Is Your Non-Profit Ready to Digitally Transform? Start with Case Management to Advance Your Mission

Petra Eimiller
29 Jun, 2021

As a non-profit, you are constantly faced with problems and challenges that must be addressed as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, so the pursuit of your mission is not compromised.

As you look at tackling those challenges today, you should be doing so in the context of digital transformation—that is, developing a transformational strategy that addresses your issues using the latest technology. This does not preclude process improvement and other avenues; on the contrary, the right technology solution or tool empowers you to truly transform any area or process of any size or complexity and realize benefits from day one.

In a roundtable hosted by HSO, leaders from several non-profits discussed many areas in which digital transformation can be a game changer. While there were multiple topics touched on, it became clear that case management was one of the most vital. After all, one participant said, all non-profits, regardless of their specific focus, are in the business of improving the lives of people.

Yet, despite this truism, case management is often not anywhere near the top of the list of challenges to be addressed. One roundtable participant summed it up all to clearly: “We have to look at things from the funder side, reports for the board and the senior management to the staff, and unfortunately, you see, probably the saddest thing I will say on this call is that the clients are usually the last people that you look at the value-add proposition of a system you put in place.”

If you consider the squeaky wheel theory—that it gets the grease—it’s no surprise that recipients of your services are not immediately addressed. After all, how often do the people you serve publish reviews of their experiences on social media? They can’t threaten to go elsewhere, like consumers can do.

Instead, the attention getters are reporting, fundraising, donor management—areas that impact your ability to financially support your efforts. That’s understandable since, without funding, you can’t serve anyone.

However, if you want to reach those mission objectives, a good place to start with digital transformation is with case management. If you are concerned about spending a tight budget on this area first, you’ll see as you read the following points discussed by our roundtable attendees that case management is a smart first investment in your overall digital transformation strategy.

The baseline: Commit to spending money—and be confident in your investment

Out of the gate, the group discussed the importance of committing to spending money on digital transformation in any area. “First and foremost,” said one participant, “if you don’t put money where you want to go, it’s not going to be very easy to get there.”

This seems obvious, but it’s not. Most non-profits look at technology as a utility rather than an avenue to true transformation and moving their mission forward. It’s there at some level, but there’s not a real commitment to it, which means there isn’t the level of investment or allocation of funds to implement it fully and correctly. As a result, the technology implemented might only partially automate a process or two at best—and at worst, it can slow down or get in the way. We see this in all industries: an acknowledgement of the need to transform but a reluctance to fully commit to it. The result is, without exception, failure and increased reluctance to implement technology—even hostility towards it.

Before you go any further down the digital transformation path, make sure your organization is all in—not only financially but also philosophically, with buy-in from the top down and a commitment of resources, time, and the willingness to put together a solid plan.

The baseline, part 2: Leaders need to digitally transform first

As the world—including non-profits—digitally transforms, so must non-profit leadership. In fact, it would be most advantageous for your leaders to acquire the skill of “knowing digital” before your organization develops or pursues a digital transformation strategy. With this knowledge, they will understand the benefits of digital transformation, so you will have their support. They will also understand what’s involved—including cost—so they can be prepared to put the financial support in place. They can actively participate in developing your strategy, and finally, they can help you get buy-in throughout the organization. As one participant said, “That is what makes the difference between an organization that uses digital to advance its mission and program impact and one that doesn’t.”

Ensure data is gathered, stored, and shared to better serve your clients

Data is everywhere today. There is so much of it that the problem is not gathering it but being able to do something with it. Sadly, however, this is not the case with the people and communities served by non-profits. Surprisingly, non-profits do not, as a rule, have enough data to understand and track those they are committed to serving. Without that data, it is impossible to create plans for managing those cases that will result in success—and without that, outcomes suffer as do opportunities for getting and keeping funding and support.

As you build your transformation strategy, think about how you collect information. As one participant  who was in the beginning stages of setting up a database said, “We tend to work in silos, so our data is in silos. For that reason, we can’t have a real comprehensive conversation around the real impact we’re having in the community… Just by having this conversation, we are reminded how important it is to evaluate your performance, and the only way to evaluate your performance, whether it is to a funder, to community stakeholders, or even personally, you must be able to collect a consistent set of facts and be able to share those facts across the organization to improve how you deliver services and your outcomes.”

In addition to setting up this “common data model”, that data needs to be used in a new way—to support research-backed, evidence-informed decision making. The goal should be to create a measurement feedback system that loops back to your organization constantly with new information and new insights so everyone can do a better job. If you offer multiple services—and one of the organizations represented in the roundtable offers 70—how do you know who is working with your clients and one what? How many times are they being “touched” and by whom? Are services overlapping? Are they being directed to or provided with the right services and referrals to other services providers as needed? Without the ability to see that data across the entire organization, you cannot provide full, effective case management.

Make sure data is available for reporting

On the other side of the data discussion is reporting. While case managers are not directly responsible for reporting to funders or entities that provide oversight at the local, state, and/or federal level, the data they gather ultimately makes its way into a report. Your management team will put pressure on your case managers to get that data, but for the case managers, this can feel like just one more thing they have to do that takes them away from serving their clients. Your digital transformation strategy should include making it as easy as possible for case managers to capture data while also easing the task of analyzing and running reports.

Look at each component, prioritize, and map out solutions

It might sound like it’s oversimplifying, but digital transformation for case management (or any area of your organization) should not be approached as a “big bang”. The key is to break the big, case management “chunk” down into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Analyze the processes, the data you need to gather and what you need to do with that data, and any other components that contribute to making that area do what it is supposed to do. Then, and only then, can you look at how to apply technology to help.

For example, one participant discussed the fact that his organization’s front desk experience is critical. This bite-sized piece of the case management chunk for this organization includes checking people in, doing intakes, scanning documents, and more. His team is working on identifying gaps in and between these components to improve the overall function and efficiency of the front-desk process, which will improve other processes down the line.

To get case managers on board with transformation, you need to see it through their eyes

Entering data was another big challenge for that same organization—and this is where the participant in our roundtable made an important discovery. While it’s important for this organization to gather and store data for reporting, case managers did not feel the same sense of urgency. Their job is to take care of their clients, so it did not make sense get them excited or interested in participating in improving the process for getting data into the system.

HOWEVER, what did resonate was the proposition of technology that would allow them to enter data in the field, as they gather it, rather than having to come back to the office. “That sounds very elementary,” this participant said, “but when you’re dealing with 75 percent of your staff being engaged on the front lines, that’s where it has to be relevant.” This is the approach required to determine what digital transformation looks like for each area of your organization.”

Another participant responded to that comment with another, equally relevant revelation: “We were leading a session in digital transformation, and I got a comment from one of our field staff that said, ‘You guys in IT, you’re scary. Talk our language, not your language.’ Why didn’t somebody tell me at that time?”

What organizations (and not just non-profits) forget when it comes to implementing new technology is that it is on the front lines where the mission happens. To those case managers, “IT” means “it”—not “information technology”. As you work on your digital transformation strategy, get out of the “IT” mentality and think like a case manager. You’ll make a lot more headway much faster.

Think like your clients … or better yet, involve them directly

Putting yourself in the shoes of your case managers will get you a long way, but if you recall the discussion point at the beginning of this blog post—that it’s about serving people, and that your clients don’t get the opportunity to provide feedback—the next shoes you need to step into are those of your clients. According to one roundtable participant: “The most successful ideation journeys we have seen in technologies are the ones that have had our clients in the room. It’s amazing how many times I heard, ‘Yep. Good idea. But I won’t work. Let me tell you my story.’”

For example, a technology provider might suggest a solution that requires clients to have a cell phone or internet access. It’s your job to make sure you understand your clients to know what’s viable and what’s not. For many NGOs, it is not safe to assume clients have phones or internet access. Again, keeping the client in mind—or better yet, keeping them directly involved—will save you from going down a road that is not viable.

A well-designed digital transformation strategy leads to choosing the right technology

The goal of digital transformation is to figure out how to use technology to make improvements throughout your organization that will smooth the path to fulfilling your mission. Planned carefully, your digital transformation strategy will help you choose the right technology for the job.

Finding technology that supports all the needs of your agency—not just case management—is not easy. Most software or platform providers can work with one specific piece but not all of it. What often results is that you are forced to purchase more than one system, and even then, the systems often don’t integrate with each other, resulting in data silos and disjointed processes. On the other hand, attempts at customizations can fall short, racking up costs and still not delivering the desired results.

Instead of searching for a platform that has it all, many non-profits are choosing to go with a platform that has the flexibility to be tailored to your needs and will grow and scale with your organization. “Once we realized that,” said one roundtable participant, “it became a lot easier to define what was going to work for us.”

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