staff in development should understand their technical requirements and also how the needs of their constituents (donors) relate to the needs of campaign staff (their constituents being activists) and all should be comfortable with how digital – and offline – networks help move people from prospective to active.

To continue this insufferable metaphor, what’s for dessert?

We’ve grappled with wave after wave of technology implementation in nonprofits since the mid-1990s. One of the most interesting (and helpful) recent perspectives appeared in a series of articles last year in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Jason Mogus of Communicopia led a team in researching how digital teams and management are structured in many nonprofits. The report identified seven patterns of digital team structure. Some of their top line findings included:

  • Digital is typically based in communications departments;
  • Most teams need more full-time help;
  • Teams over-invest in social media and under-invest in user experience;
  • More teams are moving from reactive to proactive;
  • Poor structure holds them back;
  • Digital programs could have more impact; and
  • The future is brighter.

An earlier article in the series took a closer look at ways in which digital teams are typically structured in nonprofits (where they reside in the org chart) and presents some analysis and recommendations.

We see a strong correlation between the distribution/strength of digital knowledge in an organization and the control an organization has in relationships over major technology projects and the companies involved. A common thread in reactions to the Blackbaud-Convio deal (and earlier Convio-GetActive deal as well as past Blackbaud and everyone else deals) is that nonprofits are just going to have to deal with it (and it probably won’t be good…oh well).

Digital networks and related technologies are complex. The goal for nonprofits is not mastery. This is an ongoing process of learning and adjustment. Spreading digital experience, skill and network capacity across organizations will produce stronger systems with more complete understanding of what’s needed in software, social media and tech. If you want a stronger digital and technology strategy invest inwards and take a close look at structure and leadership. It will pay dividends.


Leave a Reply