What Each and Every Non Profit Exec Needs to Know about IT

Technology has proven to be an absolute blessing to and for nonprofits particularly those that are small to medium sized.  When it comes to disseminating a message and then rallying constituents around an urgent and critical issue, the utilization of tech can help level the playing field between an eight-person nonprofit and a corporate giant.


     However, the nonprofit executive may find him or herself in the unenviable position of feeling apprehensive about managing technology.  According to Dr. Lisa Rau, an IT expert with a particular focus on nonprofits, “I believe some of the fear comes from the fact that technology changes so fast, and it is harder to know what you don’t know.  It takes a strong leader to feel comfortable demonstrating their ignorance by asking questions.”

     The basic skills that an exceptional leader applies to other aspects of his/her job also apply to the management of technology.  This skill set, stated by Dr. Rau, is as follows:

·        Have an ability to get things done, and get them done well.

·        Create a long-range technology plan that keeps mission as the focus.

·        Find good people and trust them while holding them accountable for performance.

·        Perform your due diligence by acquiring multiple quotes for any large purchase or project, and checking references.

·        Budget and track spending, performance and schedules, and evaluate your performance.

·        Ensure that there is clarity in your organization in terms of role and responsibilities, and overall reporting structure.

·        Support your staff with communication, training, and elicitation of feedback from all levels.

·        Possess an eagerness to learn what you don’t know.

     This is a common-sense assessment, with which I concur.

     According to Deborah Finn, a renowned IT consultant to nonprofits, “Every non-profit executive knows the terror that seizes you when your information and communications systems no longer hum along smoothly.” Finn shares ten guiding principles to assist non-profit executives in staying on track in keeping technology working for them.

1.     Very little technical knowledge is required in order for non-profit CEOs to participate actively in strategic IT planning.  Finn states, “As long as you thoroughly understand your organization’s overall mission, strategy and tactics (and are willing to learn a little bit about the technology), you can keep your information technology infrastructure on target.”


2.    Your board of directors should be calling for and participating in your strategic information technology planning.  Finn explains, “If they’re not, it’s time to recruit some board members who are techies.  For example, your region probably has an internet service provider, a high-tech corporation, or a large retail firm with an extensive IT department.  Perhaps you can recruit representatives from these organizations to serve on your board as part of their community benefits program.”


3.    A tremendous number of high-quality resources for strategic IT planning are available to nonprofits at no charge.  According to Finn, “Free advice, products and services make it possible for nonprofits to lower the risk of trying new technology.  But in the long run you’ll have to pay real money to have precisely the right tools for supporting your mission.”


4.    You can keep an eye on innovations in IT, and think about possible uses for them in the non-profit sector, even if you don’t have a technical background.  States the IT consultant, “If you regularly read the technology columns of a good daily newspaper, and a few general interest magazines such as PC Monthly, MAC User, or Network World, you will soon catch on to the basic concepts and terminology.  (Don’t worry if it seems over your head at first—you’ll catch on.  Everybody has to start somewhere.)”


5.    Information technology, no matter how strategically you apply it, will probably never save your non-profit organization any money.  “It will, however, enable you to work more effectively,” Finn emphasizes, adding, “You will probably be able to do more work, of higher quality, with fewer person-hours.  But don’t be surprised if this raises the bar of expectations on the part of the board, the community, the clients, the constituents and the donors.”


6.    You need an in-house IT committee.  “Convene an Information Technology team or working group, within your nonprofit, and make sure that you meet regularly to give input to the senior management on strategic IT issues,” the IT consultant advises.  “The team should include a cross-section of administrative and program staff from every level within the organization.  Be sure to include staff members who are overtly or covertly technophobic.  Their concerns should be addressed.”


7.    Administrative assistants and other support staff should be the lynchpins of your IT infrastructure.  “Budgeting for IT training for these employees can be one of your best investments.  These staff members are more likely to be there when problems arise, to know about the technical abilities (and phobias) of their colleagues, and to know where the (paper or electronic) files are,” Finn points out.  “Professional development that includes IT training is likely to increase job satisfaction and employee retention.”


8.    In the long run, IT training and support (and other operating expenses) will make up about 70 percent of your IT budget.  Finn states, “The more obvious line items—such as hardware, software and network services—will comprise about 30 percent.  This is a highly counter-intuitive fact of non-profit life.  However, there is research on the ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ that bears this out.”


9.    Donated hardware, software and services can cost a nonprofit more than purchased products or services in the long run.  “The cost in person-hours of using and maintaining nonstandard or substandard configurations is astonishingly high, and donated equipment tends to be nonstandard or substandard,” explains the IT consultant.  She adds, “Likewise, donated services will cost you a great deal of time in support, supervision and ongoing maintenance.”

10.In a non-profit organization, most strategic IT problems are actually organizational development problems.  Finn asks, “Is it a CEO who is resistant to technical innovations?  A board of directors that hesitates to make the commitment to raise the money needed for IT infrastructure?  Line staff who are already stressed and overworked, and can’t stop to learn and implement new technologies?  An inability to make outsourced IT consultants or in-house IT staff understand organizational processes?”  Her answer:  “All the information technology in the world won’t resolve these issues, if you don’t address them at the organizational level.”

     There you have it.  If the nonprofit executive takes these guiding principles to heart, the entire IT process becomes not so scary, complicated…and overwhelming.




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