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Technology, especially newer tools, can extend reach of small nonprofits.

By Ret Boney

For many nonprofits, particularly smaller ones, technology often conjures fears of budget overruns and paralyzing malfunctions.

“In most organizations, there’s technology all around you,” says Eric Leland, director of TechCommons, a group that works with nonprofits to produce technology solutions.  “If you’re not focused on technology, it can take you on wild rides to places you don’t want to go.”

But with a modest amount of planning and management, technology lets nonprofits spend more time pursuing their missions, and can even provide new and innovative ways to do that.

In an ideal world, the process starts with strategic planning, says Leland, including a focus on the extent to which technology needs to be used, or improved, to help drive the mission.

A technology plan evolves from there, with the aim of supporting the organization’s key strategic objectives, which could include activities like fundraising, volunteer recruiting or providing direct client services.

Once the plan is in place, it is critical to assign someone to the role of chief information officer, says Leland.

“Most nonprofits are not in the position to hire a formally-trained technology staff,” he says.  “They usually have someone who is an ‘accidental techie’ and needs to consult with someone else.”

For nonprofits just getting started, the technology basics should include an information system, a website and email, says Leland, all of which help an organization communicate well internally and externally.

Tech resources

Here are a few of the many available technology resources to help you get started:

NPower www.npower.org– network of 12 nonprofit affiliates around the U.S. that provide consulting services to nonprofits.

TechSoup.orgwww.techsoup.org– provides articles, community forums and other technology resources for nonprofits; the site’s TechSoup Stock provides discounted hardware and software.

Healthy and Secure Computing Campaignwww.compumentor.org/hsc – provides info on maintaining your technology infrastructure.

TechFinderwww.techfinder.org – list of technology consultants and other service providers that work with nonprofits.

And just as important, those systems must rest on a healthy and secure computing infrastructure.

“If your computer breaks down, the best of all databases still won’t work,” says Leland.

That means an investment in staffing and support of the technology infrastructure, including a plan for maintenance and replacement of hardware and software as needed, and the implementation of policies and procedures to keep systems virus-free and hacker-proof.

In assessing their technology, nonprofits should ask themselves if they are able to communicate with the outside world and capture the information they need about people to tie them in more closely to the organization, says Leland.

The information system, which should support mission-related objectives such as raising money or improving services, helps an organization keep track of its constituents, whether clients, donors, volunteers, advocacy groups or others.

But Leland suggests groups quickly move beyond basic contact information to “constituent-relationship management,” which Leland defines as how they know you and how they interact with your organization.

For volunteers, that may include projects they have worked on and their success rates.

For donors, it could be all the mechanics of their donations plus additional information, such as when the organization should make its next appeal, he says.

Email and an up-to-date website round out the basics, says Leland, allowing groups to communicate well internally and present themselves to outside audiences.

But it’s possible to move beyond those basics, and keep up with the lightening-fast pace of change, without too much investment of time or money, says Leland.

“The key is increasing your interactivity with your constituents,” he says.  “The more you have a direct conversation about what matters to those folks, the more energy they give to the relationship, and get out of the relationship.”

In today’s world that means finding ways for people to communicate with each other using your organization, and the issues you care about, as the focal point for discussion and action.

A blog, short for “web log,” is an online diary of sorts, but its key value is imbedded technology that allows bloggers to share entries with other people and allows people to respond to entries.

There are also online forums, where people can contribute information by clicking on a topic.

When managed well, forums can generate energetic input from diverse audiences, says Leland.

Such interactive elements are good promotional tools, he says, because they tend to spread by themselves.

“You’re letting other folks read your information and decide to promote it themselves without you having to promote it,” he says.

Such new technologies are accessible now, says Leland, and by using peer networks, they can be fairly easy to navigate.

By canvassing similar organizations, nonprofits can find out who has used what tools, learning from their successes and failures.

“It’s good to talk to someone who has done it and who is in the same sector or issue area you are,” he says.  “You get lessons learned – what to do and not to do.”

There are also a host of resources, many of them free, specifically to help nonprofits navigate the world of technology. [See tech resources]

“It’s an exciting time to get to know your friends and neighbors,” says Leland.  “The software is encouraging people to come together and that leads to best practices.  Start with your biggest priorities first so you don’t get swamped all at once.”

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