Religious organizations: Selecting an IT solution for practicality, effectiveness

Like other not-for-profits, faith-based and religious organizations are heavily reliant on technology in order to operate efficiently and support their mission. However, due to conservative spending over the past several years and an overall focus on mission-related investments, IT systems at religious organizations have become dated and in need of at least a refresh, if not a complete replacement.  

Nonprofit IT solutionsUntil recently, investments in technology took a back seat to other cash-intensive areas of religious organizations — legal issues, declining enrollment at schools, and an ever-increasing capital infrastructure with great maintenance needs. The perpetual deferral of IT investments has now caught up with this group; technology is beginning to crumble, not unlike an old roof of a church. As a result, there is emerging among religious organizations a renewed focus on IT that we have not seen for quite some time.

The number of organizations that are now making major investments in technology is significant, and in many cases, they are doing wholesale overhauls of their core financial and operational systems — and are doing it right. As with aging houses of worship, maintenance of IT assets can be deferred only so long; forward-thinking organizations are utilizing several key technology best practices:
  1. Thinking beyond IT: Selecting and implementing a new system should not be seen as a technology exercise. It is a way to serve the entire organization and support its mission. The overall system selection initiative, particularly the defining of requirements, should be approached accordingly. Personnel and programmatic activities at religious organizations are often distributed geographically, and as a result, they can become disconnected from one another; transforming organizational systems can be a way to bring everyone together in how they support the mission. Take the opportunity to assess how your technology systems are supporting your strategy, and implement shared systems/services to create financial, operational and programmatic platforms that can integrate the organization.  
  2. Soliciting constituent perspectives: Gather a variety of insights and perspectives — not just IT’s — in order to select an optimal system. This will help not only in identifying a system that meets your organization’s needs in total, but also with change management efforts, since stakeholders will have been involved from the beginning. Ask your program staff how well they are served by your core financial system, and ask your religious and lay leadership how the administrative offices can better support them in providing critical reports.
  3. Engaging a steering committee: Because of the variety of perspectives that will be solicited during system selection, the effort must have appropriate vehicles for governance, such as a steering committee composed of religious, lay, programmatic and IT leaders. Everyone should be at the table.
  4. Determining the total cost: When calculating the system project’s budget, do so from a total cost of ownership perspective. To give you a full picture of your expected total organizational spending, this should include all investment areas — e.g., configuration/customization, data load, hardware, professional services, and ongoing licensing and maintenance. It’s critical to avoid surprises when implementing a new system; capturing all the hidden costs that vendors might not always highlight enables you to understand the true spend and budget accordingly.
  5. Honoring budgetary constraints: When identifying your short list of vendors for a solution, don’t be tempted to overshoot your project budget. While a more expensive system might provide aspirational functionality, it can introduce unnecessary complexity, limiting its ultimate effectiveness. While board members may be familiar with large corporate IT systems, smaller faith-based and religious organizations would benefit from smaller-scale technology.
  6. Reconsidering business processes: When implementing a new system, take the opportunity to revamp your existing business processes. Avoid an “It’s always been done this way” approach, which would preclude tapping into the true potential of a system implementation. New systems both enable business process change and require it to some extent. Also avoid baking into the new system inefficient practices that likely exist as a result of limitations in the existing or previous systems.
  7. Getting a holistic view: When reaching out to the market with a request for proposal for a specific software solution, be certain to account for all potentially interrelated systems. Going to market with your complete request — even if you implement only one of the systems in the near term — will allow you to choose the best solution for long-term system integration and anticipate the full spectrum of your technology needs, not just those that are immediate.

An appropriate IT system can enable your organization to leverage its critical mission-driven partnerships, both internal and external. And this can assist your organization as it, like nonprofits across the board, is being asked to do even more with less.

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The State of the Not-for-Profit Sector in 2016