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Why Non Profits should not develop & maintain their own apps

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Owen O'Doherty

Why Nonprofits choose to develop apps

There is growing awareness among Non-Profit executives and marketers that having proprietary apps and other technology offers a unique way for their organization to differentiate itself in a busy world.

In addition to allowing Non-Profits to have full control over their brand, it also allows them to build their own community of users. This carries many benefits. It gives them the ability to communicate freely and offer direct support to their community. Delivering message and mission in an unencumbered way is key to the success and growth of any Non-Profit. Static websites are a one-way flow to deliver content but fail to offer the user experience required by a modern user or allow the capture and retention of reoccurring community visitors. Traditional social networks such as Facebook now place barriers on organizations trying to communicate with their followers - organic reach is very low - with Facebook pushing organizations to spend money on ads to get a good reach for message and content. Platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, while good communication tools, are not designed either to offer any support or utility value to users who need support to help them and their families deal with ongoing issues, such as illness, or caregiving needs. In other words, they do not add any mission value.

Non-profits by their nature are reliant on a few factors for their survival and growth. They need to offer mission value and support to the community they serve and be able to reach different cohorts within that community using different service channels. While they may be non-profit, they still need to operate like any business. Non-profits rely heavily on funding, both public and private, in order to deliver their mission. In order to secure funding, and satisfy those that provided funding already, they need to prove to their stakeholders and ecosystem, in a transparent way, that they are growing, truly creating mission value, and that the money is being put to good use. Funders and contributors have many draws for their attention and resources, and those Non-Profits that can show differentiation in their offering and service channels and can prove out the ROI in the investment given through clarity of reporting and analytics rise to the top.

These are some of the reasons why Non-Profit executives conclude that proprietary apps are the way to go, and they are right. Apps on web, in Playstore (Google), and in the App Store (Apple) open a tranche of possibilities, as well as placing the Non-Profit where the users are, thereby opening community member acquisition channels, driving growth and community diversification.

Where Nonprofit app development goes wrong

What non-profits fail to realise too often, to their detriment, is that building apps, or outsourcing the building of apps, requires the building of a ‘product’. Building a product requires a tremendous amount of forward research, user testing, design iteration, technical ability, maintenance and security expertise, and ultimately a lot of money, time and resources. Non-Profits are not set up for this and outsourcing rarely works. 99% of apps fail. This due to combination of poor product development, a lack of product-user fit, and not investing enough in a marketing and growth strategy.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why Non-Profits should not invest time and money on building apps or outsourcing app development:

  • #1 Product development is hard

    Product development is hard requiring very specific skillsets. Research and testing over a long period of time is required to make a successful product. Those skillsets will need to be hired, either internally, or externally, and are expensive.

    Do you have internal team to do it? No. Even if you outsource it, you will still need internal resources to project manage and ensure the app requirements are being delivered. That internal team will still need to have technical experience and be comfortable dealing with development teams, business cases, as well as security and compliance.

    Build it and they will come! Not really. While you may believe the idea for your app to be great, what looks good on paper rarely survives first contact with the user. Be prepared for long periods of iteration, recoding and building features to get it right.

    The modern user expects a beautiful and intuitive user experience. Building great user experiences requires a design process, and great designers. Building a piece of software is very different from other projects you may have managed.

  • #2 Cost

    There will be the planned costs and, as invariably happens with software builds, there will be cost and time overruns.

    “More than half of development projects end up over time, and over budget, considerably adding to the risk”

    Building apps is not like building a website to interact with users. Web and mobile apps is software that needs to be very carefully planned, integrated with databases and design components, and tested. It requires continual maintenance and updates to ensure it stays secure, compatible with evolving technologies, and compliant. You will need a very large budget to build and maintain your own app. If you happen to have the budget, serious discussion needs to occur on the ROI on spending that budget in app building, how long it will take you to earn that money back, and whether that development is worth it as a trade-off when you could be spending that money on delivering mission and growing your community.

    To put that into context, to build out a platform of Carefolk’s features, design and architectural complexity would cost you between $900k and $1.5m depending on the geographical location of your design and development teams, and the quality of your engineers.

  • #3 Maintenance & Security

    Software and software hosting require a lot of updates on an ongoing basis to ensure it is secure, operational, compliant and usable. You need to plan this before you start and have the necessary expertise and knowledge in order to do it.

    Every time there are changes to a phone's operating system, your apps will need to be updated to accommodate it.

    You will need to allocate a lot of resources to dealing with security risks and ensuring that your community member’s sensitive data is safe and secure.

    Every time a bug occurs, you’ll need to pay for fixes.

    Upgrades and updates will all come at an ongoing cost, and user’s, as well as application stores, expect updates on a ongoing basis in order for your app to stay relevant.

    Your budget and financial forecasts should cover not just the first release, but ongoing months and years of operation also.

  • #4 User Support

    Your app users will require user support on an ongoing basis. The larger the user base, the more resources that will be required to provide that support. Support includes answering user enquiries, bug fixes, as well as ensuring guides, FAQs and user documentation are all in place to ensure a great user experience for your community users.

  • #5 Taking a limited approach to reaching the user

    Often, due to budget restrictions, Non-Profits tend to build an app first for a particular platform or application store. They may choose to build an Android app first, or an iOS app first, or perhaps a web app first. Trade-offs tend to occur due to budget restrictions and often shortcuts are taken on software architecture design and implementation that result in a technical debt that is expensive to sort out later.

    The full growth benefits and reach of the technology is not realised due to these trade-offs and budget restrictions. Users exist on multiple platforms and in multiple channels. To make the impact we seek, we need to go where the users are, whether that’s Windows, Mac, iOS, or Android.

  • #6 The product-market fit risk and loss of investment

    Even after spending a lot of money and investing time and resources, you still run the considerable chance of not getting the traction you need or providing the utility your users need. Even if you have done a lot of pre-build research and are certain that you will have a correct fit for users, more often than not this is just the starting point, and a lot of further investment and time will be required before you begin to get it right. Take Google for example, if they can fail as they did with Google Plus, what are the chances of your team getting it right first time around.

    “99% of apps fail”

Noprofits succeed when they invest the money, that they would otherwise spend on product development, maintenance, and support, on mission delivery and community growth.

How does DonorSee's Rise solve this problem for Nonprofits and other fundraising orgs?

For more information, see here.

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