7 Ways to Fix User Adoption for Nonprofits

User adoption for nonprofits is a constant challenge. Technology is an incredible tool, but it only works well if your users actually use it. So the question remains, what can be done to improve user adoption for nonprofits? 

Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG) is a small nonprofit that believes in the power of digital technology. Founded on the motto “No boxing ’til your homework’s done,” DBG is among the 5% of nonprofits that leverage data-driven decision-making. Last month, their after-school program saw students read a staggering 15,000 minutes (over 250 hours) collectively and, perhaps best of all, these results are instantly available to their program, marketing, and fundraising teams. 

Then there’s Centro Community Partners, who previously spent countless hours discussing fundraising report details in weekly meetings. Now they spend most of their time identifying fundraising actions. What changed? 

Both of these organizations have seen high rates of user adoption. DBG has created and resolved over 800 requests, increased the data quality of tens of thousands of records, and empowered two internal experts to maintain the system part-time. Centro Community Partners set monthly data goals, sourced sticking points from their team, and embraced a digital culture. 

It’s not surprising that both organizations rank high on the technology holy grail metric: High User Adoption. But what is surprising is that neither of them focused on user adoption directly. Instead, they used The Human Stack methodology to systematize human behavior, and adoption followed. 

In this blog post, we’ll share seven tips and actions your nonprofit can implement in Virtuous to achieve similar results. By focusing on the most crucial part of information systems – the human element – you’ll be on your way to fostering behaviors that drive a thriving digital culture.

Feelings Over Fields

While digital technology relies on 0’s and 1’s, adoption is about humans, who thrive on belonging, connection, and empathy. To improve user adoption, nonprofits must focus on fostering feelings of belonging by connecting people through technology tools. 

Take Estefanía, an emerging digital leader who was initially intimidated by the prospect of mastering the system. Instead of inundating her with technical knowledge, she was guided to focus on small, achievable data quality goals that required teamwork. This strategy nurtured a sense of accomplishment, promoted camaraderie among team members, and fostered engagement. 


To put this approach into practice, identify tactical goals that can be achieved as a team in one month. 

The idea is to create small collaborative goals around important but not urgent outcomes and then review the goal at month’s end (pro tip: make it easy at first). In the review, identify what worked and what didn’t, hit reset if it wasn’t met, or pick another one if it was. Also, in case it isn’t obvious, the goal isn’t the goal; it’s the conversation and celebration.  

In Virtuous, these goals might be validating key Contact Statistics in a dedicated Contact Queue focused on high-profile donors, reviewing Archived Contacts, or a deceased contacts audit to ensure direct mail merge fields are correct. 

Encourage More Complaining

Complaining is a sign of hope and should be recognized and rewarded as a personal investment.  Complaints reveal that users believe there’s room for improvement and are invested in achieving better outcomes. Complaints indicate that your staff is attempting to improve their user adoption, they are just encountering some roadblocks. 

For instance, the Executive Director of a community foundation recently admitted that one of their systems was hindering her work. Once she opened up about her struggles, several colleagues chimed in with similar experiences. By voicing her concerns, the issue was acknowledged and added to a list of known problems, ready to be evaluated, sorted, and prioritized. 

Encourage complaining. You’ll uncover hidden opportunities for enhancing user adoption and overall satisfaction with your nonprofit’s technology. By taking immediate, practical steps you can create a proactive and positive environment where every team member feels heard and valued.


Make it easy to complain in less than 30 seconds so that users can identify issues and remain in flow. In Virtuous, this could look like leveraging the Tag feature to streamline communication between end-users and admins. Admins create a tag called “System Request” and show users to flag complaints or requests (after all, using positive language is key). Admins can then review these tags and add additional tags to track progress and keep users informed. Try to collect 5-10 requests and, in a staff meeting, highlight the user who identified the best request for the month.

Invest in Engaged Users

At The Human Stack, we focus on the digital maturity of individuals along a spectrum with five distinct levels: Resistant, Reluctant, Comfortable, Engaged, and Resilient. Picture a line dividing Reluctant and Comfortable users – the goal of Adoption is to help everyone cross that line and join the Comfortable side. 

Engaged users are the secret weapon to widespread user adoption. These individuals combine initiative, curiosity, and purpose to find ways to do their job. They are often the most knowledgeable and patient when it comes to explaining technology, so their coworkers look to them when they are stuck. They help reluctant users lean toward using the technology over time and are system champions. The more they know about using the system, the more they will train others in the best practices instead of workarounds. 

One word of caution: avoid direct pressure on Reluctant users. Instead, let the excitement and enthusiasm generated by your Engaged users organically draw them over the comfort line. 


For a few weeks, hold a weekly “Tech Champions Lunch,” where Engaged users work with admins to list best practices and share time-saving tricks. When the list gets to about 10-15 things, host a monthly “Tech for All” lunch and have the Champions demo what they’ve learned. Be sure to leave some time for questions and provide lunch, you’ll get more people, and it’s the highest ROI line item on your tech budget. This casual gathering creates a platform for your Engaged users to shine while subtly motivating Reluctant users to join the ranks of the digitally adept. 

“Wrong” is a Four-Letter Word

To foster user adoption, strive to reduce shame and create a sense of belonging by using the word “unexpected” instead of the word “wrong.” 

Imagine you’re a fundraiser in a staff meeting where a leader casually says, “This fundraising total is wrong.” The word “wrong” will leave you with strong anti-adoption feelings; singled out, unappreciated, and misunderstood.

Now imagine Jesenia, an Executive Director, saying, “This fundraising total is unexpected.” This allows Elizabeth (the admin) to clarify, “Actually, that number represents funds received for the quarter, excluding the quarter-million-dollar pledge from last week.” This response results in a win-win-win situation: Elizabeth shows her skill, Jesenia demonstrates transparency, and everyone else learns the nuance of fundraising totals. The difference is between a shutdown fundraising professional who is resistant to the system and an engaged fundraiser who demonstrated expertise. 


Say “Unexpected,” not “Wrong.” 

Even if someone calls The Rolling 12-Month Email Activity Report a task report? Yes. Even then. Just say, “That’s unexpected; I’ve always called it The Rolling 12-Month Email Activity Report”.

Even in a meeting where someone says the most wrongly wrongest wrongfully wrong thing? Unless it’s morally offensive or abusive, yes, even then! In fact, you might say, “That’s unexpected grammar.”

That’s the beauty. It works anywhere, gets at the issue, and creates dialogue. Try it, and you’ll feel like you’ve been doing it wrong unexpectedly your whole life.

Practicing > Training

Practicing, not training, creates adoption. Adoption is about transformation, not information, and transformation requires repetition, routine, and habits. 

Picture this: a basketball team spends 16 hours listening to their coach’s lectures and then tries to win a game without any practice. Sounds absurd, right? Yet, many nonprofits expect their staff to work in a new system after just a few informative training sessions. Most nonprofits don’t have untrained staff; they have unpracticed staff. Nobody becomes an expert overnight. Humans change with repeated opportunities for practice along with guidance, support, encouragement, and accountability. Include these elements, and your nonprofit can empower its team to embrace new technology enthusiastically and confidently.

So, put down the training manuals and let your team hit the metaphorical court. They’ll soon work as a team with consistent practice, mastering drills for small actions that create big wins.


When new staff are joining the fundraising team, schedule an hour to practice with Virtuous Custom Reports. Create a Custom Gift Report with all data for all time, then assign each new staff a variation to practice using graphs, groupings, fields, and filters. Reserve Saved Queries functionality for more advanced users. Here are three recommended assignments:

  • Staff #1: Gifts in the past 12 months grouped by type with a Pie Graph.
  • Staff #2: Gifts in the past 5 years grouped by month with a bar chart.
  • Staff #3: All gifts over all dates grouped by year in a line chart.

There is No ‘i’ in Tech.

Anne is a major gifts officer, and donors often contact her by text on her personal phone. She knows she should add all the donor’s phone numbers to their contact records in Virtuous, but she’s busy, and it just doesn’t get done. Fast forward a year. Anne is unreachable on maternity leave, and Chris in accounting is unable to get a hold of a major donor about an issue with an expected payment because this particular donor used his wife’s email since she’s the one who handles checks. But of course, his wife is out of the country and not checking email for a few weeks.

People naturally input data that benefit their own work but may need to improve when it comes to helping others (this doesn’t mean they are bad, it means they are human). Organizations with a strong digital culture view tech as a team sport and connect the dots by helping Anne know what happened to Chris in accounting because of the missing phone number. This isn’t about shame; in fact, it’s just the opposite; it’s about connection. By shifting the focus from technology to teamwork, team members become more invested in the system’s success. This encourages users to see data entry as a means to support their colleagues rather than an arbitrary task.

Organizations that either let it slide or focus on data requirements will likely need help with tech adoption. 


Ask users how missing data negatively impacts their work and, conversely, how accurate data made a positive difference. Share one or two of these examples in staff meetings. This approach highlights the relational aspect of tech user adoption, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.

Accountability = Power + Attention

This is the leadership tip. Accountability is the powerful combination of power and attention, and when focused on positive behaviors, it can significantly improve behavior. In fact, positive accountability is the missing ingredient in most nonprofit tech strategies. It consistently ranks low when users take our Digital Health Quiz.  

Years ago, at a nonprofit I worked for, a technology platform released a feature that allowed team members to follow each other. I asked our company president to follow a few people, and login rates began to soar. Why? Because power, whether hierarchical or social, influences behavior when attention is attached to it. To make accountability part of digital culture, this president didn’t need to be tech-savvy, he just had to pay the right kind of attention.

There are three forms of attention with accountability:

  • No attention (ignoring), which is the least effective
  • Focus on undesired behaviors (policing)
  • Focus on desired behaviors (rewarding), the most effective approach

To create a supportive environment that fosters tech adoption, non-tech leaders must pay attention to staff that are practicing the right behaviors. 

Chart showing how nonprofits should prioritize rewarding desirable behavior when working on user adoption over policing undesirable behavior or ignoring behavior.


Have your admins identify a few concrete examples of positive behavior (or improvements) in staff. And inform their supervisors of these improvements. Pro Tip: Supervisors should tailor the type of feedback based on the preferences of their individual staff. For some, it’s a handwritten note; for others, it’s confetti and cake in public; for others, it’s a gift card. If you don’t know what works for them, ask (and write it down). 

Key Takeaways 

Remember, the goal of technology adoption isn’t to become a super geek and wear Spock ears (but if that happens, we’ll see you at Comic Con!). It’s to make work easier, decrease disruption, develop marketable skills, and, most importantly, increase organizational impact. 

There’s a myth that nonprofit technology is failing nonprofits when in reality, nonprofits are failing technology. This is true because the causes of failure aren’t technical; they’re human. It’s not too late to be part of the minority of nonprofits who see the enormous opportunity of becoming a digital success by focusing on what has always mattered most: the humans.

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

See the Virtuous platform in action.  Schedule a call with our team for personalized answers and expert advice on transforming your nonprofit with donor management software.

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