Case Study

Success Story | Clarity in Data: Chicago Humanities’ Project to Unify Siloed Systems

Anne Hargaden

Principal Consultant

Anne helps clients with organizational CRM assessments, system selections and implementations, systems integrations, business process analysis, software needs analysis, project management, and more.
May 02, 2024

Imagine a house being built without a blueprint, each team working on their own section without coordination with other teams or the contractor. As you can imagine, the result would likely be an unstable structure rather than a unified home.

Nonprofit organizations often face a parallel challenge: team members operate on disparate, siloed systems that don’t always complement each other or fit well together. This not only complicates daily tasks but can also make it difficult to understand and engage with constituents.

Prioritizing unity and collaboration in technology is not always easy, but it is a critical step in getting a clear picture of constituents and their engagement, as we’ll see with Chicago Humanities.

Bridging Worlds Through Ideas and Conversations

Since its founding in 1989, Chicago Humanities has evolved to become a year-round presenter, gathering some of the world’s most exciting thinkers, artists, writers, historians, performers, and policymakers to celebrate the rich ideas of the humanities in the context of civic life.

Through more than 100 programs annually, they offer conversations, performances, screenings, and exhibits on a theme of universal interest.

Pivoting through the Pandemic

As an organization dedicated to bringing people together to share ideas and conversations about the human experience, Chicago Humanities was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It had always presented its programs in person, and overnight, that was no longer possible. Staff were forced to consider programming alternatives to stay relevant and connected to their audiences. They also faced a change in their business processes, as staff suddenly began working from home.

Siloed Systems

One outcome of the swift change from in-person to remote operations was the adoption of many new technologies in a reactive, “build-the-plane-while-flying” way.

Staff acquired software they needed to get their jobs done, but the organization didn’t have an overarching strategy for its technology. As a result, Chicago Humanities wound up with 16 systems to support its business functions. Some systems were only used by one or two people, some had very similar functionality to each other, and only two were integrated.

Having data siloed into so many different systems presented a crucial problem: Chicago Humanities couldn’t get a clear picture of its audience and their engagement.

“While we have never experienced a technology utopia at our nonprofit organization, we certainly had fewer and more integrated systems pre-pandemic that allowed us to holistically report on our ticket buyer and donor base,” said Brittany Pyle, Director of Operations at Chicago Humanities. “By adopting newer and more plentiful systems to help us do our collaborative work remotely, we added thick layers of processes and meetings that we couldn’t see our way out of anymore.”

Realizing the need to unify their systems and streamline operations, Chicago Humanities turned to JCA to help navigate their technological challenges and chart a clear path forward.

Discovering Needs

To understand what Chicago Humanities needed, we held a series of discovery sessions with staff across the organization. With these sessions, we were able to fully grasp each group’s needs and business processes, as well as their pain points and areas for improvement.

Following the discovery sessions, we conducted a Needs Assessment that contained a comprehensive set of requirements for a new CRM system. The assessment also included a set of observations and recommendations for other system changes and business process improvements to consider when implementing the new system.

It also defined Chicago Humanities key goals and objectives to guide the system selection process. These goals were to:

  • Plan for a future fundraising solution;
  • Rebuild the member and donor base;
  • Improve business intelligence and reporting capabilities; and
  • Implement interoperable systems that support key business functions.

The assessment confirmed that Chicago Humanities needed a new fundraising CRM, as well as an evaluation of other systems to facilitate integrations, reporting, and analysis.

“JCA was able to untangle how and why we use systems and offer a vision of a more streamlined future,” said Pyle. “The Needs Assessment not only served its practical purpose of documenting the technical requirements we have for a donor database, but it also validated a lot of the work that various team members were doing and gave them some relief that there were ways to lighten their loads.”

Mapping the Path Forward

With recommendations to upgrade or replace multiple systems, the next step was to develop a plan for implementation. Chicago Humanities knew it was a priority to replace its fundraising and membership CRM database, but what else? And in what order? It was time for a technology roadmap.

Similar to a map for a road trip, we create a technology roadmap to show routes to travel from “here” to “there” to improve the use of technology in an organization.

  • You are here: The Needs Assessment clarified the “you are here” of Chicago Humanities’ current technology. We created a graphic model to illustrate the current state of the systems – including their use across departments and the disparate nature of their use for collecting constituent information.
  • Where you can go: The recommendations in the assessment informed the “where you can go” part of the roadmap. We also drafted a model of the possible future state of systems to show potential new systems and new integrations.

The roadmap is a five-year plan, and changes are planned in manageable steps, both operationally and budgetarily. Each step is listed on a timeline, noting dependencies and changes to business processes that would need to happen alongside system changes.

With a cohesive data ecosystem, Chicago Humanities will be able to get a clear picture of its audience, better engage with them, and build on the dream that started in 1989. We are working with Chicago Humanities on the next step: the selection of a new CRM for Development, set to start in summer 2024!

The Struggle with Siloed Systems

Siloed systems cast a shadow over an organization’s ability to truly understand its constituents and their engagement. Hindered by fragmented data and disjointed systems, nonprofits struggle to piece together a cohesive picture of their audience’s needs, preferences, and interactions.

It’s important for nonprofits to break down these silos, fostering integration and collaboration across systems, to provide a clear path towards meaningful engagement with its constituents and a lasting impact in their communities.

We’re here to help. From making recommendations on technology to creating tailored technology roadmaps, our team specializes in identifying opportunities for integration and collaboration across systems, empowering organizations to harness the full potential of their data and resources.

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