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Integrated strategy key to effective tech use

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Todd Cohen

Nonprofits are limiting their ability to achieve their mission because they are failing to take full advantage of technology.

That is the view of Chris Meade, a consultant who says nonprofits can put technology to more productive use through better tech planning, investment and training.

Deepening the gaps in their tech capacity, many nonprofits in trying to cope with the economic downturn of the past three years reduced their funding for technology, a strategy bound to backfire because “you’ve got to spend money to make money,” says Meade, executive director of NPower Charlotte Region.

NPower, a nonprofit, provides consulting, training and managed services to about 100 local nonprofits a year, including 30 for which it serves as the information-technology department.

In addition to serving many small, community-based nonprofits, NPower serves as the IT department for some of Charlotte’s biggest nonprofits, including Foundation for the Carolinas, The Duke Endowment, Arts & Science Council, Child Care Resources, and United Way of Central Carolinas.

Meade says key tech challenges facing nonprofits, particularly smaller agencies, include keeping up with the pace of technological change, making the most productive use of their data, using their websites and social media to get people to take action, and providing tech training to their staff.

Pace of tech change

Technology advances rapidly, yet smaller nonprofits can have a tough time keeping up with those changes and making sure they have the most up-to-date technology, Meade says.

“They end up with junk very rapidly, even if they bought it new,” he says. “But they often receive donated technology that is passed down, things that other people no longer find useful in their business.”
And research shows there is a point at which “it’s actually more expensive to upgrade the computer than to replace it and really get what you need,” he says.

So using hand-me-down technology, and trying to prolong its life with patch-up jobs, he says, typically holds nonprofits back.

“They don’t get the newest software, which is going to have better features,” he says.

Newer technology that nonprofits often miss out on includes new applications, or “apps,” as well as mobile devices such as iPads, small tablets and “smart” phones.

“A lot of agencies can’t take advantage of this because their technology infrastructure doesn’t accommodate it,” Meade says. “What that means is they’re actually less productive.”

An after-school program or a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, for example, might use a mobile device to check in kids or volunteers, respectively.

“If they don’t have the right technology, they’re going to do that on paper, which by definition is less efficient, it’s prone to data-loss,” Meade says.

And the agency later would have to key that information into its electronic database if it wanted to put the information to further use.

What’s more, if the volunteer checking into the Habitat work site, for example, was younger and actually had her own mobile device in her pocket, the delay caused by having to be checked in on paper could prove frustrating and even discourage her from future volunteering, Meade says.

Tech budgeting

A key strategy a nonprofit can use to make sure its technology is up to date is to budget for technology on a recurring basis, Meade says.

Many nonprofits spend their entire tech budget on maintaining their current technology, an approach he says is “not investing in the future.”

In the for-profit world, he says, companies typically invest 40 percent of their budget in technology that is new to the organization, and the remainder on maintaining and upgrading existing technology.

In budgeting for technology, nonprofits should allocate funds on annual basis to replace a portion of their existing technology with newer technology, Meade says.

Nonprofits also should consider outsourcing to web-based providers the software applications they currently own, including those that handle file-sharing; email, along with contact and calendar programs; donor-management; financial-management; volunteer-management; client-management; and a system for managing the content of their website, although he recommends that nonprofits retain editorial control of their web content.

Many nonprofits operate based on “cycles of investment,” spending money every five years, for example, to replace all their computers, Meade says.

A problem with that approach, he says, is that computers slowly fall apart, creating staff frustration that grows until the board agrees to replace the computers again.

But if, in contrast, an organization replaces one-third or one-fourth of its computers every year, the wear-and-tear is spread out and the resulting staff frustration is minimized.

And if the organization outsources its main software applications to web-based providers, they rather than the nonprofit become responsible for keeping the software up-to-date.

“The person providing you that technology worries about the infrastructure,” Meade says.

In moving to web-based software, he says, many nonprofits begin with their email applications, including contact lists and calendars.

A more difficult shift, but one that should be made sooner rather than later, he says, involves file-sharing.

That move is difficult, he says, because nonprofits’ files on their internal servers often are poorly organized.

So before moving to a web-based system, a nonprofit should organize its files, eliminate duplicates, and make sure it has a consistent structure for naming or labeling its files.

And the nonprofit will need to find someone, either a staff member or volunteer, who can assess its files, including the uses for which it needs them, the number of files it has, the number of people who use those files, and how much money the organization has to spend, and then help it select the best web-based provider.

Software for managing donors, volunteers, clients and finances all are important and represent core pieces of a nonprofit’s information assets, Meade says, and should be shifted to web-based systems in the sequence that makes sense for the organization.

Using data

Many nonprofits do not organize their data in a format that lets employees ask useful questions about their business, such as how many of the agency’s volunteers are donors, or how many of its donors are volunteers, Meade says.

Answering those questions can be tough if a nonprofit keeps its volunteer data in one system and its donor data in another system, and if the systems are not integrated, and that lack of integration between systems is the case for many organizations, he says.

What’s more, he says, many nonprofits lack the skills and expertise on their staff to frame useful questions about their business and then look at their data to find the answers.

So to make better use of their data, nonprofits first need to determine the questions they want to answer using the data they have.

A nonprofit’s staff should take the time to sit down in a brainstorming session to compile a list of 20 questions for which the answers might help improve its business.

Then the staff can look at its data to see if they exist in a format it can use to answer the questions.

If the staff lacks the technical skills to make sense of the data, or even the password simply to get access to the data in the first place, it will have several options.

The nonprofit might need to convert its data from paper to electronic format, or it might need to combine separate electronic databases that “don’t talk to each other,” Meade says.

It also might need to find someone with database skills who knows how to pull the data the staff needs out of the separate systems it maintains.

Websites and social media

A nonprofit’s goal in using digital media is “to get people to actually read and respond to your communication,” Meade says.

Response can range from posting a comment or “liking” a picture to taking an action such as making a donation or writing to a local government agency, actions that can indicate a deeper relationship with the nonprofit.

Yet nonprofits typically use their websites and social media to engage in “a one-way conversation,” Meade says. “It’s nonprofits talking to their constituents or talking at their constituents.”

So websites often function as a “brochure,” while social media such as Facebook consist of little more than “hey, look at us, here’s what we’re doing,” he says.

And email and e-newsletters seem to be getting less effective, he says.

“People are overloaded with email and spam, and they’re starting to tune out,” he says.

The first step in making websites and social media more effective, Meade says, is to identify who at the nonprofit is responsible for the organization’s communications.

“And that’s not always clear,” he says. “We find communications responsibility divided very often.”

The executive director might be responsible for the e-newsletter, for example, while a volunteer with tech expertise might be responsible for posting content to the website, and the development director might be responsible for producing and distributing a direct-mail e-appeal at the end of the year.

“All three of these people may not actually be working under a common communications plan,” Meade says. “They need a plan. Their messages may be completely different.”

The issue is that “technology by itself does not make for a great organization,” he says. “It’s a tool. So if you have a great program, the question is, how can technology make that program better. If you have a great marketing approach, the question is, how do you make the marketing better.”

A nonprofit’s communication plan, Meade says, should include a clear definition of the organization’s purpose, mission and vision; a clear articulation of the audiences it wants to reach; a clear list of the actions the agency wants those constituents to take; and a plan or strategy for the messages and formats needed to get constituents to take those actions.

The strategy also should include a timeline, assign responsibilities to specific staff members, and set up a schedule spelling out when specific staff members or volunteers should handle which tasks.

During the recession, Meade says, many organizations were quick to cut their marketing and technology budgets.

“In doing that, they to some degree cut off some of their opportunities for getting people to take the kind of action that would lead to more revenue,” he says. “In business, you can’t cut your way to health, to being a stronger organization.”

Investments in technology and in marketing “should not be used strictly or only as opportunities for saving money,” he says. “Sometimes investing in technology and in marketing can help lead you to more revenue.”

Tech training

Nonprofits typically do not budget for technology training for staff, invest time to send staff for training or even bring in a trainer, Meade says.

That’s a big problem, he says, because when organizations do invest in technology, many on their staff either do not know how to use it or they know how to use only a fraction of the technology’s features and applications.

Nonprofits should not approach tech “in a vacuum,” he says. “It has to be connected to people’s performance and professional development.”

So their annual performance plans should include tech training.

Yet nonprofits not only are not making money available for training, Meade says, but they also are not making the time available and are not encouraging staff to get tech training, or measuring and tracking that training.

Training increasingly is being delivered outside the classroom in self-paced, online user groups, and anyone able to use the internet can get information about how to use software and hardware.

Learning how to use basic office applications such as email, spreadsheets or PowerPoint lend themselves to self-paced, self-directed online training, Meade says, while attending a training class probably is better to learn about more complex applications such as donor-management software.

Integrated approach

Nonprofits should think about technology in a holistic way, Meade says.

“All of these things are connected,” he says. “You have to think about budgeting and training and communications strategy and how the technology is delivered.” All those elements work together, he says.

“And if you go out in any one of those directions absent the others, you’re going to be imbalanced,” he says.

So a nonprofit needs to develop a technology plan, a roadmap that guides the nonprofit about each element of its tech needs over three to four years.

“The alternative is an organization that will continue to go through these cycles of having junk technology that doesn’t work, that will not be able to take advantage of the new technologies like tablets, smart phones and social media,” Meade says. “Ultimately, it’s an organization that limits its ability to accomplish its mission.”

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