Turning a Skyscraper of Paper into Extra Dollars for Mission
Like most nonprofits, UCAN must continually stretch precious resources to fulfill its core mission, leaving little time or money for administrative projects. For UCAN, helping at-risk children and families in Chicago consistently takes priority over buying new software or reorganizing processes.
Yet over time, operational inefficiencies drain away resources that could be going to mission. By 2010, UCAN realized that increasing regulatory burdens and antiquated systems had left its staff buried in paperwork—4 million sheets of it that year alone. That’s a 1,423-foot stack of paper, enough to reach almost to the top of Chicago’s Willis Tower. All that paper represented a lot of time and money, but a major systems overhaul wasn’t in UCAN’s budget. That changed in 2011, thanks to a grant from First Nonprofit Foundation.
“Many for-profit companies made up-front investments to eliminate inefficient and wasteful paper-based processes long ago,” said Christopher Hawkins-Long, UCAN’s manager of corporate and foundation relations. “Nonprofits rarely have the opportunity to make such investments; the needs of those we serve are immediate and the capital needed for administrative projects is hard to find. First Nonprofit Foundation saw the value in such an investment and we are grateful to them for that.”
UCAN used the grant to implement the Going Paperless project, moving to electronic purchasing, accounts payable, employee hiring and timekeeping systems and introducing electronic document storage. The project has reduced UCAN’s paper use by about 350,000 sheets per year.
We spoke to Hawkins-Long and to UCAN CEO Thomas Vanden Berk about UCAN’s recent progress with the initiative and how other nonprofits can achieve similar efficiencies.
Have you implemented any further changes in your processes since your initial Going Paperless project in 2012?
Vanden Berk: We’ve learned how we can better accomplish project management using the paperless system, which we built upon Microsoft SharePoint software. As we have changed HR and benefits systems, our improved paperless system has remained the “go to” location for all UCAN staff. We have also been able to handle many grant management and fundraising processes without the use of paper with this system: we can report, track outcomes, prepare proposals for support and maintain pending, active and closed funder files.
What advice would you give to agencies that would like to reduce their reliance on paper documents?
Hawkins-Long: Begin with a specific department or functional area and test out the processes and the document-naming choices you prefer. Then after testing within that one area, expand to additional areas with the same document naming protocols. While it is possible to search for content within documents to find what you need, documents really must be named and indexed correctly. Beginning with a single department to test naming and indexing protocols makes the growth of the project easier and also brings to light the needs (often surprising!) that other departments in your organization will have for the information.
Also, seek in-kind support from board partners who may have expertise in the for-profit sector with these processes—especially for project planning. We learned that our board had expertise from their own firms that they could bring to the table.
Vanden Berk: The Going Paperless project at UCAN is now truly a joint effort with our board of directors. The advances we are seeing in our paperless efforts, in both administrative and service-delivery processes, are guided by committed and skilled board members. They bring tremendous expertise, they know the need and they are able to turn to their own firms for additional guidance for UCAN.
Have you found opportunities to share your experience with fellow nonprofits and other organizations in Chicago?
Vanden Berk: UCAN is at a pivotal moment as we attempt to address the needs of youth who have experienced trauma and violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Based in large part on the capacity we built with the Going Paperless project, UCAN has created partnerships with corporations, fellow youth services providers and city and county governmental units to create the Peace Hub initiative.
Through this effort, we plan to integrate data among over 30 organizations working to reduce community violence. We have secured commitments from peer service providers to adopt this paperless approach, to standardize data structures and to share data in real time. This is a signal achievement for often under-resourced human services nonprofits.
The broader project, however, is far more robust and will turn the data formerly collected on paper into information and actionable knowledge. As we know, employees at most nonprofits rely on desktop computing to record the scope of the services they deliver. Often a paper record precedes desktop input, which is a costly and antiquated process. Through the Peace Hub initiative, we wish to create tablet-based input processes that are cloud-based and can be accomplished at any site.
How has Going Paperless affected UCAN’s ability to meet your core mission?
Hawkins-Long: Going Paperless began as a needed program to transform UCAN’s records management and business processes. It has evolved into a re-envisioning of the way the information we collect is used and disseminated, as well as how we learn from it to better deliver services. With the Peace Hub initiative, over 30 service partners have joined with us to share information—and to adopt paperless systems that will help us do more for the youth we serve.
The Peace Hub initiative, which builds directly on the Going Paperless initiative, aims to create the following outcomes for every Peace Hub youth services organization:
- Reduce paper-based forms and eliminate long lag-times for the transformation of data into information and knowledge.
- Replace manual processes with automated, mobile, digital solutions that transform administration, reduce error and enhance the privacy and security of information.
- Enable new capabilities through the cloud.
- Gain better access to data.
- Develop dashboards based upon broad data warehouses that track performance and allow for decision-makers to standardize key performance indicators.