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Microsoft Partners Target ‘Underserved’ Industry With Cloud For Nonprofit

‘Find out your superpower and then find a nonprofit that might be aligned with that industry superpower,’ says Ryan Risley, principal and chief technology officer of Wipfli’s Business Solutions Practice. ‘Find a cause you care about, look into what industry you already serve and blend those things together. That‘s where people can be most successful.’

Microsoft has unveiled new capabilities for its cloud tools aimed at nonprofits—a sector that the company’s partners say presents a compelling business opportunity.

Microsoft partners tell CRN that the nonprofit sector—which joins manufacturing, retail, financial services and health care as part of the tech giant’s “industry clouds” strategy—has become a hot opportunity in recent years due to organizations’ desire to leave outdated IT and software setups and use internal data for actionable insight as well as nonprofit leaders being more willing to devote capital to IT changes.

[RELATED: Microsoft’s Five ‘Industry Clouds’: What Partners Need To Know]

Ryan Risley, principal and chief technology officer of Wipfli’s Business Solutions Practice, told CRN that the Milwaukee-based company’s nonprofit practice is one of its highest growth areas. He said now is the first time he’s seen channel partners, nonprofit leaders and vendors coming together to make investment in new technologies possible for nonprofits. “It‘s been a very exciting groundswell,” he said.

As part of the Microsoft news around tools for nonprofits, this month marks the start of a public preview for a new Volunteer Management Power App to help with volunteer and staff recruiting, training and retention. Microsoft has recently integrated its Fundraising and Engagement tool with LinkedIn Sales Navigator so that nonprofits can find new insight within their supporter base. And recent capabilities for Microsoft’s donation management tool, powered by Azure, include a payment schedule and pledge forms for shorter gift processing time and enhanced accuracy and security.

“The nonprofit sector is the third largest industry in the U.S.— it employs over 20 million people and it is traditionally underserved,” Erik Arnold, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact group, told CRN. “There’s a lot of white space. There is a lot of desire among nonprofits to modernize their technology and work with partners and with technology companies to help them get there, to use modern technology in the course of their operations and run more efficiently and in the course of their mission to drive more impact.”

Nonprofit leaders and board members are more willing to spend money migrating from outdated software to speed up operations and improve analytics around their data, Risley said. And cloud tools continue to become more affordable for nonprofits.

Nyasha Tunduwani, founder of Seattle-based Microsoft partner Real Impact Technology Consulting, told CRN that his company has worked with nonprofits since around 2007, starting with the Head Start organization working on AIDS awareness campaigns.

“It’s a solid opportunity. It’s a good revenue opportunity,” Tunduwani said. “I like to say that the difference with nonprofits is the clients say, ‘Thank you.’ For a lot of them, it’s the first time that they’ve been treated well by a partner.”

Lately, his nonprofit customers have requested more tools around cybersecurity and proving through data that programs have delivered positive outcomes in a community. Microsoft Teams voice tools and Azure migration assessments have also proven popular. Nonprofits with outdated software and IT systems are fertile ground for new channel partner business. “They [nonprofit leaders] may not know how to do it, but they understand that manual processes hold back their ability to serve more people,” he said.

Solution providers need to approach nonprofit customers with the same level of respect as commercial customers, even if nonprofits need credits and discounts to get started on an IT project. Tunduwani said his company has learned to get ahead of nonprofit budgeting periods to lay out a project’s road map, get board members to buy in and let the nonprofit find the best way to finance the project.

Tunduwani and Risley said that partners new to nonprofits might encounter language around partners’ environmental impact and information privacy protection more often than with commercial requests for proposal.

Risley’s advice to partners who want to grow a nonprofit vertical or start one is to expand existing specialties into the nonprofit sector. Partners with strong retail and manufacturing verticals can look at nonprofits with retail and supply chain components. Banking channel partners might consider working with impact investing firms and community development financial institutions.

“Find out your superpower and then find a nonprofit that might be aligned with that industry superpower,” Risley said. “Find a cause you care about, look into what industry you already serve and blend those things together. That‘s where people can be most successful.”

Microsoft has invested in getting cloud tools built as close as possible to instant deployment for partner customers, Arnold said. Cloud for Nonprofit “is a partner play for us as much as it is a nonprofit play,” he said, with more updates and integrations coming to provide more use for partners and customers.

The vendor is also staying mindful of any potential channel conflict for partners that want to provide products and services to nonprofits, including working with a partner advisory board.

“If we go too far as Microsoft, if we cross the line, we‘re going to stifle innovation,” Arnold said. “So we have to walk a really fine line here in terms of the architecture products that we create and support that are taking that cost out of the equation, reinforcing best practices, encouraging innovation. And if we go too far, we are going to run afoul of partners.”

As part of his pitch to partners who haven’t yet adopted a nonprofit vertical, Arnold said working with nonprofits can also lead into other new lines of business or strengthen existing ones.

“One of the first things that popped for Microsoft when we launched this industry strategy is, ‘Wow, look at all these cross-industry opportunities,’” he said. “Those health and human services organizations, they work with health-care providers. Health-care providers provide referrals to those organizations. Municipal or county or state governments provide funding into those organizations. So, think about a referral system or a case management system between those organizations. There’s opportunity as a partner to think about, not just nonprofit in isolation, but nonprofit together with some of your other industries.”

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