Trends and Confusions in Technology within the Nonprofit Sector

Originally posted on Olive Grove’s Pit Stop blog

Wondering what your peers are doing in technology? Concerned you’re not keeping up? Confused? Confluence’s CEO Dr. Lisa Rau shares her views of the latest trends and confusions in technology use within the sector.

The 360 Degree Proposition: The nonprofit world adopts technology a beat behind the corporate world.  Superior customer service from having complete information about the tastes and preferences of customers has mutated into the nonprofit context. Now, we see the philanthropic sector’s increased use of Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems to create a 360 degree view of grantees, partners, foundation and funding contacts and donors. CRM systems enable “at a glance” views of all interactions and transactions with individuals and organizations – donations of course, but also grants, event attendance, emails, phone calls, and other interactions and relationships. Hard to say which came first – the sector’s interest in CRM or the Salesforce Foundation’s donation program and NonProfit Success Pack– but Salesforce has the majority mindshare. CiviCRM is another increasing popular option, given its status as free and open source software, and its tight integration with the WordPress, Drupal and Joomla open source website Content Management Systems. Going 360 not only helps to build deeper relationships, it reduces organizational “silos” and reduces the overall complexity of an organization’s information systems environment.

Managed Services: The sector’s wholesale outsourcing of their computer / server / network technical support has perhaps not been “voluntary”. The computer support industry has moved fairly lock stepped from “break/fix” and on-site support, with pay-as-you-go models to service level agreements, fixed all-inclusive monthly support costs and packages, and remote, managed and monitored assets. If you still have “the computer guy” swinging by once or twice a week for technical support, it might be worth looking at what’s out there now.

Aging Information Systems: Many foundations and nonprofits find themselves with aging, client/server information systems – systems that have to be installed on each desktop, run on an in-office or hosted server (or servers!) and can only be accessed remotely via a Virtual Private Network or terminal services / remote desktop technology. The biggest examples are in the areas of donor management (hello Raiser’s Edge) and grants management (hello GIFTS), but depending on the organization, there may be case management, project management, and other special purpose software in this area. When alternatives are appropriately evaluated, it will often make sense to jump ship to something modern and web-based. Why? The smaller vendors of such legacy software are at risk – it is hard to completely rewrite your software! It’s like creating a brand new software product from scratch. Even when they provide new versions, there can be as significant a cost and /or effort to move to the new versions as to move to something else. Many organizations also appreciate paying for Software as a Service – an all-in-one, predictable monthly fee that includes the license cost, maintenance, support and hosting. Replacing a core software system is risky, scary, difficult, time consuming and requires some expertise – but the benefits can be transformational.

Google Confusion: We’re seeing more organizations thinking they should move to all-Google, all-the-time. Why? Sometimes this can be motivated by young staff weaned on Gmail and thrilled with Google Docs. Other times, the fact that Google Apps are free to 501c(3)s is attractive (never mind that Microsoft’s donation program at makes this a non-issue), or the completely web-based model is super-seductive in our work anywhere, work any time world. Yet we have seen few organizations making this move smartly. Google Drives become even more unorganized than their file servers, staff spend more time looking for and sometimes not finding email in Gmail than Outlook, calendar appointments don’t get received by outsiders, and Google documents and spreadsheets are limited in appearance and functionality. Make sure this move is done for good reasons – solving real organizational limitations and take care not to introduce more problems than might be solved.

iPad and iPhone Confusion: Leading foundations have been providing their staff with iPads and iPhones in their bids to go mobile. This technology-forward move immediately leads to unanswered questions and new problems: how do we access our files from the iPad? What kinds of work are appropriate to do from a mobile device? How about security? Backups? Ownership? Support? A little forethought can forestall issues down the road.