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Insights / January 29, 2024

Nonprofit staff are burning out. How tech is making it worse — and what to do

The words

By Wendy Bolm

Here at Software for Good, we’ve spent almost two decades making data and technology work better for nonprofits at every scale, from coast to coast — and some facts of nonprofit life never change. 

Executive directors, board members, staff and volunteers are always making the most of too little funding, improvising solutions on the fly, driven to make-it-work ingenuity by an abiding commitment to their mission. Do-gooders are masters of jugaad, creating the tools they need to do their work by cobbling together whatever apps they’ve got at hand, devising wonky manual workarounds for missing bits of essential data infrastructure. Nonprofits have always just made it work

But in recent years, in the wake of the pandemic, we’ve noticed something new. Today, nonprofit staff are fed up with having to make it work. 

How “nonprofit-quality” tech leads to burnout and inequity

“Folks are just done with ‘nonprofit-quality’ data infrastructure and software,” says Cassi Johnson, our VP of product strategy. “They’re just out of patience. Having to do extra, meaningless work to compensate for crappy software can push essential staff members right out the door, to another nonprofit or out of the sector altogether.” 

We can hardly blame them. Nationwide, nonprofits are struggling to hire enough employees to survive. Here in Minnesota this year, eighty percent of nonprofits couldn’t fill vacant staff positions, primarily due to salary competition and burnout. 

That’s a catastrophe for the communities those nonprofits serve — and a worrisome setback for racial equity. People of color are leaving nonprofit work in especially high numbers. And on their way out, they cite “burdensome data entry requirements” as the primary reason why. 

The siren song of “enterprise-level” platforms

Nonprofit leaders, understandably concerned, are desperate to find technological tools that don’t make their staff miserable — which many fear will mean investing in new customer-relationship management or enterprise resource planning systems. 

“If you’re like most EDs, you’re starting to ask, ‘Does my nonprofit need an ERP?’ or ‘Would a new CRM solve our problems?’” Cassi reports. “They’re worried that making tech work better for their staff means finding the money and time to implement an expensive, complex off-the-shelf enterprise-level business platform.” The makers of such software are eager to agree, with invoices and long-term support contracts to match. 

But “enterprise” technology, built on the values of for-profit commerce, is usually a terrible fit for the way real nonprofits work — too big, too expensive, too complicated, and completely divorced from the mission your work pursues. 

“The folks we talk to are relieved to hear that their nonprofit can have technology that works without a new CRM or ERP,” she says. “Lower-tech, less expensive, more mission-aligned combinations of tools can be much more effective. All we have to do is find the right combinations.” 

That’s what Software for Good does best. 

The best platform for your nonprofit: the tech you already have

As technologists who pursue the common good, we’ve always shared the nonprofit spirit of mission-driven improvisation. Rather than imposing ready-made technological solutions, we help our nonprofit clients harmonize the tools they already have to work better together for the sake of the mission — and the sanity of their staff. 

“When we work with your nonprofit, we start from your theory of change, how your organization understands its story of impact,” says Cassi. “Once we understand the good your nonprofit does and how you do it, we ask: Does your tech match? Can your team do their best work with the tools they have? If not, where can lightweight, inexpensive data integrations between existing apps make their work easier and improve their quality of life?” 

Fight nonprofit burnout with tech that works

When we partner with a nonprofit to make data and tech work better, our goal isn’t to replace all the apps you have with one new and perfect thing. Instead, Cassi says, “we want your team to have the tools they need in their toolbox, playing well together.” If you know your staff are frustrated by your nonprofit’s technology, Software for Good can help — with deep respect for your people and your communities, at a price your mission can afford. “Start by assessing the technology you already have,” Cassi urges. “Your staff is tired of ‘making it work.’ We’ll help you figure out how to make it all work better, so your staff doesn’t have to.”