I am frequently asked to speak to nonprofit leaders on the topic “What leadership qualities support effective use of technology?”. Here are the four traits I share that I have found to be vital to impact leadership.Impact Leadership means demonstrating leadership in the service of generating greater impact for your organization. I have witnessed some amazing demonstrations of this type of leadership from nonprofits when it comes to technology. For many nonprofit organizations, technology is kept on the back burner, something only dealt with when it is absolutely necessary. They are reactive instead of proactive when it come to technology. Proactive organizations take the reigns of technology and harness it for the good of the organization’s mission and impact. An effective leader willing to embrace technology is what makes the difference. Four traits that stand out to me when thinking about technology are: Courage, Vision, Conviction and being a bit of a Rebel: Courage When technology has not traditionally been a strength of an organization (and/or its leader), it takes courage to make technology a priority and invest in technology initiatives. This means not being comfortable with technology, yet empowering staff to innovate and experiment anyway. Beyond lack of comfort, technology projects sometimes have a hard-to-define Return on Investment (ROI), and there is a regrettable lack of funding for technology projects, so it can be difficult to justify the expense. It is unfortunate that so few foundation leaders have the courage and vision to fund technology projects. Well-planned technology interventions can result in greater efficiencies, allow organizations to provide services in more effective ways, and even save money Knowing the positive impact that well-placed, thoughtful uses of technology can have, courageous nonprofit leaders embark on technology projects despite the obstacles. These leaders move ahead, knowing that while no project is perfect, there is nothing to gain from not trying. They also know that if you are not keeping up you are falling – sometimes dangerously – behind. Vision Having the vision of what the organization can achieve with smart applications of technology is vital to success. The ability to hold a vision of how staff and stakeholders can step up to support even complex technical projects, is a key leadership trait. I have seen folks for whom technology was a very foreign subject embrace it whole-heartedly because of the vision they have of a mission fulfilled. One of my heroes is a nonprofit staff member who learned HTML in her 70’s so that she could manage the organization’s website. It wasn’t because she had a particular desire to learn how to code, but because of her vision of how their social justice work would be supported by an effective online presence. Conviction When you are in an organization where technology has not been a priority, it takes conviction to advocate for engaging with technology. There are sometimes grueling politics to deal with, resistance to change and objections to overcome as well as plain old inertia. Changing the technology culture of a nonprofit from a reactive, non-engaged one to an engaged, proactive one is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes conviction to keep beating the “keep the focus on technology” drum over the long term. Technology is a long term, ongoing reality for organizations. It is not like a chair that is built once and then used until it wears out. It is more like a garden that needs regular maintenance, seeding and weeding. Rebelliousness In order to buck organizational systems that are not friendly to technology, you need to be a bit of a rebel. The ability to push back against conventional wisdom, against the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, against prejudices and fears is often required of leaders. Yes, technology projects can be expensive and confusing, but they can improve efficiency in the organization’s work systems, which in turn free up resources for more mission-focused work. Technology can allow your organization to provide services in new ways to match the changing ways people use technology,. That is a big payoff which the reactive “quick-fix” or band-aid approaches don’t produce. The smart rebel leaders I have seen know when to push back and be disruptive. They also know when to step back and let the changes sink in, so including a dash of diplomacy with your rebelliousness is a good idea. Impact When you think of yourself as a nonprofit leader, do you recognize yourself in some of these traits? Are there some of these traits you would like to strengthen? If you are not comfortable with technology, are you able to set aside your discomfort in service of the mission and greater impact? How else might you make a change to help technology thrive at your organization? When it comes to Impact Leadership – demonstrating leadership in the service of generating greater impact for your organization – this combination of being a bit rebellious, having the courage of your convictions and having a thoughtful vision which you are working towards are an unbeatable combination for nonprofit leaders.
Flickr photo credits: Lion – ucumari/Valerie; Lighthouse – kenyonsf; Conviction – Raul Pacheco-Vega; Rebel – 1banaanRead More
Recently Kevin McCray, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Ground Water Association asked me “Do you offer a list of appropriate questions for board members to ask of staff/management when management is making a recommendation for a technology purchase? We can offer up our rationale and background, but we think they should focus on what questions are appropriate from their oversight positions.” As this is a question I know many organizations and board members struggle with, I wanted to share my answers publicly.
First I’d like to appreciate and highlight the phrase “questions appropriate to their oversight positions”. I have seen board members waste their time and the staff’s time delving into operational details when it’s unnecessary – and not helpful. Hire staff that you trust to do their job well, then let them do it. Nobody likes to be second-guessed or micro-managed. If there is a lack of trust or confidence in your technology staff, that is an HR issue to be addressed by management and not a good use of the board’s time. The board has an important oversight role that these questions can help spotlight.
While each situation might require slightly different questions, here are some of my suggestions for questions that focus on the high level, oversight role of the board when inquiring about technology projects.
- How is this project aligned with our mission and strategic goals?
- How are we measuring progress towards the organizational goal(s) this technology project supports?
- Will this project alter how progress is measured? What data points will you use to show progress on this project?
- How are you defining success for this project? Are there tangible and intangible results that will be reported back to the board about the Return on Investment (ROI)?
- What data do we as the board need to make informed decisions about this project regarding budget, policies, staffing or other role-appropriate decisions?
- What actions can we take to support this project?
In my experience, once questions get beyond this level into discussions about specific tools or operational procedures, the focus on oversight begins to blur. If you are a board member or are presenting information to a board, trying to redirect the conversation to oversight-related questions like these can help keep the dialogue away from operational details and on track.
I’d love to hear about other questions that folks think are useful for board members to ask about technology projects.
flickr phto: sfllawRead More
I attended the Teacher Technology Showcase put on by the School of Education at Sonoma State University in the fall of 2013 . I learned so much from talking with teachers and students about different ways technology is being incorporated into learning. While aimed at K-12, I found seven things that I look forward to incorporating into future education sessions. Since I primarily teach nonprofit staff about technology, I found these especially useful and relevant:
1. The Exploded Classroom
Forget flipping the classroom, Northwest Prep Charter School explodes it by putting the student at the center of a project-based learning model, giving them self-paced assignments they follow and then post their resulting work in an online space. The student body gathers and works on projects individually and in teams, with all the teachers in the space to provide assistance, rather than the one teacher/one topic/one class model. Adopting this for adult learners could lead to wiping away the decades-old uninspired lecture model. http://www.northwestprep.org/
2. Technology Coaches
Some school districts who have the resources employee technology coaches to support teachers to integrate and experiment with technology in their learning models. What a great thing it would be if networks of nonprofits, funders or other organizations provided technology coaches not only to assist staff but to act as hubs for gathering and sharing stories. These come from a school in the town of Kentfield in Northern California. Academic tools list for Kentfield teachers:
3. Twitter for Transparency
I met an awesome first grade teacher, Mike, who uses twitter to share out what students are working on, discussions they are having, etc. not only to help parents keep up to date but for his principal and superintendent to know what he is doing in his class. A great way for nonprofit programs to share with stakeholders or other programs to spread excellent practices. Twitter teacher resources (also from the Kentfield school):
4. Stories of Excellence
Edutopia, already one of my favorite resources for educators, does research into schools and programs getting excellent results. They investigate and create video and other media to share these stories and help improve educational models. Relevant topic include High-Impact Professional Development and there Power of Collaborative Learning. http://www.edutopia.org/schools-that-work
From discussions about using blogging as a reflective practice to helping teacher trainers give voice to their stories, ( see http://voicethread.com/about/library/Language_from_Carla_Arena/ ) Voicethread provides a way to enhance discussions in collaborative learning environments. It provides a “virtual seminar table” for discussions of material. http://voicethread.com/
6. KQED Education’s Digital Tools
While I knew the KQED Education site was a great resource, I was excited to learn about the Digital Tools section This part of the website provides helpful “how to’s” on topics from “How to Make a Zeega” to “How to Make a Meme” to “How to Make a Prezi”. Good stuff for any of us teaching about using technology tools. http://blogs.kqed.org/education/category/tools/
7. The Maker Mindset and Movement
Bringing tinkering into the educational space sparks creativity and imagination no matter what the age of the student. Taking things apart, understanding how they work, how things work together all of these can open up understanding in unique ways. From a low barrier to entry to being accessible to everyone to learning from failure and more, tinkering can be a powerful learning too. One makers video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXgL6TiXJjs&feature=youtu.be. More resources: http://www.makered.org/Read More
The AmazonSmile program, where a small percentage of sales is given to a designated nonprofit, is a nice sentiment but will likely prove a net loss for most participating nonprofit organizations.
The sentiment is admirable – provide exposure to nonprofits on the popular shopping site and donate a portion of sales to worthy causes. Unfortunately, for years I have seen nonprofits waste time, energy and hope on similar online charity malls, where supporters must shop through a certain website that then gives portions of proceeds to participating organizations. My issues with them – and with AmazonSmile – are that they are not very generous, they only benefit nonprofits with a large supporter base and they usually have a negative overall ROI for organizations that participate.
How It Works
$5 of every $1000
Through Amazon Smile, 0.5% of a shoppers total purchase is donated to a designated nonprofit. That means I would have to spend $1000 to generate a $5 donation. No matter what I spend, the resulting donation amount is not as generous as I would like to see. Considering the amount of profit that the company makes on each purchase, 0.5% seems like less than a pittance. The real goal is to get people to buy more, thinking they are “doing good”, when in fact the mostly “Made in China” junk they buy does more harm to the environment than the donation they generate.
Rather than an altruistic gesture, it is more like the classic baiting technique used by retailers for years. Sales, “Buy one, get one free” or “Free gift with purchase” promotions all work on the principal that once they get you into their shopping environment with the bait, you will not just buy the sale item but will spend much more than the retailer loses through the promotion. Same goes with the fake “feel good about your purchase” that Amazon is selling.
Despite being positioned as a donation, since this is actually a purchase, donors don’t get the tax benefit. A read through the “About Amazon Smile” section reveals that “Donations are made by the AmazonSmile Foundation and are not tax deductible by you.“ So not only does Amazon get more business, they get the tax deduction too.
If you want to support a nonprofit, give to them directly and get the tax deduction yourself. Don’t give a corporate giant that is swimming in money more money and a tax break because they fool you into thinking you’re doing something good.
In order for this promotion to generate any serious dollars, nonprofit organizations need to activate many supporters to spend thousands of dollars. It is doubtful that any but the largest nonprofit brands will be able to do this. Whether large in size or in name recognition like American Red Cross or DoSomething.org, the advantage will go to the larger and more well known brands rather than smaller, less well known nonprofits. I have nothing against the better known brands, I just see the fake “Smile” program as doing little to mitigate the advantages of larger nonprofits. Amazon doesn’t care, the larger nonprofits bring in more consumers, why should they care if small nonprofits get short shrift?
This is akin to the controversy over Popularity Contest Philanthropy that arose in 2010 around contests by Pepsi, Chase Community Giving and others. See also this interesting study that mentions the costs vs. benefits of one such campaign. When I first reviewed the smile page, I saw only large national brands like Nature Conservancy and charity:water on the main page, so I did a search for my small town in Northern California to see if any local agencies were listed. While local nonprofits came up in the search, it says Amazon will contact them to see if they want to participate.
Seems like a way to get customers to provide Amazon with an excuse to contact nonprofits in order to enlist the organizations help in promoting Amazon, with little return to the nonprofit on their effort.
Many charity malls have required that nonprofit staff spend considerable time setting up the system, marketing and promoting their participation. To be fair, the reports I have heard say that it is easy to sign up to participate in AmazonSmile. But the resources used to sign up is only part of the equation.
If an organization decides to promote their participation, time is spent in writing up and distributing the message. If on average a staff person spends 2 hours in setup, promotion and data management and if that person is paid $20 per hour, there is $40 in investment. Supporters would need to spend $8000 to generate the $40 donation needed to break even. Even just posting an ad on the nonprofit website – which of course Amazon makes it easy to do – takes up valuable real estate. There are other intangible costs as well including diluting the year-end fundraising message of the organization and the disappointment that comes with the realization that the effort did not pay for itself.
On a more global level, one could argue that using Amazon results in a net loss for the planet that is not offset by the donations generated. Greenpeace has criticized Amazon, among others, for “heavy use of coal-derived power for their massive data centers.” Using Amazon instead of shopping locally does not support your local small business community and likely results in your purchase having a larger carbon footprint because of the shipment from China and the delivery. Convenient, yes, but conscientious? Not so much.
I agree that there is a public relations value to participating organizations in having Amazon reminding shoppers about those worthy nonprofits. I also think Amazon benefits by way of association much more than they will ever pay out in donations.
From my point of view, a more equitable way of helping nonprofits would be for Amazon to choose a group of charities – a mix of smaller and medium-sized organizations – to receive donations. They then would distribute 5% of their profits earned annually evenly among those organizations. Same net PR gain for Amazon but greater impact on organizations that may be less well-known. Even include some of the big names, as long as there is a more even playing field.
But that doesn’t seem of interest to Amazon. They don’t really want to help nonprofits very much, only when it also means more profits to them. Why make a real impact on social issues with thoughtful philanthropy when you can con your customers into buying more by pretending to help?
I would welcome having my theory of most organizations losing money be disproved, but it hasn’t happened in the fours years since 2015 I’ve been following the program. I have heard from participating organizations that their results in dollars gained vs. effort spent is almost always a net loss. It is a financial boon to a very few – the largest, most well known organizations. Regrettably, nonprofits are so under-resourced and desperate for any donation, they waste their resources in hopes they will make money and take the donation even if they lose money on the deal.
A program that is not real philanthropy, that preys on the psychology of people who want to do good and that wastes the resources of nonprofits? Nothing to smile about – Hence the frown :(.
Updates Since Publication:
Since posting this article in I have heard from a nonprofit professional, Sandy Masuo of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, who agreed about the downsides, and shared what I think is an excellent point – “The nonprofit I work for recently signed onto this program, and I’m trying to figure out a way to make $5 on every $1,000 seem inspiring to the many middle class families who are (our) members :-/”.
Since the program started, Amazon has made some reporting improvements to the program but is still not completely transparent. Foundations have ways to improve their transparency through programs like Glass Pockets.
As I imagine Amazon hoped, nonprofits who are desperate for adequate funding have slapped the Amazon (Smile) logo onto many of their websites, effectively giving Amazon free advertising, whether any donations come in or not. That free advertising, plus the fact that folks often spend more money when they think it will help a good cause, has made Amazon much more money than they have or will ever give back.
Amazon continues to use nonprofits so they can increase their profits, not for any real social good they are committed to promoting.
I remain hopeful that Amazon will find better ways to use their resources to intelligently support the nonprofits in our global community.Read More
While Google is king of online advertising revenue, it still uses direct mail for a very good reason. Direct mail is still relevant and still gets results.
I had several emails from Google over the summer about this special offer regarding a free ad credit if I spent money advertising my business through them online. I received my first piece of direct mail from Google in August.
I received another in late September and then, below, you can see the post card I recently received reminding me of their offer of free ad credit if I spend $50. While I am a long time advocate of online giving and communications, print still plays an important role.
An important thing to notice is how the first piece is customized. It calls me by name, it mentions the town I live in twice. Nonprofits would do well to follow this example. The days of “Dear Friend, Thank you for your recent gift” are over. Addressing a donor in this old manner makes them feel like one of a large faceless group you are addressing, not an important contributor to your organization’s success. Through mail merges for print and data exports for emails, it is easy to change such generic greeting to one that is more personal, i.e., “Dear John, Thank you for gift of $250 on November 7th”. That helps the recipient feel that you are noticing the details of their support and acknowledging them in a specific way, not in a generic “one greeting fits all” way.
Print vs. Electronic
I’ve heard from some nonprofits that they have cut out their print newsletters in favor of electronic newsletters. I understand that moving to an e-newsletter saves money. For most organizations it costs around $2.00 to send a piece of direct mail and about 20 cents to send an email. However this decision does not incorporate the opinions of the recipients, who are the reason these communications exist in the first place.
A better practice is to encourage subscribers to a print newsletter to sign up for the electronic version – relentlessly. You must continuously ask, prod, cajole and entice subscribers in order to get them to move to a different channel. Even with this effort, you may end up with a group of folks that will not budge and that want your print newsletter. I recommend you respect that choice. You never know when a major donor may be among those who love your print newsletter, will never sign up for the e-newsletter and who you may lose as a supporter if they stop hearing from you via print.
Online giving continues to grow as a percentage of donations for almost all organizations (see the Network For Good Digital Giving Index). This is good news as more folks become comfortable with giving online, as it is a more cost effective way to accept donations. At the same time, for many organizations the majority of donations still come in through check. I assisted with the Monterey County Gives! project a few years ago and 70% of the donations for that community fundraising effort came in through check, despite a robust website and much encouragement to give online. This is the reality now, so those that are working on growing their individual donor base would do well to use both direct mail and email in their fundraising campaigns.
I am an online donor and I know how much more expensive it is for nonprofits to send me a direct mail piece. I especially hate when they send me address labels – who sends letters anymore? But when I ask the nonprofit staff, they report that when they send out those labels, they get a higher response rate and more donations than when they send out a request without them. Of course that has to do with the demographics and age of their donor base, but most money in this country is still given by folks over 60 who have used checks and traditional mail for most of their lives, so it is important to keep them in mind when deciding how to manage your print vs. electronic communications.
Take a tip from Google and ensure you have a coordinated effort across your print and electronic communications. The emails I get from Google about their special offer almost directly match the print pieces they send through the mail. Being coordinated across channels is the best way to ensure your message gets through and folks take the actions you desire.Read More
During an online fundraising seminar I was presenting, we were on the topic of email addresses. I always advise folks to pay attention to their email “bounces” – when an email address is found to be bad and your email can’t be delivered.
One of the seminar attendees shared that she had a LOT of data issues in her donor database – duplicates, outdated contact information, etc. All of that data needed cleaning up before she could tackle the bounces in her email database. It was overwhelming, so she was not taking any action. That’s when it occurred to me that ignoring that data was like ignoring debt – it doesn’t get better it just gets worse!
Data issues, like debt, continue to pile up unless tackled head on.
You’re busy – and how important is that email bounce data anyway? Well, what if, hidden in that email bounce data is the email address of a major donor – or two? What if that person has not heard from you in weeks or months because they changed their email address and thought they told you? Or better yet, they setup an auto reply in their old email box, but your emails come from a “do not reply” address so that message never came back to you. New or casual email subscribers and online donors can take that as marked disinterest.
If you are not on top of your data you could be harming good relationships with your donors. Online fundraising continues to grow every year and at some point I believe it is destined to overtake giving via direct mail, so paying attention to email addresses is critical.
Your organization can get on top of tasks like reviewing email address bounces. This can be a good task for a volunteer or intern with a little basic training on running searches in your databases. The data on email bounces is pulled from your email system. In your donor or other databases, you then do a search for folks who bounced. First look for an alternative email address – someone may have gotten the new one and just didn’t remove the old one. For those that you don’t have alternative email address, consider creating a postcard you can mass mail to say “We are updating our records and would love to stay in touch – return this postcard, go online or call us today!”. After a month, for those you don’t hear from, you might even call folks whose phone numbers you have. If they say no or don’t return the card, that’s fine, people’s interests change.
An excellent practice is to keep a spreadsheet with the names of folks that bounced and you did not hear from after the postcard and/or phone call. Review the list of major donors every year or 6 months and compare it to that list. If you find a major donor, you might want to dig around in other files or in your network to see if you have a secondary way to contact that person, saying that “I’d like to keep in touch, feel free to email or call me” and leave it at that.
Don’t let valuable email subscribers and donors walk away feeling forgotten. Mine that data, keep them engaged so they might give another day!
(Flickr photos TheEyeofNewYork; andreasnilsson1976)Read More
At a recent seminar, a member of the audience, a nonprofit staff member, was
visibly angry that “none of the discounted databases on TechSoup come with
free technical support”. While I can understand how frustrating it is to
try to learn how to use the mostly non-intuitive database programs out there, I
was struck by the thinking behind that comment. To me, it is like being angry
that a car someone donated to you did not come with free gas and repairs for
Like a car, a database (and most technology for that matter) needs regular
care and maintenance. It requires resources, both human and financial, to
maintain it in good working order. Like a garden, there is planning to ensure
you use your space well and get out of it what you need, weeding to remove
undesirable elements, watering and feeding to provide needed inputs, as well as
appropriate harvesting to glean what you need. All of those tasks require spending
money on human resources to carry them out. It may also require spending
resources on tools, education or consulting. The point is, if you have no
resources to put into managing a database, you will get very little out
of it that is of use.
Many software programmers out there donate hundreds if not thousands of
hours to make free and open source software, like CiviCRM, Drupal and many others.
Those folks could be making lots of money working for commercial operations but
instead make less money and contribute to the nonprofit community in some powerful
ways. Providing technology tools that work for nonprofits is a difficult job
that comes with very little tangible reward. As I’ve heard many well-respected
nonprofit software experts like Robert Weiner and Allen Gunn say, free software
is free like puppies. The puppy might be free initially, but the vet visits,
shots, medicines, food, time spent training and caring for the puppy are all
not free – just as it is with software.
So, if your organization does not have the resources to both acquire and
maintain your database, the problem is not with the software providers and
their lack of free resources. It is the responsibility of every nonprofit to
raise the proper funding to properly maintain the organization, and to me the
lifeblood of an organization is its data and the systems used to manage that
As I have often said, “after people, data is your most important
resource”. You’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you don’t’ have
the resources needed to do a good job of maintaining it in good order, then the
first order of business is raising more or reallocating funds. The more
realistic organizations are about the costs of technology and software, the
more appropriate they fund those tools, the happier they will be with their
tools and the more benefit they will derive from their use.
The report includes wonderfully helpful information for performing arts organizations about engaging audiences via mobile, mobile options, vendors and – best of all – case studies of organizations using mobile.
Analytics and Texting
Two of the points I make in the report are about using analytics and being thoughtful about texting.
A review of your website metrics is helpful when building a mobile-friendly site. The analytics can tell you what pages are most popular among those accessing your website via mobile devices. This helps you make sure those pages are included in your website's mobile version.
Being thoughtful about texting is important because mobile is so personal that unwanted texts can feel like an invasion of privacy. Simple announcements, such as tickets going on sale, the release of a season's schedule or a "Save the Date" announcement for special events like fundraisers are some the more appropriate ways I've seen arts organizations using text.
The report is full of useful advice and examples that every arts organization should see. Thanks to Susan Elliott and Dina Gerdeman for incuding me. The Muscial America Special Reports page also has links to other good reports on fundraising, ticketing and other issues important to arts organizations.Read More
Effective technology trainings need to be much more than listening to an expert speak, especially when the class runs for 6 hours. There is so much valuable knowledge and experience among the participants, it is important to promote ways to get them out of their seats and help them interact.
Recently I presented a Masterclass in Technology Planning for the 2013 Connecting Up conference in Australia. I used several techniques to promote interaction among the participants. The classic is the "share pair" where you have two people pair up to share their thoughts. I like using an active share pair – not just turn to the person next to you and share – but get up, get your feet moving, meet someone new and share with them. I used this several times, once in the beginning when I asked folks to think about 1. What they needed to learn about for their organization and 2. What they personally wanted to learn about. I gave them a few minutes to think and jot down their answers, then had them stand up, find someone at a different table and share. It's wonderful to see the room erupt in conversation when you do this. This also helps folks think about what interests them, rather than just what their job requires, so it adds a nice personal slant to the days learning.
Later in the day, after talking about options for using the Cloud, I had folks share one new way their org might use the cloud. One of participants brought his laptop over to share with two folks how he had moved his infrastructure to the cloud, a wonderfully concrete example from a peer that really opened up their thinking.
My class was happening simultaneously with Beth Kanter's masterclass (she shares her insights in her Trainers Notebook post here). We used two ideas that Beth has been incorporating for some time in her trainings. The first was to give folks nametags and have them write a word or two about what they would be taking away from the class or and "aha" moment they had. Participant Marchelle McMath, shown here, is an example – she learned about the importance of prioritizing her many tech projects. We then had folks find someone from the other class and share what their name tag meant. We had folks do this three times with three different folks.
We then were able to use the tags for a "walking debrief", where folks again found a new partner and we left the hotel, walked along the promenade next to the beach and as they walked they again shared what their takeaways were and heard from the other person what they had learned. It was a great way to cross-pollinate the learnings and for folks to find similarities around areas such as culture change, addressing resistance, and prioritizing. I heard some great conversations happening during the walk – and we had them switch partners half way through to get yet another perspective. Of course we then took a picture of us and our combined classes to share.
So as you plan your next technology training session, think about ways to get participants moving and sharing their knowledge, their questions and even their struggles – it makes for a much richer experience than sitting and listening to a "sage on the stage".
PICNIC error – “Problem In Chair Not In Computer” is defined on Wikipedia as “slang in technical circles… that implies a lack of computer savvy on the part of a user”. While critics of the term argue that the issue actually arises from systems not designed intuitively, there is another issue common in nonprofits that contributes to it as well – lack of technology training.
“indicate that nonprofits feel relatively
confident that they have the tools to
do their every-day work, but are less
confident about having enough
skilled staff or training to effectively
use their technology for their work.”
Adequate training and support are key to getting more “bang” for your technology “buck”. Staff wasting effort trying to create reports that could be done easily if they had the training are just one example I have run across many times in my nonprofit technology career.
This issue also relates to examining work processes. Why do 6 of the 8 staff in an organization need to enter data from a donation in 8 different places? Usually because the organization has not stopped to look at their business processes. How many times have I heard “We’ve always done it this way” or “That was how the person before me taught me how to do it”. Spending some time making sure you have the best process in place can free up time best spent elsewhere. Applying technology to a bad process usually results in a slightly faster bad process, not the significant increase in efficiency that creating intelligent processes can have.
Nonprofits have limited resources to spend on technology. Two of the best ways to improve your return on investment are:
1. Invest in regular technology training that helps you use the tools in efficient and effective ways
2. Examine business processes and do your best to eliminate inefficiencies
There are lots of resources for good training on nonprofit technology. Once you identify what the needs are, search through the offerings of NTEN, TechSoup Global, Idealware and the many other online (and local!) resources to help you make better use of your technology dollar.
Rather than blaming the person in the chair for the error, know that some training could go a long way to reducing those errors. Build those technology skills in your nonprofit and everyone can benefit.Read More
Whenever I began a new technology consulting project with a nonprofit, one of the first questions I ask is “Do you have a tech plan?” That’s because a good plan is the foundation of being strategic and successful with technology.
Here are five top benefits I have seen organizations reap from technology planning.
You wouldn’t send your staff out to execute on your mission without a plan, so why approach technology – which practically everyone uses in their job – without a plan? Like a lighthouse in a storm, a good plan helps you steer your efforts and helps you avoid the rocky shores of uncertainty.
2. Saving Resources
Technology can be expensive and confusing. Quick fixes and short-sighted “band-aids” lead to spending much more than is necessary. Without a plan that helps to keep your efforts focused, your organization is being inefficient in your use of resources spent managing technology.
3. Increased Effectiveness
By being thoughtful about how they use technology, I have seen organizations increase the number of people they serve by 20% with the same resources. Planning helps identify and reduce inefficiencies. When staff have the right tools for their job, they are more effective in everything they do.
4. Better Decisions
Having a technology plan as a solid foundation leads to making more thoughtful, strategic decisions. Every nonprofit I have worked with on creating a technology plan has seen an improvement not only in technology use but in data management. It often takes the form of reducing the data “noise” that staff and management deal with, focusing on what data is really useful. This in turn improves their ability to make sound decisions based on data.
5. More Funding
A good plan connects your mission with your use of technology. For example, if a funder is interested in increasing the availability of mental health services in your community, you can show how funding your technology project will help achieve that goal. It also provides a basis for showing other funders what your technology costs are for projects they fund.
No matter what their age, experience or comfort level with technology, people from organizations of all sizes and types reap these benefits. They are often surprised when I tell them that they already know 80% of what they need to know to be effective in technology planning, because they know their organization’s culture, history, processes and environment.
Completing a technology planning process boost the results you get from your investments in technology. I guide organizations through a technology planning process that can – and often does – transform those organizations. After all, who doesn’t want to be more effective, efficient and better stewards of resources?
The choices you make about technology can make or break your organization. The time for making guesses about your technology choices is over. There are two different paths our sector – and your organization specifically – can choose. One leads to effective technology use, the other does not. Let’s look at what actions organizations can take to use technology effectively. It actually has much more to do with your data than with technology tools.
For nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, the most important asset in fulfilling their missions, besides their people, is their information. Data is important because organizations use it in everything they do from making a phone call or writing a letter to requesting funding. As the volume of available data grows, locating useful information becomes increasingly difficult. The advantage is going to those organizations who can collect, organize, process and act on that useful information. Working with large volumes of information intelligently requires technology tools that are appropriate for your needs. The increasing volume and importance of information makes Information Technology essential to helping good causes succeed.
What is ”using technology effectively”?
Technology is not an end in itself. Simply having a database, a network and a technology budget does not mean you are using technology effectively. Truly effective use of technology means something different for every organization – only you can say what it means for your organization. The activities detailed below make up a good part of the road to effective use of technology. On the road you will examine what you do, how and even why. You will identify and correct your mistakes and build on your successes.
This is a complex issue, so get help from an expert if there is not one in your organization. There is no substitute for a person who knows how technology tools are being used in nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. Make sure you have a nonprofit-focused technologist included in all discussions about your data and tools. When someone understands what you want to accomplish and how you plan to accomplish it, they can then suggest tools to help you act faster or more effectively. In technology staff and consultants, our community has a wonderful resource to help them benefit from tools that use technology – take advantage of that.
Here are 10 truths for organizations who want to make effective use of technology tools.
After people, Data is Your Most Important Resource
Act accordingly in planning and allocating resources. For most organizations, staff salaries are the largest budget item. Is Data the second largest? Too infrequently.
Your Results Depend on Your Investment in Data
Dedicate staff time to collecting, maintaining and understanding it. Spend money on finding the right tools for you. The minimum spent on technology tools will get you the minimum impact.
Define and Know Your Data Needs and Uses
Define the data that your organization needs to fulfill its mission. Know where to get the data and specifically which pieces of data are important to you.
Seek out Data and Keep it Flowing
Actively seek out data that could help you succeed – include data on clients, funders, members, donors and employees. Make a concerted, ongoing effort to keep data flowing into your organization and to maintaining that data.
Define Your Needs in Detail BEFORE tool selection
Define and create the best system you can to hold and manipulate your data. DO NOT grab the first tool or software that looks good. Measure twice and cut once goes double – no triple – for technology. If you have tools, regularly review new options.
Honestly Look at Your Information Systems
Take an honest, detailed look at how your systems do – and do not – work. Look at human systems, data systems and communication systems. It is difficult for you to be objective about your organization’s problems, so get an independent opinion – and listen to it.
Maintain Commitment of Board and Staff
Get agreement from staff, management and the board to make an ongoing commitment of resources to improve operations.
Have an Ongoing Conversation about Data
Have an ongoing discussion in the organization about the best ways to use your data, and what you can learn from it. This can be between the ED and the Program manager, or it could be a six-member committee of staff from throughout the organization.
Keep in Touch with Other Organizations
Keep in regular contact with other organizations and the nonprofit technology community in order to keep up to date with tools and solutions. There is no substitute for advice from experience. Seek out organizations of a similar size and mission and share challenges. Don’t continue working in isolation or ignorance.
Knowledge Eases Fear – Gather and Share Knowledge
Identify and confront techno-phobia in all its forms. No matter if it’s the ED, the development director or the administrative assistant – you need everyone pulling in the same direction, not at opposite ends. If you are that person, remember that the cure for fear is knowledge – seek it out.
Since data is essential to the life and success of every nonprofit organization, and the best way to manage data is with tools that use technology, then information technology should be the second most important thing to every organization – and very funder!
This article was first written in 2003 for NTEN. It has had slight revisions to improve clarity, but even after all these years, I believe the ten ideas remain relevant.Read More