I have never encountered a nonprofit that wasn’t short on time, staff, or both.
It’s just the nature of the industry that we all try to do as much as possible with as little as possible. We could have a debate about whether or not that’s a good thing, but for now let’s just agree that this is the status quo for most nonprofits and so, they often struggle to get their current workload completed. Add something new on top of existing work and you just might get a full-blown, stress-induced freak out. (I know because I’ve had these freakouts myself in the past. No judgment.)
I don’t know about you, but when I think back to my days as a nonprofit employee and I think about all the tasks I was responsible for, I realize that many of them were incredibly time-consuming, repetitive tasks that were essentially data entry. Whether it was preparing reports, entering data into spreadsheets, or scheduling social media posts, these were all things that needed to get done but which required much more time than they did brain power.
I always hated doing them. I understood that they were important, but I also understood that the hours I spent on them were taking my attention away from more critical programmatic/mission-driven work that needed to be done. And it often precluded me from taking on worthy new projects because I just didn’t have the capacity to do one.more.freaking.thing.
If that sounds familiar, then this blog post is definitely for you!
When I left my last nonprofit staff job to launch Cain Nonprofit Solutions, I knew that for a long time I would be a solo shop. It would be just me getting everything done for a business which I hoped would grow. In many ways, this was familiar because I was used to getting as much as possible done with no help.
But this time there was truly no one else to shoulder the load. How would I get it all done? What would happen if I fell behind?
I quickly discovered that I would not be able to just throw more hours at my workload like I used to. At least, not if I wanted to remain sane. No – I needed a way to work smarter instead of harder. Because I’m a nerd at heart, I began researching solutions and quickly discovered that there were a whole host of automation tools which could help me out.
I grew to love and depend on most of them and over the years I have found myself continually referring clients and readers to them as well. I often hear feedback that these tools cut precious hours (sometimes days) worth of work off of staff members’ workloads.
You could say at this point that I am a true automation evangelist. A hardcore believer in its power to turn any staff member into a hero who can get twice as much done without the stress and time.
I recently had a conversation with a colleague and I was talking to her about automation tools. I was really jazzed up about it and she said “Ashley, have you thought about offering this as a training to people? This is something nonprofits could really, really benefit from.” The answer, of course, was ‘no’.
But she was right – automation is a wonderful thing and I want to share it with all of you, so I thought I might start with a blog post. Because I don’t want this post to be a billion miles long, I’m not going to cover every automation tool and technique out there. I will talk about my three favorites just to get us started and give you a taste of what’s possible.
Without further ado, here are 3 of my absolute fave automation tools:
We all know how important it is to maintain a social media presence in today’s world. It’s a primary way we stay in touch with our donors and patrons and let people know what’s going on with our orgs. But we also all know how time-consuming it can be to maintain that presence.
Let me stop here to say one thing that may or may not surprise you, but is key to why I like this tool so much:
If you aren’t posting at least a few times a week, you may as well not be posting at all.
The reason I say that is because many social platforms’ algorithms will bury your content if you post too infrequently, meaning no one sees it. Plus, you will not remain “top of mind” with your audience if you post infrequently, negating the purpose of having social accounts!
But this creates a dilemma, right? If you need to post 3-5 times a week on any one platform, that’s a lot. And your staff probably doesn’t have time to sit around writing posts, creating photos/videos/graphics to go with those posts, and then logging in to actually post it every day. They’d be spending all their time on social media and they probably (hopefully?) have better things to do.
Enter social media scheduling tools.
There are a whole range of tools out there which integrate directly with your social media accounts. You can input all your posts and images at once, schedule each post for the day and time you want it to publish, and then forget about it.
I use one myself and I truly think that I wouldn’t function well without it at this point. I typically post every day to each social media platform I maintain (and I’m on 5 of them). That’s a lot, but you can bet I’m not spending my days staring at my phone on these accounts. I have a content calendar spreadsheet where I map out what will get posted on all platforms each month. I write all the copy, create the graphics, and then I load everything up into HootSuite (my scheduling tool of choice). I schedule it and then I forget about it all until I do it again next month.
The process of writing all my posts and creating graphics takes 2-4 hours. Scheduling the posts themselves takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes. But this is literally the total time I devote to social media each month. If I was writing and posting everything manually, you can bet it would take much longer. Plus, let’s not pretend that once we’re on social we don’t get sucked into scrolling through our feeds instead of logging off (you know you do it). Chances are, you won’t be posting to 5 platforms so you can reasonably expect to spend less hours on this than I do.
Most social tools do require you to pay a monthly fee, but it’s typically a few hundred a year for high-powered plans and most of these companies offer nonprofit discounts which would knock your costs lower. Plus, some of them have free plans if you don’t need anything too high-powered.
As I said, I use HootSuite, but there are lots of good options out there. Here are some longstanding favorites you could check out:
I’ve discussed this in past blog posts, but email marketing is something your nonprofit should definitely be taking advantage of. If you don’t believe me, go back and check out this post on nonprofit marketing.
But of course, that’s easy to say and harder to put into practice. Because email marketing means you have to write a bunch of emails and then remember to send them out on time, right?
Well, you do have to write the emails, but if you use a quality email service provider (ESP) then you can actually have them do the rest. Just as with social media management tools like HootSuite, ESP’s give you the ability to pre-schedule as many emails as you want.
On top of that, most of them also give you the ability to create fancy automations that link up multiple emails or actions. For example, you could send out an email to your readers about your upcoming performance season and then send another email to everyone who clicks the link to look at the performances and offer them a discount on tickets. If you did that manually, it would take you forever to go through and make a list of everyone who clicked on the link and then send that follow-up promo email.
With automations, you can have the system do it for you automatically. And that’s just one example. Email automations can be used in a million different ways to help you stay in touch with your patrons and donors and send them exactly what they want, without draining all your precious time.
Of course, not all ESPs are created equal and not all offer good automation tools. Here are my favorites if you want to jump on the email automation train:
ConvertKit (this is what I use)
I saved this tool for last on my list because it’s the granddaddy of all automation tools. Meaning that with Zapier, there’s almost nothing you can’t automate. Zapier is essentially a connector. It allows you to hook up one tool or piece of software with another (or connect several at one time). It calls these connections “zaps”. And with over 1,000 apps to choose from, there really is very little you can’t automate.
Chances are good that all of the apps and tools you use on a daily basis (donor management software, excel, social media, email, surveys, CRMs, your org’s website, and more) are all on the list and able to be interconnected with other apps and tools.
The beauty of this is that it allows you to automate tasks that previously had to be done manually. For example, if you export reports from your donor management system each month but then input them into a spreadsheet so you can get the data and layout you need, you could stop doing it. Zapier could do it for you instead.
You could also use Zapier to compile grant reports, give you critical data about who’s engaging with you on social media, automatically add event attendees to your email subscriber list, send receipts or notes to people who donate online, and a million other things.
Zapier, in fact, has an entire page set up just to give nonprofits some ideas of how they can get started using zaps to their advantage. Plus, Zapier has a free plan, but if you need a bit more power under the hood you could also get a paid plan and Zapier gives 15% discounts to nonprofits.
Seriously, go sign up today. Since you can try it out for free, you have nothing to lose.
Before we close out this blog post, I want to ask a very small favor. I mentioned earlier that a colleague asked why on earth I wasn’t offering a course on nonprofit automation. I know that it would help a lot of people and bring serious value to their organizations and work/life balance. And I have soooo much more I could teach about than what I covered in this post.
But before I spend a huge chunk of time creating a new training course, I want to make sure it’s something you would be interested in.
I’ve created a poll to get your feedback. There are only 2 questions, so it won’t take but a minute. Will you help me out?