How a Small Nonprofit Succeeded in Digital Transformation

One of my favorite clients, Charity Navigator, just released a major upgrade to how they process and rate nonprofit charities. Say you're passionate about saving the rainforests, improving homeless shelters, or helping children with cancer, Charity Navigator's tools help you find nonprofits and make smarter choices about where you contribute and donate.

Nonprofit Digital Transformation

Charity Navigator just released The Encompass Rating System, a new rating system with new criteria and methodology to accommodate organizations of all sizes. This was facilitated through the upgrade of technologies that load and process data, as well as a new user interface.

The results are significant.  They are now rating over 160,000 charities with The Encompass Rating System. Compare this to the 9,000+ ratings they were through their long-established Star Rating System.

How Small Teams Drive Impactful Digital Transformations

This major accomplishment was performed by a very small team. Let's just say their agile team was never more than ten people, and at times as few as three. Charity Navigator is also a nonprofit organization, so they don't have deep pockets for investments and must ensure that their spending impacts their constituents. I would say going from 10-160K ratings is a significant impact!

I'm proud of the StarCIO team and my contributions to this journey. It started about three years ago when I performed an assessment of their technology platforms and practices. We went on to evaluate their tools, introduce new technologies, and develop digital processes.

It wasn't easy. The employees are passionate about who they rate and how their ratings reward well-run charities. They are demanding around the quality of their ratings. They want to ensure that what they deliver works well for the charities, donors, and institutions they serve.

So let me share a few reasons why this team was successful:

  1. They worked as a team to transform their business - People ask me what the difference is between change management and transformation management. I share this in a 5 Minutes with @NYIke video, but here it is in a nutshell: If you wait till the end of a process to bring end-users, stakeholders, employees, or customers on board, then that's change management. If you bring people in early and use their feedback to evolve and pivot toward success - if you are in constant communications with them about progress, stumbling blocks, opportunities, and decisions - then these are key ingredients of transformation change. Transformation change is harder and often stretches out timelines, but has a higher success rate because people are part of the process. 
  2. They evolved an agile process that worked for them - If you visited Charity Navigator, you would see standups, demos, retrospectives, and other agile ceremonies. Beyond that, they had to adapt agile to work for them. Sometimes they had several product owners, other times none. Sometimes they leveraged agile planning and forecasted releases months ahead, other times they worked sprint to sprint to ensure their systems helped charities and donors during a crisis. As I tell people all the time, adopting an agile way of working requires collaboration to define when what, and how agile practices are adopted and evolve. 
  3. They selected smarter and faster technologies - When you are transforming, you have to be highly strategic about technology selection, where to modernize, and how to work around legacy technologies. It's nice to go after microservices, big data technologies, and devops automation as standards, but there is a practical reality on whether and where to apply these technologies. Charity Navigator's blended selection of proprietary apps, low code platforms, self-service data visualization tools, public clouds, and data integration technologies enabled them to develop a robust system.
  4. They developed their data-driven muscles - Charity Navigator is a data and analytics company but needed to take significant steps to modernize their capabilities. Like many other organizations, their legacy practices were built on top of Excel workbooks and Access databases, but these tools weren't going to be sufficient to expand their ratings.  They also knew they wouldn't be successful if the data science and analytics were done by only a couple of people. Instead, they embraced self-serving data visualization technologies. They also partnered with several data science companies to develop algorithms and challenge their assumptions.
  5. They established partnering as a core competency - Nonprofits rarely have all the expertise and skills for driving transformation, but they are in a unique position to apply for grants, seek mutually beneficial partnerships, and request pro bono assistance. Charity Navigator partnered with academics, technology providers, data science companies, and other nonprofits in their journey. Each partnership yielded expertise and contribution to their journey, and Charity Navigator made sure they were engaged and contributing to the partnership. 

Congrats to the Charity Navigator team!

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.