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Tech seen as tool for impact

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Nonprofits integrate technology into services, operations, strategy.

By Todd Cohen

No longer seen as a novelty or luxury, technology has become a basic tool that nonprofits use to run their shops, deliver services, raise money, communicate, track their donors and impact, and help drive their growth and strategic direction.

“To be taken seriously by the community you serve or by funders, you must employ best practices and use technology products effectively,” says Marsha Lamb, CEO and president of NPower Arizona, a nonprofit that provides tech assistance to nonprofits.

Ten years ago, nonprofits were starting to turn to email, websites and databases to supplement phones, printed publications and paperwork.

Now, as they embrace the idea of integrating it into their work, nonprofits are treating technology as a strategic investment.

“Technology becomes the little seed you build a lot of organizational change around,” says Tim Mills-Groninger, associate executive director of the IT Resource Center, a Chicago nonprofit that provides tech assistance to nonprofits.

“What we’re really trying to help organizations do,” he says, “is be more efficient, have greater capacity, be more transparent, be more accountable, and the development of technology tools over the years has helped this come about.”

First steps

NPower Arizona is part of an expanding network of 12 local NPower groups that itself is part of a larger movement of organizations known as “nonprofit technology assistance providers” that provide nonprofits with tech consulting, training and planning.

“Our agenda is to transform social organizations using technology,” Lamb says.

Smaller nonprofits, especially those that never have used technology, typically are looking for a plan for their basic tech infrastructure, including a network linking personal computers or laptops and sharing printers, along with basic communication tools like email, a website and software to raise money and track donors.

Nonprofits, for example, may want to integrate their donor database with their online-giving tool, and may want training to be able to use all that technology, Lamb says.

To develop a tech plan, nonprofits should begin with their strategic objectives, typically a job for the board and senior staff, if not the entire organization, says Mill-Groninger.

“Whether that is staff retention, enhancing current programs or bringing in new programs, the strategic plan lays out the vision and, ideally, some measurable objectives,” he says. “That’s the measure you start with.”

The next step, he says, is to look for technology solutions to help reach those strategic goals.

If a nonprofit’s strategic objective is to increase its individual donor base, for example, it will want to identify the technology that will help do that, assess how that technology might change how the organization operates, and calculate not only the up-front costs but also the “total cost of ownership,” he says.

Nonprofits can look to nonprofit technology assistance providers like NPower, TechSoup or NTEN, or to peer organizations, email newsletters or other sources to find out how other nonprofits are using technology to address similar issues, Mills-Groninger says.

Focus on data

Nonprofits increasingly are using technology to better manage data and use it track and report to funders on their impact, Lamb says.

That process, known as “efforts-to-outcome” reporting, involves the kind of management and analysis of data that have been second-nature to for-profit companies for many years, she says.

“You keep track of costs, demand, supply, and you deliver more responsibly,” she says.

As data becomes an increasingly critical asset for nonprofits, Mills-Groninger says, it has become more “fungible” and “malleable,” and an increasingly diverse range of tools have been developed to manage it.

“Different people are using different tools to access the same data and use it in different ways,” he says.

Many nonprofits, for example, need to be able to synchronize online and offline data, he says.

So if someone registers online for a nonprofit event, the nonprofit will want to integrate that data with its offline software that manages information about donors or members.

“The data has become independent of the application, and that creates new opportunities and challenges to use things in different ways,” Mills-Groninger says.

But those opportunities also create risks, he says.

A document created to be included in a nonprofit’s funding proposal, for example, also might be included in the organization’s newsletter and on its webpage.

“So the same information is used in multiple places, and often gets touched in different places by different software applications,” Mills-Groninger says.

On the plus side, technology now can be used to make “the right information available to the right people at the right time, so you have a very consistent and unified front or voice,” he says.

But as copies of the information are created, they may not be unified and may “tend to drift in different versions, and you’re inconsistent, and it requires a lot of work to keep things unified,” he says.

“It’s a challenge to keep it centralized,” he says “because people have to cooperate when they’re sharing, unlike when they’re just working independently.”

Lamb says a critical emerging focus of data-management involves “predictive modeling” that nonprofits can use to show whether an its efforts are likely to reduce costs, improve services, save lives and even generate funding.

Equally critical for nonprofits, she says, is an emerging focus on the “economy of attention,” and ways in which a nonprofit can use its various layers of web presence to “reflect or inspire” the organization’s purpose, and generate support.

“Technology that supports good marketing,” she says, “relates to how they manage the attention of people who would be funders.”

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