On a recent Saturday morning, Stephanie Murphy arrived at the site of a new Habitat for Humanity home in Charlotte, N.C., ready to mobilize 15 volunteers to finish painting a three-bedroom house in preparation for its new owners.
But only three volunteers showed up.
“That was a pretty scary feeling,” says Murphy, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Charlotte. “You start to think about the impact on the family.”
The delay in painting would mean pushing the move-in date for a low-income couple and their two teenage sons, all of whom have been working for months on their house, which represents a chance to convert rent money into an investment.
And it would mean more work for Habitat staff, a move with cost implications.
So Murphy, who had been on the job for only a couple of months, went into “scramble” mode.
“It took a lot of phone calls and redirecting of people to different locations,” she says. “And it all had to be done immediately.”
But now, with its new volunteer database, which is being rolled out in stages this month and next, Habitat knows before events begin exactly how many people to expect on a worksite, and can recruit additional volunteers in advance if need be.
“There’s a learning curve, but people are picking up on it,” says Murphy. “Group leaders are relieved that some of the burden of not knowing is removed.”
Building and renovating houses, duplexes and townhomes, while surrounding tenants with education and other supports to make sure they stay in their homes, is complex and labor-intensive.
And managing its volunteer force, which last year numbered almost 12,000 and leveraged the paid staff of almost 100, is just one of the challenges Habitat Charlotte faces.
There are the 1,200 annual individual and corporate donors whose monetary and in-kind donations fuel the organization’s work, and there are the logistics of keeping tabs on the more than 1,000 families it has helped, and the more than 1,000 structures it has built, rehabbed or purchased since 1983.
And there are the affiliate’s two ReStore outlets, which use both paid and volunteer staff to collect and sell donated or salvaged building materials, using the proceeds to fund the construction and renovation of more houses.
Managing all that is hard, particularly with outdated and disparate technology systems and databases.
“I thought there were better ways to do things than we were doing them,” says Meg Robertson, associate director of Habitat Charlotte.
Many nonprofits are strapped for cash, time and other resources, and see the hand-me-down approach to technology as the most prudent path.
But simply accepting used computers and donated software can mean an unfocused and unintentional technology infrastructure.
“You basically accept what’s given to you and weed through it,” says Robertson of the organization’s previous tech philosophy. “We were never strategically going out and getting what we needed.”
So in 2007, Habitat brought in a nonprofit technology consulting firm to conduct a full assessment of the affiliate’s existing technology.
The process highlighted Habitat’s strengths and weaknesses, outlined critical needs and created a blueprint for what to do and when.
Among those recommendations was the development of a new donor database, the upgrade of Habitat’s server, and the replacement of all computers every three years, a practice that now is included in the organization’s budget.
The assessment cost Habitat about $30,000, a sum Robertson says sounded “enormous” at first, but was worth the investment in the end.
And it helped that Habitat’s board included Jim Hallmark, a 35-year veteran of IBM who encouraged the nonprofit to create an infrastructure committee to keep technology high on the list of priorities.
“There was never any pushback from the board as far as the return on investment,” says Hallmark. “We’ve actually implemented the key recommendations.”
Four years after that assessment, the document still stands as a roadmap, says Hallmark, and has driven some significant changes at Habitat.
In a sweep of good luck that few nonprofits experience, Habitat Charlotte in 2009 was tapped as a beneficiary of the $2.3 billion-asset John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s interest in volunteer databases.
Through a Knight grant to nonprofit tech consulting firm NPower Charlotte Region, Habitat embarked on an almost 24-month process to build a customized volunteer database.
The goal was to get away from capturing volunteer data on handwritten forms at job sites, and move to an online system that facilitates volunteer registrations, tracks volunteer hours, and pushes information out to volunteers and Habitat staff.
The new system – built on a commercially available platform, yet highly customized – allows Habitat Charlotte to capture valuable data about volunteers and better manage job-site staffing and delivery of materials, adjusting amounts of both depending on fluctuations in volunteers.
And now, all areas of Habitat Charlotte that rely on volunteers, including ReStores, will be using the same system, which will collect and display volunteer information for consumption throughout its affiliate.
“It’s a transformational business process for us because it’s giving us time to make decisions on how to change things,” says Robertson.
Beyond saving money for the affiliate, and reducing aggravation for volunteer leaders, Robertson hopes the database will enhance the connection between volunteers and the affiliate, as well as the families volunteers are serving.
Once registered, volunteers can view a video message welcoming them, and over time can view progress reports on how projects are coming along.
And because their contact information is captured, volunteers can be invited to the dedications of homes they’ve worked on.
“The technology is not to eliminate a staff person,” says Robertson. “It’s to enhance the connectivity of the volunteers to what they’re doing and to the families they’re serving.”
And as the volunteer database continues its rollout, Robertson and Hallmark are thinking about the system’s long-term sustainability.
Habitat for Humanity International, in part based on the Charlotte affiliate’s experience with its volunteer database, has set up a task force to explore sharing technology among affiliates.
Over the next few months, Habitat Charlotte will be presenting the database to other affiliates, which could purchase and customize the system for their own use.
“If other affiliates buy it, then the money goes back into updating the technology,” says Robertson. “Hopefully this will sustain us for a while.”
With the volunteer database complete and in the rollout phase, Habitat Charlotte began looking at its other mission-critical systems.
The first priority was to update its fundraising database, creating a system that can share data with Habitat’s new volunteer database.
Using the two new systems in tandem, Habitat has a better idea of who is involved with the organization and how.
“For the first time ever, we can easily see if our volunteers are donors and if our donors are volunteers,” says Robertson.
And that kind of knowledge can translate into dollars.
For example, the fundraising system can flag donors who also are volunteers through events organized by their employers.
That allows Habitat to determine if the donor-volunteer’s employer matches the financial donations its employees make, and the fundraising system then can facilitate a matching gift.
“It’s really giving us a 360-degree view of the folks that are engaged with our affiliate,” says Robertson. “So now we know the whole equation.”
On the horizon
With volunteer and fundraising systems up and running, Habitat Charlotte is looking to update its other systems.
Next on the agenda is updating the affiliate’s family-services database, which tracks homeowner applicants and facilitates Habitat’s communications and interactions with homeowners throughout the relationship.
But rather than begin that build from scratch, the affiliate has chosen to wait until the Atlanta affiliate has completed its own family-services database in the hopes of customizing the system for its own use, a move that would save both time and money.
And using a grant from the Community Catalyst Program at Foundation for the Carolinas, which supports collaboration between nonprofits, Habitat Charlotte and eight other nearby affiliates are exploring how they might work together to reduce duplication in their collective service area.
Rather than working separately, the affiliates are exploring pooling their money to jointly develop a new, more robust system that would manage mortgages, inventory control and purchasing, a move that could leverage the bulk discounts available only to much larger organizations.
Ideally, the system they develop together could then be purchased and customized by other affiliates, making the project more affordable for all involved.
Coming up with technology solutions that would work for the entire region is a challenge, Robertson concedes, but the return on investment could be significant.
“Habitat International is the sixth-largest builder in the U.S.,” she says. “If we were harnessing that buying power as an entire company, we’d be leveraging that. We need to do that even though we’re just a nonprofit.”
From Jim Hallmark’s viewpoint as a board member and as head of the infrastructure committee, it’s that kind of opportunity that drives the time, energy and dollars Habitat Charlotte invests in its technology.
The technology itself is only a means to an end.