Now more than ever, nonprofit organizations must strive to find new, innovative ways to reach potential donors. 

This is especially true in Greater Des Moines, where the donor pool is smaller than in larger communities and many can easily fall victim to donor fatigue.

New and innovative, however, can be synonymous with technology, which has solidified its place in the nonprofit world.

In 2014, more than $45.6 million was raised for nonprofits in a single day through #GivingTuesday, a day set aside to promote worldwide charitable giving -- one marketed primarily through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. 

Donors also are 34 percent more likely to donate on a responsive website, according to, a nonprofit marketing blog focused on donor recruitment and online fundraising. Also, nearly 20 percent of nonprofit event registrations are made on mobile devices, according to NPEngage.

Despite these statistics, many factors hold back Greater Des Moines nonprofit leaders from using the latest technology in their fundraising and donor outreach strategies. 

Implementing new technology can be expensive, and sometimes, nonprofit leaders aren’t sure the return on investment is worth it. Other times, organizations don’t have staff members with the knowledge and expertise required to implement new technology. Finally, nonprofits don’t always know what’s available to them.

Although the solutions to these challenges vary and can differ from nonprofit to nonprofit, one tried-and-true way to make things happen could lie in something Greater Des Moines already does. Technology challenges are valid

Brianne Fitzgerald, resource development director with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa, recalled a time when someone approached her, asking if Big Brothers Big Sisters had a mobile app for interested donors.

The answer was no, and while a smartphone app is something Fitzgerald is interested in exploring, she’s also hesitant.

“We live in a world where our phones have taken over everything, but something like an app is new and it costs money, so we ask ourselves, is it an investment we want to make and will it yield the results we want?” she said.

Finding out whether the investment is worth it is a challenge in itself. Because nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa operate on limited budgets, financial resources are finite. Trial and error rarely is an option; nor is paying a consultant to research the viability of a new form of technology. So, other priorities like programming often take precedence.

Although the specific challenges vary from nonprofit to nonprofit, acknowledging the existence of these challenges standing between organizations and the use of available technology appears more widespread.

“When it comes to new technologies, I think a lot of nonprofits are in the same boat as us,” said Fitzgerald, who also is the professional development committee co-chair for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Des Moines. “There’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’ You have a tendency to hold back and see if someone else tries it and to see if they’re successful before you do.”

Are local nonprofit professionals confused about what’s available to them? Not really. The biggest challenge, Fitzgerald said, is the “jump” to a new technology.

And without the right education and the resources to sustain it, sometimes the jump never comes and nonprofits could be missing valuable connections with potential donors.

Where can nonprofits find success in technology?

Nikki Syverson, director of development for the Des Moines Community Playhouse, recognizes similar challenges facing the local nonprofit sector when it comes to technology. 

“(Technology) moves so fast and it’s hard to keep up,” she said. “We have a lot of great marketing and public relations professionals on our board, but at the end of the day, when we’re looking at our budget, programming comes first.”

The Playhouse currently is revamping its website. Over the past three years, the organization integrated its volunteer database, ticketing system and donor management system, a helpful move, Syverson said, because it gives her a complete idea of how donors and potential donors interact with the organization.

Technology doesn’t always cost money. Social media is a good place to start, and that’s something Syverson thinks the Playhouse does well. Using social media, Playhouse staff members highlight individual donors and tell their stories. The staff also uses social media and email marketing to give a backstage look at how the organization operates. 

“We are constantly trying to analyze what we do, and what can we do to revamp things to give them a more energetic feel,” Syverson said. 

Sarah Robbins, marketing and community partnerships coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa, places a lot of emphasis on communicating through social media and newsletters, putting a personal touch on what she broadcasts to donors and potential donors. 

“It gives people an insider look at what we’re doing,” she said.

United Way of Central Iowa is an example of a larger, regional nonprofit that takes advantage of technology in ways that are both effective and conducive to its mission. Still, United Way President Mary Sellers said it’s difficult to know where and when to invest because you never know when the “next big thing” will come and make what you just implemented obsolete.

“It’s important to use technology as a method of accomplishing something,” Sellers said. “That’s critically important. Don’t have it just to have it. What is the goal you have? If you don’t have one, your message can get fractured.”

United Way facilitates many online giving campaigns for corporate partners, making the organization’s annual fundraising campaign more seamless for businesses. It allows business leaders to monitor their individual campaigns in real time, resulting in less paperwork and time spent. 

Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, also was quick to point to a smartphone application created by United Way. The app acts as a database for available volunteer opportunities across all Greater Des Moines nonprofits. Knous called it a “perfect example” of a larger organization taking the lead in a place where smaller organizations might not have the ability, something Greater Des Moines already does well.

Sellers said the app shows nearly all volunteer opportunities in the community.

“It’s an easy way for someone who doesn’t know how to get engaged to figure out how,” she said. “It directly connects them with organizations to which they might want to donate their time.”

Telling stories also is increasingly important, Knous said.

“The challenge is to articulate in a way that paints a picture of the impact you’re having,” she said. “It’s about more than numbers. It’s about how lives are changed and impacted because of the work of a particular organization.”

Nonprofits should consider that when deciding what kind of technology to pursue -- which platforms can best share stories and offer a glimpse into the impact they leave on the community.

When deciding what technology would work best for United Way, Sellers said organization leaders looked for a “holistic” approach.

“The volunteer app gets residents engaged in the community; social media is used to reach out to people,” she said. “You need a plan.”

Ultimately, Sellers said, if nonprofit leaders are hesitant about using technology, there is a need for clarity. 

“Everyone understands the need to invest in something in order to see results,” she said. “If the nonprofit can articulate the goal and demonstrate how technology can leverage it -- and show a tangible return on investment -- it would be difficult to say that route isn’t a good way to go.”

How do nonprofit leaders find clarity?


Education on different technologies and awareness of what’s already out there could assuage the fears and remove the hesitation of some nonprofit professionals, as well as help leaders make better decisions for their organizations. 

Fitzgerald and Robbins said they would benefit from more training sessions facilitated by professionals who’ve seen success implementing technology. 

“Who can talk to us about it?” Fitzgerald said. “We would love to see more free trainings (and panels) held locally, even if it means bringing in someone from outside our area. I think we already try to offer these things here (in Des Moines), but there can always be more opportunities to learn, and we’d love to know more.” 

Volunteer and in-kind support from businesses is huge, Syverson said, and when talking technology, that support is even more helpful. 

Fitzgerald said until recently, she wasn’t aware that select Greater Des Moines businesses offered pro bono consulting to nonprofits. Finding a way to make those connections between nonprofits and businesses that want to volunteer their expertise would be beneficial.

“I would love to get those calls,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d rather support local businesses anyway, and they know the community. I want to know I’m working with someone who understands Greater Des Moines.”

Businesses might also allocate more philanthropic giving specifically to technology, Fitzgerald said.

The Community Foundation offers classes to nonprofit leaders. In 2014, more than 400 people participated in Community Foundation training sessions in 2014. 

While Knous remains committed to the Community Foundation’s efforts to build the capacity and knowledge of the local nonprofit sector, she said more can always be done.

“The challenge is knowing how to get the information to the right people and how to identify where the resources are in our community that can teach those things,” she said. “I think it would be great if the business community stepped in and filled that void.”

And the great thing is, according to Sellers, Greater Des Moines has a legacy of willingness to share.

“We are a robust learning community, and people are always willing to lend their expertise here,” she said.

DsmHack event tackles nonprofits’ technology challenges

One group of Greater Des Moines technology experts has come together to offer a viable solution to nonprofits facing technology challenges.

DsmHack is preparing for its second event at the end of this month. The first of its kind in Greater Des Moines, the 48-hour event brings together local technology developers and preselected nonprofits that demonstrated through an application process a need for the developers’ expertise.

The premise of dsmHack is simple. At the start of the event, representatives from each selected nonprofit will pitch their technology need to developers. Once the pitches are heard, developers will choose which project is the best fit for them. The developer then has 48 hours to make the nonprofit’s technology wish a reality -- free of charge to the nonprofit.

Exposed to the idea of “hackathons” and quick product builds within companies, event co-founder Jodi Jones said she wondered what could happen if the concept was taken out of the company and into the community. 

“We wanted to do something for the good of the community,” Jones said. “So we asked ourselves, ‘What if we build this event around nonprofits with a focus on volunteering and giving back?’ In addition to that, we could showcase the tech talent we have here.”

Last year, organizers received 19 proposals from nonprofits for the inaugural hackathon, nine of which were selected to be part of the event. Jones said among the proposals were nonprofits in need of a website redesign. Others wanted smartphone applications, while some needed assistance integrating their membership databases.

Funding and lack of knowledge were the biggest obstacles for the nonprofits, Jones said. 

“The things we can create for these nonprofits in two days can save them thousands of dollars,” she said.

The event is made possible by financial support offered by local companies. Bringing the hackathon to fruition required a minimal time commitment, Jones said. 

“We’re busy just before the event, but aside from that, we work on this a couple hours each week,” she added. “We all enjoy doing this.”

While this year’s event will be similar to the inaugural one, developers this year will focus more on working with the nonprofits in advance to plan for the work needing to be done in order to accomplish the maximum amount of work during the event itself. Developers also plan to offer more ongoing support following the event.

That’s one of the best parts, Jones said -- seeing some of the developers continue to donate their time following the hackathon to the nonprofit they helped during the event.

Applications for the second dsmHack event, scheduled Feb. 26-28, will be accepted through Feb. 13. Event organizers currently are in the process of establishing dsmHack as a nonprofit itself.

“I feel like we’re making a big impact on these nonprofits,” Jones said. “It’s been well received, and we’ve heard comments about how grateful these nonprofits are and how much it’s saved them in terms of dollars spent within their organizations.”

Technology resources for nonprofits

DataKind is a global nonprofit that brings in “big data” scientists to help nonprofits tackle big issues. Steve Whitty of Principal Financial Group Inc. is exploring forming a local chapter.
Twitter: @DataKind

American Marketing Association - Iowa offers professional development for nonprofit marketers. AMA annually hosts a national conference specifically for nonprofits.
Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Central Iowa chapter, is part of a global organization focusing on ethical and professional fundraising, with a focus on donor stewardship.

Young Nonprofit Professionals Network: A new local chapter of a national organization with the goal to “promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of young professionals.”

International Association of Business Communicators, Iowa chapter, hosts an annual mini-conference for nonprofits, hosted by United Way.
LinkedIn Groups:
Nonprofit Marketing:
Nonprofit Technology:
Nonprofit Leadership Think Tank:

Source: United Way of Central Iowa