Little Nonprofit’s Adventures in Process Automation

At the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference in DC in the Spring of 2017, I watched a Salesforce evangelist pitch Salesforce for nonprofits by flashing through a few of cool fundraiser-friendly features of the Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP). And while those features are definitely cool, I left feeling that the presenter had missed a much bigger selling point. Salesforce (the company) invests something upwards of a billion dollars a year in its platform. The result is a platform that offers tremendous power, but that also makes that power relatively easy to harness for users of all technical abilities. And they just hand over this power to nonprofit organizations for nothing except a copy of your IRS determination letter. (Of course, harnessing that power can be far from free, but that’s another blog post for another time.)

Process automation is a prime example of how Salesforce gives admins a lot of control in an easy to master format. But, as with many things on a platform as vast as Salesforce, it can be hard to know where to start. At NPSP day in DC last month, I co-facilitated a session on Workflows, Process Builder, and Triggers with Tim Forbes of Picnet and got a handle on some of the questions and doubts that admins have as they consider wading into process automation.

If you’re ready to jump to a hands-on example of process builder in action, you can click here to see how to revamp the NPSP Email Acknowledgement workflow rule to choose different templates based on the fields in your opportunity record.

The Tools: Workflow Rules and Process Builder and Triggers and . . .?

A workflow rule is a simple process automation tool that allows you to evaluate some criteria on a record and its closely related records, and then, if the criteria are met, cause one or more things to happen, either now or at some future point. Workflows can be used to:

  • set tasks, like follow up with a donor the day after the donation was received;
  • send emails, thanking the donor, for instance; or
  • update a field on the triggering record, perhaps closing registration for an event when the event has reached capacity or when the registration deadline has passed.
  • Workflows also offer the ability to send an outbound message, which can be used in integrations with other apps, and which I have never seen in the wild.

The process builder emerged on the scene with the Winter ’15 release. While the early releases had a reputation for being a little flaky, without much added value, the process builder has since surpassed workflow rules on almost every front. The process builder offers a much wider range of resulting actions, and makes it much easier to manage multiple processes that might have been spread across several workflow rules. A few extra things that you can do with process builder are: creating records, posting to chatter, submitting records for approval, triggering Apex code or other processes, and updating fields on related records, whether children or parents of the record whose changes started the process. The only thing that workflow rules can do but process builder can’t is send outbound messages.

Triggers and visual flows allow for more complex automation, but require a deeper knowledge of the system and programming logic to implement successfully. Triggers are written in Apex code, and so need to be developed in a sandbox environment and require that test code be written before the code can be deployed to your live production environment. Visual flows don’t require you to know Apex, and can be developed in production. Visual flows can also be used to get user input.

Approval processes are essentially a special subclass of process automation that requests approval from a designated user, with actions that result from submitting the record, and then from approval or rejection of that record. I’ve used approval processes to close out donation batches, submitting them to the accounting director, who approves the batch if it matches the bank deposit, and the necessary paperwork is in order.

What Tool Should I Use?

Prior to the release of process builder, there was a large gap between the capacities of workflow rules and the more complicated flows or trigger. Until you understood the structure and limits of Salesforce, you’d often attack a problem from various angles, then eventually learn that there was no way to get there from here. In the early days of process builder, the extra steps needed to complete a task might lead you to stick with a workflow rule unless you needed the extra power of process builder to suit your requirement. Now the answer is pretty simple: use process builder, until you hit a problem that it can’t solve.

Use Process Builder

Workflow rules now seem to be a legacy feature. They’re not going away, because so many admins and packages have created so many of them over the years, but in the long run, you will regret splitting your focus between workflow rules and process builder. You’ll end up with two distinct pockets of process automation, and trying to locate where a certain bit of automation is happening will be a chore. I advise learning process builder and handling all of your process automation there.

Now, using process builder is undeniably a bit more complicated than setting up a similar task as a workflow rule. There’s more going on on the screen, for one thing, and some options are hidden. Setting up a workflow rule is more linear, as Salesforce walks you through the choices you need to make in setting up the criteria and the resulting actions. If you’re a beginner, and the process builder interface is a little too “choose your own adventure” for you, you have my blessing to set up your first process automation as a workflow rule. But then I suggest you immediately go over to process builder, and recreate your automation there. Then deactivate your workflow rule and never look back.

So, For Example

I have seen a couple of users on the Power of Us hub asking how to use different email templates for different types of donations. See the related blog post Revamping the NPSP Email Acknowledgement Workflow Rule to Allow for Multiple Acknowledgement Email Templates for a step-by-step tutorial on setting up a process builder process expanding on the NPSP Email Acknowledgement workflow rule.

Process Builder Tricks and Tips

  • You can’t hurt anything while you’re in process builder, at least not until you make your process active. Don’t be afraid to click around and explore. While many parts of the process builder may seem mysterious at first glance, they usually reveal themselves as you click around.
  • To edit an active process, you must clone that process. Typically, you’ll clone it as a version of the current process. The current process will remain active while you’re working on the new. Then, when you activate the newly edited version, the previous version will be deactivated. In this way, you don’t need to disrupt system functions while you’re making improvements. If the old version of your process is causing problems, however, you’ll want to deactivate it until the improved version is ready to go. You can also revert to previous versions of the process if the new version of your process is the one that is causing trouble.
  • Use the process builder’s capacity to evaluate multiple criteria and perform different actions to group processes that being with the same object. They’ll be easier to manage in the long run. Once you have more than one step in your process, you can have the process move on to the next step rather than stopping once it has performed a set of actions.
  • Scheduled actions will check to make sure that the criteria that triggered the action are still true before executing. For instance, you may have a process that sends a reminder once a pledged donation is 10 days overdue. Ten days after that due date, it will check again to make sure the donation is still in ‘pledged’ status before sending the email.
  • There is a crucial checkbox hidden in the Advanced section of the criteria edit interface. You’ll want to check ‘Do you want to execute the actions only when specified changes are made to the record?’ for any actions that you want to only happen once, when the criteria become true, after having previously evaluated to false. Sending a thank you email to a donor is a key example of a process that you don’t want to trigger by accident days, weeks, or years after the initial donation was closed.
  • Note that changes in formula field values won’t trigger processes or workflows, so you can’t have processes that fire once a donation total reaches a certain threshold, eg. The NPSP’s new levels and engagement plans exist to make this kind of business logic easier to implement.

Things Nonprofits Can Do With Process Builder

Email Alerts

  • Thanking donors
  • Welcoming members
  • Confirm registration for events
  • Send digital benefits or products in response to a paid order or donation

Email Alerts, Scheduled

  • Event reminders
  • Pledge reminders
  • Reminders to complete event registration, or some other process that can be left in a partially-completed state
  • Reminder of an upcoming event

Creating a task

  • Letting higher-ups know about donations of a certain size, and the follow-up that is required

Record Updates

  • Mark the date when a specific change to a record takes place (as with the NPSP email acknowledgement process).
  • In cases where completing a certain process takes several clicks or field updates, use a process to update those fields, based on one of those fields changing. One client’s membership cancellation process involves clicking one box, selecting a cancel reason, and updating two dates. With process automation, the box and the dates can be updated based on the selection of a cancel reason, and saving the record.
  • Update information on related records in situations where formula fields won’t work
  • When an order is marked as shipped, mark all of the items in that order as having been shipped.

Record Creation

  • Accept job applications through web-to-lead, and when the the lead is converted, create an application record that includes links to the resume and related documents, and which can be used to track the application process. If you’re tracking applicants and applications, you’ll definitely want to put some data security in place.
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