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Tackling technology

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Jeff Forster talks about nonprofits’ use of technology.

Question:

What are the most basic issues nonprofits need to consider in using technology?

Answer:

* Is the technology advancing your mission?

On a tight budget, there is no room for technology “just because.” In a nonprofit context, technology decisions must be driven by overall organizational strategy.

This is not to say that nonprofits should limit themselves to directly program-related technology.

Dependable technology infrastructure frees up time for mission. A stable network, good Internet communications strategy and appropriate client and donor information systems serve mission by allowing leadership and staff to work more quickly and strategically.

Strong communications, supported by information technology, help nonprofits maintain the relationships that are so important to their survival — among staff and volunteers and with clients, donors and the wider public.

* Are you choosing a technology solution for the right reasons?

Nonprofit executives are highly qualified people who bring tremendous passion for the mission to their work. They have raised making-do-with-little and asking-others-for-help to an art form.

While laudable, this tends to produce leaders who have had little exposure to dependable technology tools.

When it comes time to choose an information-technology-related tool – a network vendor, a fundraising database, a content-management system – many feel under-informed.

In the face of this intimidating decision, they sometimes abandon the savvy they apply to other aspects of their work and make rash decisions based on peer input, funder pressure or price.

This strategic decision impacts the business processes of the organization, which means it is multi-faceted and complex.

A good decision starts with the mission context, takes into account workflows and information flows, finds solutions that support medium-term plans for organizational size and growth and, yes, finds a way to fund the initial and ongoing investments.

Outside expertise can sometimes help organizations to be clear-eyed and objective about these multiple, sometimes competing factors.

* Do you have the “humanware” you need to make good use of your technology?

Although nonprofits may lag behind their corporate brethren in adopting the latest technology, the digital divide in hardware, software and connectivity is closing.

When the tools are in place, or preferably slightly before they’re in place, the emphasis should shift to ensuring that staff are well-enough equipped for the organization to reap the technology’s benefits.

On the user side, technology skills should be assessed in hiring and evaluation.

In job descriptions, standards should be set explicitly based on the technology each staff position will use. If an otherwise-suitable employee lacks the necessary skills, then technology should be a focus of that employee’s professional development plan.

On the techie side, one of the biggest challenges is recognizing there is a specific, internal responsibility for technology and that it is assigned to at least a portion of a staff member’s time.

Even if much of the hands-on tech work is executed by a vendor, someone inside the organization will have to serve as liaison to that outside help.

Information-technology duties shouldn’t just fall to the most fearless user and be crammed into the time not taken up by her “real job.”

Tech staff members need to be granted the time to troubleshoot, plan and implement specific projects and, as with users, upgrade their skills for the good of the organization.

— Compiled by Leslie Williams


Jeff Forster is technology services director at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

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