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Consultants to the rescue!

Posted November 19, 2020 by Teri Bicknell

Consultants to the rescue

 

As you may have seen in our article earlier this month, Little Green Light provides a number of free resources to help customers succeed in using LGL effectively. But what if you have a significant issue or project that you think would be best handled by an LGL expert? Then investing in a consultant can be a great way to bring your organization, and your donor database, to the next level. The LGL Consultant Network provides a ready supply of consultants who have experience working with nonprofits and their data. (For clarification, the consultants in this network are not LGL employees or contractors; they are independent consultants.)

When should you seek out a consultant?

There are two primary reasons why nonprofits choose to hire a consultant:

  1. To gain expertise
  2. To save time

Below are some examples of each.

Gaining expertise

  • What’s the best way to set up my LGL account? We get this question all the time, and while we are very happy to explain how LGL intends for customers to use the various fields for tracking constituents and gifts, we are not able to spend the time necessary to craft a custom answer based on each customer’s unique needs and situation. There is often more than one possible answer, and a consultant can help you work through the pros and cons of the options and assist you in choosing the best solution for your organization.
  • How does a particular feature work? Most customers can manage most features in LGL on their own, but sometimes you have a complex need that a consultant can help you with. For example, you might have a complex spreadsheet that you generate in another system on a monthly basis and you want to streamline the process of getting that data to sync with LGL. Or you might have an event coming up and along with it a complex registration form that you want to map to your LGL account.

Saving time

  • Migrating data from your old system into LGL. This is one of the most common uses of the LGL Consultant Network. Most customers can learn how to migrate even complex databases into LGL, using a combination of our help articles, help videos, and direct support. But there’s a learning curve, and if you have years worth of complex data to migrate there are lots of decisions to be made about how to store that data in LGL. A consultant can greatly speed up the time it takes you to get up and running in LGL.
  • Customized workflow documentation and training. LGL provides an excellent Basic Training webinar series to help you get up to speed on using the system. But sometimes nonprofits are looking for customized help in nailing down their internal processes and getting employees trained on how to handle specific workflows. This is another great time to call on a consultant.

To add some context and concrete examples to this post, we asked a couple of the leading consultants in the LGL Consultant Network, Rick Eaton and Carrie Grote, to share their thoughts on a few questions.

How did you gain your expertise around managing data in nonprofits?

Rick Eaton

With a background in computer science and developing and maintaining warehousing management systems for a large computer manufacturer, Rick moved into nonprofit management in 2001 as the Executive Director of an organization placing youth into service-learning opportunities. He helped professionalize the organization, switching from spreadsheets to CRMs (and eventually, to Little Green Light), built and invested in the organization’s culture and values, and developed donor loyalty. Over time he shifted into fundraising planning and outreach, delving more into the data side.

After 17 years, with the organization a sustainable and professional operation, the time came for a change and two years ago Rick became an independent contractor. He works with small organizations, helping them set up administrative efficiency and data, and success in fundraising. He feels fortunate to work with small nonprofits, and keeps pricing affordable so these organizations can be served.

Carrie Grote

Educated as an elementary school teacher, Carrie joined the Peace Corps after college, where she trained primary school teachers to enhance and expand kids’ understanding of math and science. But she was always drawn to service and nonprofit work and landed back in the U.S. in various nonprofit roles ranging from training to development work to serving as Development Director for multiple organizations. Along the way, she developed a passion for databases and the importance and power of accurate, organized data. She always wanted to do her own thing and became an independent consultant several years ago, helping nonprofits understand what data they are looking for, why they need it, and what they’re going to do with it (be it creating a mailing or report, supporting donor cultivation, or informing a Board of Trustees).

She came across Little Green Light while searching for an affordable CRM for a small nonprofit she was working with. They needed something cloud-based, easy, and affordable. LGL worked for the organization she was assisting, and she decided to incorporate it into her work with other clients as well.

Carrie considers herself not a techie but rather a Type A development person who loves logic. Her work process follows two basic steps:

  • Step 1. Transferring data from one system to another: Looking at fundraising goals, strategy—basically, all the things a nonprofit wants to do to be successful—and translating that into the client’s database.
  • Step 2. Determining what information needs to be ascertained throughout the year so the client can understand how they’re doing and what changes they need to be able to make next time.

These two steps are the bookends for the process: Putting the data in and planning how it’s going to look when it comes out and what it can tell you. This involves not just creating places for information to live but looking at it from the development perspective and trying to understand the organization’s needs.

A good example is around appeals, getting a good understanding of who the organization is sending to and how prospective donors are responding, so that the results of this year’s appeal can inform the strategy for next year’s appeal.

Are there common best practices you can apply to just about any nonprofit? Or is the setup always unique and customized from one nonprofit to the next? Do certain campaigns tend to work well with every nonprofit? What about events?

Rick

I’m big on defining the standards a client wants to use, naming conventions, defining groups crisply. I help define a framework for documenting this, using standard templates, deciding what those standards are, custom categories, whatever the unique data dimensions are. This helps provide a way to be somewhat disciplined about those things. An example is taking 100 groups with ambiguity and overlap and turning them into 15 well-defined groups, so it’s much more usable to the client than what they had previously.

That’s a common challenge, but it’s useful because it forces people to think through what’s important to track about constituents and donations. My clients have been challenged by defining campaigns, appeals, and funds, but it’s a useful challenge because it forces them to think about where their philanthropic money is coming from and how to plan for it.

The best practice I push is to think these important questions through. You have an opportunity to manage your data better. You’re going to all the trouble of migrating to a new system. Let’s migrate data management practices at the same time and not just port over the same categorizations we’ve been using in the past. On the flip side, there’s always uniqueness. LGL has the power and flexibility to support a lot of different data practices and structures.

Regarding certain campaigns that work well across nonprofits, that’s a good question and I am still learning a lot. I ask people how they plan out their budgets, their fundraising goals for the year. Those top-line items in a budget or plan tend to become campaigns in terms of raising from individuals and raising from grants. We can end up with a campaign called “Individuals” and another called “Grants”. This corresponds to major fundraising activities, grant writing, appeals, and mailings.

That works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Mainly they need to think through their fundraising goals and start with a fundraising strategy to be successful. The nonprofit has to think through their structure, given their fundraising landscape. Not everyone is the same. As a consultant, you have to recognize that organizations have a culture, history, set of practices, donors, and community, and that they know more about their own organization than I do, by far.

Carrie

The basic best practice around campaign, fund, appeal, event, gift type, and gift category is to make sure that your gifts are coded completely, because that gives you really good information, not just around the financial aspect but around the motivation behind the donor as well as what efforts are working for the organization as a whole.

There are organizations that track some pretty custom information. They might have a volunteer intake form, and you certainly want those folks in LGL—they are your next donors! Some even go as far as tracking their clients, and there’s a lot of custom information they need to be able to keep track of.

I want them to be able to keep track of it in a way that it’s all connected, so I’ll often use appeals in a nontraditional way; not as an appeal for income, but for information. I’ll house all that information together. A volunteer intake form is a good example, where they’re collecting information on when are you available, how did you hear about us, and what kind of volunteer experience do you have? If you were to just collect that in a form and throw it into a bunch of notes, it’s all going to be spread out across your database, discombobulated, and it’s not going to give you the ability to report out in an efficient way. So it can be housed in an appeal, using custom categories and attributes to collect the information, and it can be done once per year.

There are times when we have to take it a step further and use those traditional gift code fields for something a little different, in particular with appeals. I don’t do that with campaigns or funds, but do with appeals. With events, it’s not the same because an event is an event whether it’s a money maker or not. There are some unique ones like that. The thing is to help people understand the architecture of LGL, that when you go to that constituent page, everything should represent them as who they are as a person or an organization, not what they’ve participated in. That’s a big Aha! moment.

What is the best free advice you can share with nonprofits who want to improve their use of data and their donor management database?

Rick

When I was an ED posed with a question like, “how do we invest $5,000?” we really thought about these decisions. We worked hard to raise $5,000 and didn’t have big funders. I really try to get the message through to people that investing in capacity will pay off: Investment in managing your data well, paying for a CRM, doing a good job of setting it up, and spending time to train your staff and leadership on the importance not just in the nuts and bolts but also of investing in managing the data. Hammering home the message that there’s an ROI (return on investment) that’s not easy to quantify, but it’s very positive.

One of the things we talked a lot about [in our organization] was having a culture of philanthropy. So having the idea that part of what makes us successful is that we earn this money from supporters, and that was something that everyone should understand. But the same is true of data management. You should have a culture that says, managing our data well is critical to our success and it is fundamental.

What’s the value of addressing people correctly when you communicate with them? How many additional donations do you get because of that? How many donations do you lose because I got a letter that said “Mrs. Richard Eaton” addressed to me? Those are all real things that happen in the world. What’s the value of being able to find the information you want quickly, rather than looking through three different spreadsheets that have conflicting data in them?

The first contract I got was because a new Development Director had published their annual report and, because of how they had been using or misusing soft credits in LGL, one major donor didn’t get listed properly and was upset. What’s the cost of that? The Development Director was able to convince her boss to hire me to help clean things up.

Carrie

Think through the entire process. What information do you need to collect, why do you need to collect it, and how do you want it to look when you take it out? Walk through the steps. Have a conversation. This happens in training. I always incorporate at least an hour of training with every client I work with. It’s always about best practices, and it starts with understanding the architecture of LGL. When we get into reporting that’s when we dig into why do you need this information, what’s it going to look like when it comes out? [The training is] always recorded, so people can refer to it later.

The other piece is taking time to highlight the database and make sure everyone’s on the same page and is consistent. You do this with every other aspect of a nonprofit. If you can have a gatekeeper, use the gatekeeper. If people are holding a weekly or biweekly meeting about the database, that’s when they’d bring this up. If you decide to add a new category, tell everyone what it’s for and how to use it. If you go too long and don’t talk about it, and a year goes by and someone’s been entering something in a way they thought would work but never told anyone else, it could really mess up your database.

Everyone working in a database knows something different about it but not how it works together. For example, we just got this Benevity gift, how should it be entered? And then everyone would know. Or I’m setting up an event. You guys are using Eventbrite this year. What information are you collecting for the RSVPs? Do you want to house all that in LGL or just the guest name? It’s setting aside that time and feeling like it’s important and necessary.

The cleanup piece has come up a lot more lately. I really care about the integrity of other people’s databases, because I think LGL is so perfect for so many organizations and I don’t like to see it when people are frustrated with their database. I remember many times when I first used Raiser’s Edge getting so frustrated. I couldn’t get it. I remind people of that.

I guess it’s more about slowing down and trying to understand what you need to know in your role in the database. Your role doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s. The main point is, focus on what you need to be able to do now. Baby steps and it will eventually come. And with LGL, you don’t have to feel that you’re spending so much and only using a tiny bit. You’ll eventually grow into it.

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