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4 Pitfalls of Nonprofit Executive Sponsorship

As a top nonprofit leader, it's important that you remain engaged and personally own the outcome of every project you take on. If I could offer you one single piece of advice it would be: stay engaged and own the outcome personally.

Implementing technology is likely one of the largest budget expenditures your organization will make. You need to stay engaged and not abdicate the system. In the tech space, we call this Executive Sponsorship.

Oftentimes, this crucial role is outsourced to someone without suffficient authority as a decision-maker. I get it - as executives we're used to engaging in selection process and letting others take it from there. There's a temptation to find the consultant, choose the system, and then prioritize other things.

4 Reasons Nonprofit Leaders Decline Executive Sponsorship of CRM Implementation

1. Executives think technology is too "in-the-weeds".

A lot of technology work is in the weeds. You probably shouldn’t be included in day-to-day meetings, like daily stand-up or scrum call (unless you are a Product Owner, which is a different thing!). Have your team break conversations regarding the tactical pieces of the system from the strategic conversations. You need to be there to discuss strategic underpinnings and high-level outcomes. You should expect the project to get about 90 minutes of your strategic input a month.

2. Exectives think meetings about technology are boring or irrelevant.

Sometimes technology meetings are boring. Others may not be boring, per say, but might seem irrelevant. First, name it. Identify if the meeting is boring or irrelevant. It it's irrelevant, the good news is as Executive Sponsor, you have power and influence to course correct. If it’s relevant, but boring, talk with your staff about ways to highlight key details, make decisions, and generate action. Commit to supporting your team in having better tech team meetings.

3. Executives encounter tech-speak language barriers.

The language of technology is specific, dynamic, and efficient. It's important that an executive sponsor understand it to communicate well with your team. You don't need to know what every single word means, but having working knowledge of the taxonomy will give you more power in decision making.

You may need to request that your team dial the techspeak down a notch. Explain how the language barrier can erode a sense of belonging for those who don’t know the language. If technical teams or consultants are unable to explain things so everyone can understand, it can be a sign that they are confused. If someone (especially a consultant) responds to a request to explain things so everyone can understand in a condescending way, address it explicitly. If it continues, you may need to terminate the business relationship. (That's how important this is!)

4. Executives feel ashamed that they don't use or understand the system.

Yes, I know. Maybe you can barely turn on your computer. Maybe your kids set up your email. Trust me, I’ve heard it all. This adds up to a combination of shame and intimidation.

Let’s start with the shame: you expect more from yourself than others. You hate double standards. You’re not meeting your expectations for using the system so you can’t ask others to use it. This will feel hypocritical, but the expectations for staff system use should be different than yours as an executive. I'm willing to bet when the system helps you gain insight, you will use it.

Now, this isn’t a free ride: you should be accountable to maintain records and reference information just like everyone else. I've encountered executive sponsors like this a hundred times, and out of the sheer volume of things on your plate, you're going to struggle to do that well. Keep working on it, but don’t sweat it. Don’t overcommit and please, for your staff's sake, don’t try to maximize every part of the system at the same time. If what you need to do in the CRM can be done by someone else, delegate that work to them.

Let’s talk intimidation. Maybe you really are intimidated by technology and systems. If so, my encouragement is to stop thinking so much about "the system" and to get back to why you are doing this in the first place. Your technology helps you accomplish your organizational mission. The cost of not having it is far too high. As Spock says, “What is necessary is never unwise.” That's Vulcan for "Yes, you have to do this." And, yes, I quoted Spock. You’re in your position because you do what it takes, you meet challenges and overcome them. Remember why your organization started this technology project to begin with.

Why Projects Need an Executive Sponsor

The thing about technology projects is they often start in the wrong place: by favoring the tactical, boots-on-the-ground work, diving into the task list before the strategy has been established. Chances are, without your presence your team won’t have the solid foundation of strategy or ask the overarching long-term questions.

If you abdicate leadership of tech projects, you’ll struggle to understand the tradeoffs of seemingly minor decisions that have major outcomes. You’ll have a hard time relaying context when your board needs to understand why the system they used in their for-profit business won’t work for your staff or why there's a change in the budget line item.

The largest reason, though, isn't the impact your leadership will bring to the system, the budget, the board, or the staff. It’s to you. The insights you need from a system need to be clear to the team. You need to trust all data passes through a rigorous framework ensuring its accuracy, an information layer ensuring its relevance, and ideally an insight layer which provides you with future-facing forecasts.

To move your technology beyond past tense record keeping to future-facing insight, you need to be in the room when it happens. If you aren’t there when the data layer is being defined, the information layer will likely not yield the insight you need. If you abdicate your role as Executive Sponsor, eventually you’ll downgrade your vision of your CRM from a source of insight to an address book that can run a few reports. That's not what you need - or want - to lead your organization well.