Technology for Nonprofits

Making Decisions in a World of Constant Change

Technology for nonprofitsIn the past 13 years, we have spoken with close to thousands of nonprofit executives who are highly effective – able to drive the organization, make strategic messaging decisions, effect change, measure impact, ensure financial performance and work with a strong Board and so on.

What we hear over and over again, however, is a fear of making the “wrong” technology decision. “But, I’m not a tech person”, is a common statement. These same executives who are able to don the “marketing hat”, the “development hat”, or the “programs hat” become semi-paralyzed when it comes to making technology decisions.

Given the rapid pace of technology change and the risks associated with choosing sub-optimal solutions, we understand why there is hesitation. As a quick reminder, just 5 years ago

  • Most websites were static and maintained by contractors (webmasters – remember that term?!)
  • Open source software wasn’t in wide use in the nonprofit sector
  • Social media wasn’t a legitimate space for professional organizations yet
  • Our files/software/email weren’t in the cloud
  • Twitter was only 3 years old and the iPhone was a toddler

With this ever-changing landscape in mind, why are technology decisions so hard? A few reasons:

  • Technology can be complex and unfamiliar to many (or even all, in the case of a small organization) of the employees of a nonprofit
  • The benefits of changes to the technology environment can be hard to quantify
  • Costs for new systems can run well beyond the initial estimates
  • Technology providers are not always good at explaining their service/product in laymen’s terms
  • There is a body of knowledge necessary to manage an IT project that many don’t realize exists, much less have

But these same points apply to for-profit companies, right? Not one bullet above is exclusive to the nonprofit sector. Why the struggle then in the nonprofit sector when it comes to technology decisions?

Here are some differences in the nonprofit sector that impact capability in this arena:

  • Fewer economies of scale – often, social services are not about “get big or go home” – it’s more about quality than quantity
  • Every dollar spent on technology can be viewed as a dollar not spent on mission –  programs/members/clients
  • Small(er) capital budgets
  • The sector often works with consensus, and consensus-based decisions can be slow(er)

Why Invest in Technology?

Why to invest in technology seems like a silly question, given how difficult it would be to do our jobs without technology. But too often, organizations fail to think broadly about the opportunities that the strategic investment in technology can produce. For example technology systems can:

Increase accuracy by reducing data entry errors with error checking on data input forms, and/or comparisons with pre-existing data 

  • Increase accuracy by eliminating  dual data entry tasks / manual input – a frequent source of errors

Increase efficiency by streamlining, and semi-of fully automating processing

  • Increase efficiency by reducing or eliminating the need for certain types of processing by creating self-service functions
  • Increase efficiency by batch processing routine tasks – like mass email, “one click” communications when many people need to be communicated with at once

Better security to help prevent fraud, organizational exposure, waste or abuse

  • Enhanced security to improve staff and organizational  privacy, confidentiality and improved data integrity
  • Help you reach a greater audience without increasing overall staff numbers
  • Support an increase in the effectiveness of fundraising activities
  • Increase the quality of service overall – timeliness, comprehensiveness, customer care
  • Increase the bottom line impact, with respect to organizational performance measures
  • Help opportunities for collaborative projects through more effective or focused outreach

And the holy grail is to enable your nonprofit to do things that it has not been able to do before – maybe that is instantly creating infographics for social media from source data, or dynamic tracking of organizational performance measures via a graphical dashboard representing key performance indicators. Every nonprofit, no matter how sophisticated or well endowed, has unrealized opportunities to make better use of technology.

“When should IT expenditures be undertaken?”

How do you know when you have to or really should invest in a technology initiative? Some forcing functions include:

Financial / Organizational

  • When the change/upgrade/new system pays for itself in under a year or two (or longer, depending on your time horizon)
  • To reduce organizational exposure (unsupported software, data backup, security requirements, malware, etc.)

Personnel / Operations

  • When frustrations with the existing infrastructure exacerbates staff turnover
  • To “do more with less”

Funder Requirements

  • When you are forced to comply with technical requirements by new/existing funders

Vision

  • To achieve the strategic vision / mission
  • Improve outreach and support services / constituents
  • When you have a major unfulfilled opportunity
  • When your forward facing communications are outdated / embarrassing

“How do we begin a technology project?”

The snappy answer to this question is to start! Develop a technology working group – this is not just “your” project. It belongs to the organization and it’s important to involve staff, volunteers and constituents.

By asking for input from the technology working group, all key stakeholders have a voice and are identified. We all know the saying “Two heads are better than one”, right? A well-composed group makes sure that all issues are brought to the table, different divisions are represented and the full group is in touch with each others’ needs. Involving persons from across the spectrum is key to buy-in and acceptance of the upcoming project as well. These early discussions should be consolidated into defined areas of need or opportunity which form the beginning of your technology plan.

There may be a point when you reach the limits of your internal organizational expertise; at this time, you outside assistance is called for. After educating yourself–your initial discovery or exploration may have led you to list-servs, blogs or other resources that are helpful, and this early research will likely make it clear whether this technology project is beyond the capabilities of your internal staff.

At this point you can issue a Request for Proposal for a consultant, or just network with your peers for suggestions – they aren’t hard to find!

“How do we know that we’ve made a good decision?”

Now that you have decided to invest in a technology initiative, ask yourself these questions for additional validation that your chosen path is a good one:

  • Is our need clear?
  • Is the solution(s) presented realistic and achievable?
  • Is the vendor (or internal staff, if relevant) credible and capable?
  • Is there consensus amongst the technology working group?
  • Are the goals clearly stated?
  • Do we have a solid project plan with a capped budget, clear schedule and regular deliverables?
  • Have we created a means for measuring success?

You can do this!

What is the key point that we want to leave you with? Opportunities abound to leverage technology strategically to the benefit of your nonprofit. Even you are “aren’t a technology person”, you can help to surface, vet, and implement improvements in any number of areas – returning real value and helping your nonprofit achieve its mission.

Learn more about how Confluence can assist nonprofits with technology planning.