Nonprofits can’t afford to ignore technology

Technology is an active and ongoing investment.

By Amit Asaravala

So you’ve found an inexpensive Web hosting company, hired a designer to build you a slick Web site, and planted your organization’s flag firmly on the Internet.

Now you can get back to the real work you were doing before the project landed on your plate, right?

Not quite. While launching a Web site is commendable, treating it like a one-time project is likely to turn your investment into a liability down the road.

After all, what happens three months later, when staff members need to host large media files on your site, ultimately slowing things down and leading to high bandwidth fees?

Where do you turn a year later, when it’s no longer sufficient to use a text file to store the names and addresses of all the volunteers who sign up on your site?

And where is the funding, three years later, when your Web site not only looks dated but no longer meets the needs of your expanding operations?

In other words, technology is an active and ongoing investment — and nonprofits must treat it as such.

It’s true that it’s often difficult to justify spending more on technology when there’s only so much money in the budget — money that seems better spent on direct action programs.

However, investing in technology doesn’t always mean spending a lot of money.

A handful of trends in technology are making it easier and cheaper for organizations to access quality products and services.

In particular, the Open Source movement, which promotes the idea that software code should be open and freely distributed, has led to a number of alternatives to commercial software packages.

For instance, many organizations now use Linux as their server operating system, MySQL or PostgresSQL as their database, and Drupal as their content management system — none of which costs a penny to obtain.

Another trend to keep an eye on is the rise in hosted services.

These services offer software packages that run off the vendors’ own servers and can be accessed over the Internet, meaning you no longer have to provide the underlying infrastructure to support the software, nor do you have to worry about patching or upgrading the software.

An offshoot of this is a group of online services built on what is known as “Web 2.0” technologies.

These services include, among others: Flickr, which allows your constituents to share photos online for free;, which lets them share resources that they’ve discovered on the Web; and wikis, which allows them to contribute information to a shared document.

Of course, technology that’s free up front isn’t always free in the long run. There are maintenance costs to consider.

That is why one of the best tech investments any nonprofit can make is to hire an ambitious, tech-savvy employee to be in charge of its technology program.

However you proceed, the message is clear: Technology is changing the world.

If your organization plans to do the same, it can’t afford to let technology pass it by.

Amit Asaravala is manager of editorial and content strategy for TechSoup in San Francisco.

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