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A working girl’s take on doing well and giving back.

Migrating to a New Data System? What Leaders Say vs. What Staff Hear

“Our organization is transitioning to a new system in the next few months.”

When a nonprofit leader first utters these words, it can turn our worlds upside down. Sure, you’ve heard the terms ‘CRM’ and ‘Sales force’ before. You may even have friends who mentioned similar instances happening at their organization. Now, it’s your nonprofit’s turn to take the leap. Exciting, right?!


If you’re not excited, it’s probably because you have more questions than reassurances on how this will affect your process. This could be true even if you’re the person making the announcement, because org-wide transitions are just that tricky.

That’s why it’s important for staff and leaders to get on the same page whenever a system implementation is in the works. Whether you’re overhauling your donor CRM, investing in a volunteer management platform, or designing a system for your program data, leaders should be clear, careful and in touch with the concerns of their staff. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time building buy-in for [enter-fancy-new-system-name-here].

Here are 4 quick considerations for talking about your nonprofit’s data transition…based on common things leaders say, and how those things get received by their staff!

1. What Leaders Say: We’re transitioning to a new system.
1. What Staff Hear: This is going to upend life as we know it.

Yeah, things are going to get weird for a while. New systems call for different ways of working, an adjustment that always comes with its challenges. Just remember that there is real opportunity here; the right platform, with the right methodology, can really help move the needle on your organization’s mission. It just so happens that this opportunity also comes with a learning curve!

*Leader* Tip: Let staff know that you’re well aware of this learning curve and that you’re going to take it on together as one unified front. You may not want to harp on the fact that it’s going to be difficult, but being transparent shows your staff that you’ve already begun to acknowledge the challenge that this will present to your teams.


2. What Leaders Say: This will make us stronger as an organization.
2. What Staff Hear: My job is about to get a lot harder.

The hardest part of any transition is the transition itself. Adjusting the way we work in the beginning may be challenging, but once we get the hang of it, we’ll only help our roles in the long-run. By capturing information and collecting data, we’re building the institutional knowledge necessary for ours team to thrive in the years to come. Documenting efforts also allows us to really own our process, as it becomes easier to assess efforts and track outcomes. Both are important for working smarter, and may even prove useful come annual review time.

*Leader* Tip: You’ll go far if you can successfully communicate not just the ‘why’ behind this priority, but the ‘why you should care specifically’ piece. Mission matters, but staff should also understand how adopting this system helps them to be more effective in their roles. This way you empower people to want to use new tools, rather than just mandating that they do (which might affect the quality of the data that gets entered.)


3. When Leaders Say: This will be an organizational priority.
3. What Staff Hear: They’re making me do this.

I hear you. There is not enough time in the day to get things done, and now you’re being told to do the technological equivalent of learning to walk again. It’s not ideal…but it does make sense.

We want to make our lives easier, and for that reason we become creatures of habit. If our director doesn’t tell us to change things up for the sake of a new system, we probably won’t do it (unless we have a personal interest in data collection or tons of free time). There’s also the factor of cost. New data systems don’t come cheap: they can take hundreds if not thousands of dollars, not to mention the staff time and resources that get diverted away from your nonprofit’s constituents. If you made an investment that big for your own organization, wouldn’t you want people to use it?

*Leader* Tip: This shouldn’t give leaders a free pass to force a system onto staff without proper care. Responsible leaders will build an extensive roll-out plan so that staff have time to learn, ask questions, and make mistakes with the new system. Definitely communicate the priority of this transition (and whether staff will be required to use it), with the understanding that successful adoption doesn’t happen overnight and that framing matters. When was the last time you got excited about something that you were forced to take on?


4. When Leaders Say: This will help us to be more transparent.
4. What Staff Hear: They want to know my every move.

There is nothing wrong with an organization wanting to understand how it’s employees are advancing the mission. There is something problematic about using a new system as a micro-management tool. Either way, this piece really boils down to communication. It’s reasonable to assume that we’ll be held accountable for the information that gets entered into our new system. But if our employers plan to evaluate our performance based on that information, then that should be made known. At best, this level of honesty can motivate us to embrace this new system and really make it work for us. At worst, leaders who fail to disclose this information risk blindsiding employees and fostering ill-will towards the entire process.

*Leader* Tip: Be prompt in communicating how this new system ties into your organization’s evaluation process. Are there certain metrics that you’ll be looking for on the staff-side? This probably won’t be on the docket for your first year of implementation, but if it is, be delicate (and candid) in how you deliver this information. (You probably want to discuss this with your director-level staff first, to filter their concerns and develop a reasonable eval plan before announcing it largely.)

*Staff *Tip: If your leaders haven’t stated how this system affects your evaluation process, then you ought to ask your manager. While it shouldn’t affect your compliance with their requests (nor should their response stress you out), you really deserve to know all the ways in which this transition will affect your role.


The quality of a nonprofit’s system doesn’t come from the money spent on building it, but the time spent in encouraging staff to use it. By being careful in how they communicate to staff, leaders are entirely capable of setting the tone for a successful systems implementation!

Are you going through a transition right now at your organization? What tips do you have?

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