lot of non-profits have problems that sound like this:

We’re paying almost a whole salary, if not more, for this third party technology that supports an essential part of our organization, but we’re really unhappy with it. It doesn’t really do what we need it to do, and our staff spends a lot of time on workarounds to get some version of what we really want out of the platform. We know this isn’t a great place to be, but we don’t know what else we can do. We know of a few other platforms we could use, but they’re all expensive, too. Besides, we don’t have the money to spend on migrating to a new system, or the time to learn how to use it once we do.

This is a totally understandable situation, and I imagine it’s pretty familiar to a lot of people reading this. But there’s a way out of it. You can save money, save the staff time you spend dealing with your pricey third party platform, and actually serve your mission better by dumping your vendor and doing it yourself.

There are some familiar problems along the way, some that are a lot easier than they used to be, and one missing piece that can help non-profits solve all of them.

The opportunity

In the last decade, a lot of technologies that are relevant to the non-profit sector have matured. They’ve gotten better, cheaper, and more customizable. However, the products specifically targeting non-profits as customers have lagged behind the commercial and open source products like WordPress, Salesforce, and Mailchimp. At the same time, web technology and open source have made it much easier to build web applications, handle data, and customize cross platform integrations.

And so we have an opportunity. We can use commercial and open source tools designed for much bigger markets, and customize them to serve our own specific needs. We don’t have to build custom software from scratch; instead we can customize, tweak, and integrate existing robust products, and minimize the burden on our organizations. That means the cost in developer time to create a customized solution to a non-profit’s problems has dropped through the floor. Ten years ago the expensive third party platform was quite possibly your best option. Today it’s definitely, certainly, absolutely not.

So why don’t more non-profits build their own solutions? There a lot of reasons. Familiarity with the tech landscape is one; without that, it’s hard to know what’s possible. Engineering/developer staff time is another. When non-profits do have developers on staff, which is unusual, they’re universally overworked already. But if you’re planning to dump a vendor that costs as much as a person, or more, you can probably find the money to increase your in-house technical capacity. The staff time you’ll save by dumping inefficient old technology is a resource here, too.

Product management is the missing piece

There are some great reasons for organizations to be afraid of taking on big new technology projects. I’ve heard a lot of versions of this story in the non-profit world:

Our organization doesn’t know a lot about technology, and we’ve never hired developers. Colleagues of ours have horror stories of making big bets on new technology. They started off very excited, but as the work progressed it ran over budget, and communications with the developers broke down. Eventually they wound up with a tool that didn’t do what they needed it to do at all, and had to pay for it anyway. They tried getting someone else to fix it, but that didn’t work either. They wound up abandoning the whole project and they never stopped using the expensive product they were trying to replace. We don’t want to go through that, so we want to stay with the devil we know.

It’s definitely possible to flush hundreds of thousands of dollars away and still not solve your problem. Luckily, there’s also a way to prevent it. You need to have a product manager. Every team of developers building any kind of software works with a product manager, or PM. A PM’s job has a lot of moving parts, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to making sure you don’t wind up with one of those same horror stories.

What a product manager does in each organization varies extremely widely. But the broad responsibility of a PM is to understand the organization’s mission and strategy, to create a vision for the technology that can solve the organization’s problems, and to make sure that the technology being built actually does solve them. It’s a hybrid discipline, including elements of design, engineering, marketing, research, analysis, project management, and a huge amount of communication.

This job didn’t exist in the early days of the tech industry either, and it emerged because tech companies had the same problem that non-profits face: they couldn’t make sure they were building the right things. Multi-million dollar pieces of technology got built and shipped to market and flopped. Now that the discipline of product management has developed enough to have a job title attached to it, non-profits can simply add that job instead of reinventing the wheel.

Without a good PM you’re in danger. Your organization probably doesn’t speak the same language as your developers, and you won’t be able to get what you want; you’d probably be better off sticking with the pricey vendor. But a good PM speaks both languages, and will be able to make sure that your problems actually get solved. If you have good product management in house, you can absolutely dump your vendor.

How do non-profits hire good PMs?

So far, there isn’t a great model to follow for hiring PMs for non-profit organizations. Right now the number of people with product management experience in a non-profit context is really, really, really small. There are like seven of us. But PMs come from a lot of different backgrounds, and cut their teeth as product managers in a lot of different ways. It’s entirely possible that someone on your staff could grow into the product manager you need. That’s how I got started in PM at New Music USA with our project platform.

You can also look at the tech industry for people with PM experience who are committed to your mission, or at people who have backgrounds in engineering or design, but want to become product managers. Someone like that might jump at the chance to build and launch something with you (at a price you can afford), before going back to a tech company as an experienced PM.

If you have other ideas for how non-profits can hire great PMs, or stories about some that already have, please share! You could really help by sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Dump your vendor

Once you have your PM in place, whether you’re developing an existing staff member’s skills or hiring in, you can get started dumping your vendor. Your PM should be able to recommend technologies to use, create a roadmap for the migration process, and model cost savings over the first few years. This is on top of being able to translate between leadership and programmers, and being able to outline a staff structure for building and maintaining your solution.

At the end of this process you’ll have saved money, saved staff time dealing with irritating technology, and probably gotten a few new tools straight off your wishlist. You’ll also be better able to adjust to future changes, probably have a reputation as a technically sophisticated organization, and have complete control over the tools you use.

Non-profits are going to have to become more technically sophisticated in the next few years. Technology is going to stop being a separate department, and start being an essential part of everyone’s job. Something similar is already happening in newsrooms, as reporters have to learn how to produce audio and video, as well as how to promote their content on social media.

Right now there’s an opportunity to get ahead of these changes and save money at the same time. So get some product management at your organization, dump that third party platform, and take control of your technology now.

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