Tech-support options grow

Market demand generates opportunities for tech funding and services.

By Todd Cohen

In the information economy, nonprofits are finding a growing number of market solutions to help them acquire and maintain technology.

Fueled by increasing demand from funders to be more accountable, nonprofits are making the case that technology can help them improve and measure their efficiency and impact, and be more effective in communicating internally and with clients, donors, volunteers, members and the public, experts say..

Nonprofits also are finding that the marketplace is producing more options to acquire hardware, software, consulting services and internet access, they say.

Technology companies are donating software and new or recycled computers to nonprofits, they say, and a growing number of foundations are recognizing the need to provide funds for technology and tech consulting because nonprofits can use it to improve their effectiveness.

“Technology makes a difference in terms of outcomes, and we wrap the mission or the transformation of a social-sector organization with technical solutions that will deliver the outcomes they’re looking for,” says Marsha Lamb, CEO and president of NPower Arizona, a nonprofit that provides tech assistance to other nonprofits.

Tech support

NPower Arizona is one of 12 local NPower groups that are part of a larger movement of organizations known as “nonprofit technology assistance providers” and “management support organizations” that provide nonprofits with tech consulting, training and planning.

Many foundations are turning to these groups to help provide tech help to nonprofits.

“Foundations seem to be willing to invest in a trusted technology partner,” Lamb says. “We’re bridging the gap.”

And many nonprofits are turning to tech-assistance providers to function as their virtual tech staff.

NPowerNY, for example, offers a service known as “NPower Basic” that provides services for nonprofits such as access to software, data backup and a help desk.

With support from companies like Accenture and Cisco Systems, NPower Arizona plans to offer NPower Basic to its clients.

Nonprofits with complicated needs such as managing a lot of data may find it makes sense to hire in-house tech-support staff, Lamb says.

But if their tech needs mainly involve basic word-processing and financial reporting, she says, nonprofits may opt to use a “hosted environment” like NPower Basic.

“We provide the planning, can help with the selection of hardware, and do the installation,” she says.

Groups like NPower also work to help nonprofits understand how to integrate their data and report on it more effectively, she says, and can work with nonprofits and the open-source community to find less expensive and more stable tech applications.

But she adds that open-source solutions typically require customization and careful attention on an ongoing basis.

And technical assistance providers also can design innovative new systems, Lamb says.

NPower Arizona, for example, is designing an “early-learning portal” for parents, caregivers and children in the state, and an online “education arcade” that features sports games linked to math and science learning that kids can use after school.

Total cost of ownership

Before embarking on a technology program, nonprofits should analyze what their tech costs will be over three to five years, looking at the “true” costs through the entire “life cycle” of a technology application, says Tim Mills-Groninger, associate executive director of the IT Resource Center, a Chicago nonprofit that provides tech assistance to nonprofits.

“People don’t plan for the next generation” of technology, he says.

In acquiring technology, “you’re buying lunch, you’re not buying the store,” he says. “So you’re going to have to buy lunch again later on.”

Yet too many nonprofits conclude after their initial tech purchase that they never will need to make tech decisions again, he says.

In paying for technology, he says, nonprofits should tailor funding requests to funders’ expectations.

Because they increasingly are demanding that nonprofits provide greater accountability and aggregate large sets of data, including those that measure their services, Mills-Groninger says, funders should be willing to pay for the technology to help nonprofits provide that accountability and aggregation of data.

“So every grant should include an information-management component that translates into the technology and operating costs,” he says. “You shouldn’t say, ‘Part of this grant will buy a computer,’ but ‘Part of this grant will help us collect, analyze and report on this information.’”

Just as nonprofits’ tech choices support their strategic planning, he says, the case they make in seeking money for technology should include an information-management component that spells out what they are doing to collect and store information to better analyze their programs and impact.

Incorporating that technology case into a fundraising request “helps the funding community understand what you’re doing on a very quantified level,” Mills-Groninger says.

For nonprofits and funders alike, he says, it also is important to take a hard look at the return on investment in technology improvements designed to increase fundraising.

If those improvements are going to be effective, he says, a nonprofit should be able to borrow money to make them, and use some of the funds raised to pay off the loan.

But funders also may want to jump-start the process through a grant, he says.

“Fundraising is one place in the nonprofit world where return on investment is an important measure,” he says.

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