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How to Write Specifications for Your Digital Project

Is your nonprofit, network, or sports league launching a digital project, such as setting up a database, creating a website, installing and implementing a new software for your whole organization? The thorny topic of specifications will soon arise, if you’re talking about digital projects.

The specifications provide structure for your project by setting expectations and objectives. Whether you develop your solution internally or externally (by hiring web developers or calling for proposals), specifications help you to precisely define the goals and constraints of the project.

Unless you are a Product Manager, writing specifications is not a small task. But we’re here to break it down into steps for you, so don’t worry!

Let's take a look at the main parts of your specifications:

At the end of this article, we’ll share some golden rules to keep in mind while writing specifications.

digital-project-for-nonprofits

Context and Structure

It’s important to set up the proper context for why the digital project is necessary, and why it’s a natural next step for your organization to undertake.

Begin by explaining the general context leading up to the project. You don’t need to tell the whole history of your nonprofit, but summarize the main elements of the project so that a layperson can understand them.

You should include the basics of your nonprofit and project, such as these following points:

Mission

What is the nonprofit’s mission? Who are the stakeholders? You need to be able to answer these questions clearly. 

Structure

How is your nonprofit structured? If it is a network, how is it organized? How will the director of the network work with the local branches? How many chapters or local branches does the network have?

If the project concerns a part of your nonprofit only, you should determine how the team is organized in relation with other departments or teams. Who are the key contacts for the project? Who will take lead on the project?

Stats Overview

Include some numbers that convey the scale of the project. Some stats that you should share include the number of people in your organization, the number of people potentially impacted by the project, etc.

There’s no need to detail your full activity report. Just feature the main stats!

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Objectives of the Digital Project

What are the issues that you want to solve with your nonprofit’s digital project?

If you are launching a digital project, it’s probably because you noticed that there is a need that hasn’t been met yet, or something to be optimized.

To write your specifications, detail the implications of these bottlenecks and your expectations for what the project will accomplish.

What will the project improve? How will it impact the nonprofit’s work? How will the project carry out your nonprofit’s mission? When will the project be completed and launched?

The important thing is to focus on one or two objectives. Defining primary and secondary objectives will highlight your priorities for the digital project.

If your objectives are not immediately clear, ask yourself, "When the project is delivered, what will the user be able to do that was impossible to do previously?”

History and Current Status of the Digital Construction Site

If your organization has past attempts of launching the digital platform, you can include this information in your specifications. This will help you understand what roadblocks you faced previously, and plan ahead to circumvent them. 

For example:

  • Project: Development of a centralized database for a nonprofit
  • Context: Nonprofits are managing member information with multiple tools and platforms. It is impossible to view all member information at a glance, so the data is not effectively included in communication or fundraising strategies.
  • Objective: To consolidate and organize data for nonprofits (e.g., the number of members, email open rates, etc.)
  • Primary objective: To consolidate information in one central database in order to produce statistics on members 
  • Secondary objective: To create effective communication strategies with members
  • History: There have been three attempts to centralize data and member information in the past. Those attempts were unsuccessful due to a lack of unified team vision. 

List of Needs

Good specifications should have a list of requirements, rather than a list of features.

Focusing on requirements is important because your tech team has to understand what you need, instead of what you anticipate to be the solutions.

Try to keep the big picture in mind when laying out your requirements for the project. You’ll have many opportunities to dig deeper in future discussions - after the specifications have been communicated.

In this part, you should describe your organization based on your needs, your habits, your processes, and not on the description of the features you expect.

Before writing the specifications, conduct interviews with target users to identify current bottlenecks and needs. This is also a great way to involve them in your organization’s long-term development! 

To continue the previous example, it is expanded to include:

  • Project: Development of a centralized database for a nonprofit
  • Context: Nonprofits are managing member information with multiple tools and platforms. It is impossible to view all member information at a glance, so the data is not effectively included in communication or fundraising strategies.
  • Needs:
    • Contact members directly to send them a reminder
    • Track membership status to know in real time who is up to date with membership payments
    • Sort members by location
    • Create specific fields to add information on members (indicate as members or volunteers, add to a group)

Prioritizing Needs

Although your list might include many needs, you need to prioritize the “must have” from the “optional” ones

For each need, ask: What is the consequence if this need is not addressed? Does this correlate to the nonprofit’s mission?

For example:

  • Project: Development of a centralized database for a nonprofit
  • Context: Nonprofits are managing member information with multiple tools and platforms. It is impossible to view all member information at a glance, so the data is not effectively included in communication or fundraising strategies.
  • Primary Need: Track membership status to know in real time who is up to date with membership payments
  • Secondary Needs:
    • Contact members directly to send them a reminder
    • Sort members by location
    • Create specific fields to add information on members (indicate as members or volunteers, add to a group)

Create an Excel Response Grid

When writing your specifications, create an accompanying grid with all the needs you’ve identified, in order of priority. This allows you to standardize all your suppliers' responses and compare their respective advantages in order to choose the right one for your project.

Create categories in your grid based on major themes of your needs: member management, administrator access, management of membership fees, cross-functional needs, etc.

specifications-for-nonprofitsMarine is ready to tackle the specifications
now that she has prioritized her organization's needs

digital-project-specifications-for-nonprofits

Things to Look Out For 

Specific Issues to Your Organization

Every organization, whether it be a small nonprofit or a large network of organizations, has its unique dynamics, vocabulary, and needs.

Consider what is super specific to your organization. It could be your team’s reluctance to use new software, geographically distant team members, or strong division between your teams.

Limit yourself to 2 or 3 of these specific issues, and give some context for what you want the digital project to accomplish despite these issues. 

Once the specific issues have been identified, include them in your specifications so that your technical team can adapt the project accordingly.

digital-project-for-nonprofits-specific-issues

How to Manage Change in Your Organization

It’s normal to feel apprehensive about change. 

If your organization will be impacted by a change in organization or work style due to the digital project, take the time to involve stakeholders from the beginning of your project. The sooner you include them in the conversation, the better reception of your project.

What conditions are required for everyone to adopt the changes introduced by your project? 

The answer to this is usually to provide training and open channels of communication for everyone impacted by the project.

Explore the various forms that support could take: face-to-face training, webinars, a help center, or tutorial videos. 

You can activate someone from your team to help facilitate the change. This point person can answer questions that arise for anyone, advocate for smoother transition, and serve as a liaison for the project and the team.

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Golden Rules for Specifications

These guidelines for writing specifications are to help you make sure all the essentials are included.

When writing your specifications, you should also keep the following in mind:

Be Concise

As is the case for most documents, you should always aim for clear, concise writing. Cut out unnecessary words so that the reader can quickly understand the ideas.

This ensures that you find a functional product that meets your main needs. 

Talk About Needs Instead of Features

We’ve mentioned this already, but we really insist on this point!

Everyone has their own area of expertise. You know your organizations’ needs, while the technical team knows how to build something that meets those needs. Let them do what they do best! 

Prioritization of Objectives

When tackling a project, you have to concentrate on the crucial goals. This will be your starting point, and help you avoid entering rabbit holes where you never intended to go with the project.

When you write your specifications, you should distinguish between:

Priority 1 = High priority

Priority 2 = Medium priority

Priority 3 = Low priority

Collaboration and Iteration between Your Team and External Contributors

Your project can only succeed if you have strong and effective communication between your team and people from outside your team who are also working on the project. If you hired a freelance website designer or a technical team, your project depends on how well this relationship is managed!

Proper collaboration means asking the right questions and agreeing on the objectives. You should all know the answers to questions such as, “Why is this project important? What do we want to achieve as a result?”

Iteration means repeating steps in order to get closer to the desired result. This will help you and your team to: 

  • Clearly define a common objective
  • Highlight bottlenecks in the work flow before they happen
  • Highlight the work your members and project stakeholders have done

You’ll have to be patient and make sure you move forward step by step. After all, Rome was not built in a day.

Keep in mind that your primary objective is to review your processes and understand the needs of your organization and your members.

digital-specifications-objective-for-nonprofits

Specifications for digital projects provide the framework so that the best solution can be found to existing problems. 

With these golden rules of how to create and stick to your specifications, you can make sure the project stays true to your organization’s mission and unfolds in a smooth and collaborative way! 

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