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How Software Integrations Act as Your Silent Assistant

Originally posted in Engage Journal Q1 2022

If you’ve ever been in the market for software and your organization has an IT person, there’s a good chance you’ve been advised to, “Pick something with integrations.” Integrations aren’t just a nice-to-have feature, they’re an essential tenet of modern software, and, indeed, are what separate the first wave of digital volunteer management and time tracking point-solutions (Y2K) from today’s modern volunteer management and organizing platforms (2022). If you’re merely looking for time-tracking tools, you shouldn’t be paying for them. If you’re looking to unlock the potential of your organization to scale, then you should be investing in systems that both provide time-tracking features for free and also grow with you by keeping your content, records, and data current across all the online systems you use today and in the future through integrations. Best of all, platforms that support integrations with third-party systems pay for themselves immediately by picking up your historical data, sending it onward without you having to enter records manually, and keeping your constellation of web services in sync. Read onward to learn more about how integrations work, why they matter, and what they can do for you.

What are integrations, and why should you care?

In plain English, an integration is simply a connection between two or more entities. In technology, it usually suggests some form of interoperability. And even within that context, there are several different types of integrations, such as:

Brand Integration: Presenting sponsored content from one entity on another entity’s property

Content Integration: Sending media (written pieces, videos, etc.) from one source into another source

Data Integration: Sending bits of data from one source to another - these are also often referred to as, “web services” and sometimes can be delivered in the form of APIs

API: Application Programming Interface - pipelines for accessing data from a system that have been designed, maintained, and governed by the provider to supply to developers of other systems, so those developers can engineer a live connection between the two systems

Turnkey Integration: A version of a integration that does not require developers to build anything in order for the two systems to talk to each other, because the provider of the data integration has already done the engineering to make the connection feasible (whenever you see a graphical interface for you to click a button to login to another system or approve connecting accounts)

For the purposes of this article, we’ll primarily focus on data integrations in their various forms. We may touch on the others briefly, as each serves a function, but data integrations, especially, have the potential to transform your operation.

Since we’re all volunteer managers here, we’ll speak directly about volunteer management software systems, although these themes relate to pretty much all categories of software, so feel free to apply learnings to other types of software you consider adopting (fundraising, productivity, etc.). 

How do data integrations work?

Unfortunately, we can’t just wish integrations into existence; they need to be designed and published (privately or publicly) by each system’s creator. Usually, the way this works is the owner of the product or service decides their offering could provide some value to third party developers, and they authorize their system to communicate with others, after they’ve tested the security of their own system supporting such exposure. 

To make a system integration-friendly, the data within that system needs to be provisioned (packaged) in such a way so that the system can say, “Send (‘push’) this bit of information over there,” and likewise, another system may be able to ask, “Send me (‘pull’) this specific information.” It helps to think through the data as being itemized inventory. Imagine going to rent a car, and if the specific location you visit doesn't have a full-size sedan in their inventory, they can call a different location and request a vehicle transfer. As you can imagine, systems with content and data inventory lend themselves well to integrating with other systems, if their product owners have thought so far ahead. This is a systems architecture decision, and many modern software systems are “object oriented”, meaning they are designed at the elemental level to assign names to everything, so those names can be called in a structured way, often during ongoing integration communications from one system to another. Think of that as ordering an item off a menu.

In addition to provisioning information, there is also the question of access credentials. When an entity owns their own system, they can decide and determine who has access to what. These are often called “access controls”. You see these whenever you login to a website, and change a user on your team’s level of permission, for example to view or edit files. Once a system is integrated with another, external system, information that flows from one source into the other destination can then be redistributed to other users of the destination system. In that way, once information leaves the originating system, the managers of that system lose control over it, so they need to be sure the requester of the information will be using it appropriately. For this reason, most developers do not allow just anyone to integrate with them, even for publicly-viewable integrations. They require anyone requesting an integration to apply for a “developer key” or other mechanism issued to entities that have been reviewed for legitimacy, business use case, and security standards and also subjected to services agreements and data use policies.

You can often tell if a service offers integrations by perusing their websites and speaking to their user-facing personnel. These approaches will often lead you to documentation - write ups on how to set up the integrations, what you can and can’t do with them, how you can gain access to them, how often they are updated, what uses are against the rules, and how to request access. 

It’s worth nothing that a significant number of web services that actually exist are not publicly advertised by their developers. Sometimes these private services are as simple as the ability to do something specific with their data, and other times it’s the existence of a whole separate set of capabilities. You can always ask the provider, and sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised to receive access. WARNING - advanced concept: most modern software companies have lots of private web services because they use a centralized backend architecture, and feed their data into each of their frontend products (such as an iPhone app, an Android app, and a website) through their own web services. 

Ok, now that we got the nerdy stuff out of the way, are you still with me?

What integrations do I really need?

From a volunteer manager’s perspective, you should consider all of the following reasonable and valuable types of integrations to seek for your volunteer management system:

  1. CRM / Fundraising - if other teams in your organization use a CRM like Salesforce, Blackbaud, Microsoft Dynamics, Kindful, NationBuilder, etc. then you should seek an integrated volunteer management system, so you can see your records of both volunteering and donating together, and perform more informed, personalized, and timely outreach to the right participants for the optimal engagement opportunities.
  • Credentialing - if you work in sensitive environments where you need to know a lot about your volunteers and keep that information safe - such as background checks, external organization affiliations, training completions, certifications, and more, then you should be able to match up your identities of volunteers with their known histories, so you can make them eligible for access to private opportunities and validate their credentials are current and sufficient.
  • Payments - if you collect money from participants, then it’s helpful to do so directly in the environments where those participants interact and already trust.
  • Location Services - if you do location-based opportunities, then it’s helpful for your system to be aware of a volunteer’s locale.
  • Content - if you’d like to compliment your own hosted content with content from partner organizations or from services like VolunteerMatch, Points of Light, Americorps, etc., then you should be able to ingest their content feeds.
  • Marketing - if you use Mailchimp, Twilio, etc. to build and distribute communications campaigns to your stakeholders, you can build audience segments based on volunteer engagement patterns.

Some finer points on what you “need”:

As someone with a deep technology background, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention - no, that’s not the right word - insist that any software you use be forward-compatible. It should suit your needs now, and grow with you in the direction you intend to grow. This means identifying limitations at the onset of your software selection, and avoiding ones that inhibit your ability to grow and adapt. This doesn’t mean you should go find the most complicated and robust software available if your needs are simple and concentrated, but it does mean saying no to the systems that will never be anything more than what they offer you today. 

A big theme that should be on all of our minds is collaboration with partners from other organizations and in other sectors. It’s a big world out there, and we’ll all be closer to living in the future we imagine when we all collaborate. The most modern volunteer management systems are indeed “ecosystems” that are shared, in real time, among all the institutions who organize service activities together - nonprofits, volunteer centers, foundations, schools, healthcare providers, governments, and, of course, companies.

In particular, companies (corporate sponsors!), have their own integration needs, often:

  • CSR Systems - software like YourCause, Benevity, GiveWith, and others that help companies keep track of their team’s and individual employees’ impact
  1. ERP Systems - software like Workday and Peoplesoft that help HR teams understand employee responsibilities, needs, and planning
  2. CRM Systems - software like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics that give a holistic view of many classes of stakeholders like customers, suppliers, partners, and employees

If you’d like to work closely with corporate partners in the future, then bring them a shared volunteer management environment that not only brings you closer together with them to monitor impact in real time, but also enables them to grow by automating data integration with their existing systems of record.

The lesson here is that it takes just as much time, effort, and (often) money to get something great that grows with you as it does to use something that just does the job ok today. The bigger price is the technical debt you incur by learning, getting buy in from your colleagues, and updating something that doesn’t scale - you’re more than doubling your work later when you won’t just have to learn a new system when you’re needs can no longer be met, you will also find yourself doing weeks of data migration and reviews of records when you move them from your old system to the new one.

Time Tracking vs. Modern Volunteer Management Software

Ok, time to pause and reset expectations: if all of the above seems too future, well, I hate to break it to you, but this is today. 

Volunteer Management software from the 1990’s and early 2000’s was designed with two purposes in mind: 

  1. Help organizer’s structure requirements for volunteers participating in their programs
  2. Create a space to track hours, feedback, and other information from volunteers

Professionals in the volunteer software space often refer to that generation of tools as “point solutions” designed to address specific, aforementioned workflow pain points. Whatever was done in the old-school systems can pretty much be handled in Google Docs / Sheets / Drive, which is why so many nonprofits use these generic tools these days. 

Enter the world circa 2015-forward: volunteer management platforms. Savvy organizers are using more modern, cloud-based, mobile-first tools that not only allow for free time tracking and opportunity posting, but also handle much more sophisticated use cases like management of hierarchies, localization abroad, collaboration with external partners, and full automation data entry. They aren’t merely point solutions, they’re interoperable ecosystems. 

Platforms capture the end-to-end participation, feedback, and impact data in real time and automatically enter it both in your records and in the records of your integrated and your partners’ integrated systems, so that you and everyone else who helps manage these programs don’t have to spend a day per week typing up records and reports. All the systems know the information they need to know, based on your permissions, in real time. 

What systems offer data integrations?

Now that we’ve established that web services are terrific, then why don’t all systems offer them? Well, there are a few possible reasons:

  1. Building integrations into a system that wasn’t originally designed to do so, can be incredibly difficult - often to the extent that it would be easier to build a whole new core system from scratch than to make all the necessary changes.
  2. Not every system provider wants to enable or encourage their users to spend less time in their platform or be at more liberty to make their own choices about where they keep their data.
  3. Providing integrations requires the empathy to know what your users want and need, even when you don’t provide those things yourself, the vision to foresee a more valuable offering when your services are combined with well-aligned partners’ services, and the investment to design, engineer, and support what are essentially new products within your existing product portfolio.

That said, there are many providers in today’s market who provide integration-forward offerings.

What to look for when evaluating systems with integrations:

If your organization isn’t a technology provider, then you shouldn’t try to act like one. We’ll totally stay away from discussing the third rail of the early 2000’s national volunteering networks trying to roll-their-own volunteer management software (all of them failed). Today’s version of that tech misstep in our space is nonprofits asking for APIs from software providers and attempting to build on them, or even hiring third-party developers to build on them - it’s just more product to maintain and money to spend on doing something that isn’t your core competency. Instead, search out the systems that offer turnkey integrations with the external software tools you currently use or expect to consider in the future.

Since I know this example best, I’ll mention you can check out Golden, which supports all of the types of integrations discussed in this piece as turnkey (and many others through custom development). There are many others that support some of these integrations - and their combinations of integrations might be the right ones for you. With turnkey integrations, you usually have a dashboard with a catalog of integrated offerings. You browse or search to find the service you’d like to integrate, then you login with your existing credentials or sign up to create new ones, authorize the connection, and configure any relevant settings. That’s it, you’re up and running in minutes. No muss, no fuss, no external IT wizards on retainer to build your rogue team member’s new (pipe) dream app!

Best of luck on your quest, and please feel free to reach out for any guidance if I can be helpful!