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Nonprofits and Technology
Jon Lebkowsky, 28 Mar 07
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Because information is at the heart of what most nonprofit organizations do, information technology plays an increasingly essential role. Some nonprofits exist solely or primarily to gather, digest, and distribute information, while others gather, track, and provide information about what they do in order to engage and sustain sponsors and supporters. Most use technology to handle essential infrastructure – keeping membership lists, receiving and tracking donations, and so on. All nonprofits need some level of technology, and some wouldn't exist without it.

Over the years, while working with nonprofits and organizing npo-focused events, I've been surprised to learn the extent to which nonprofits lack in-house technology expertise. Though a few are very tech savvy, most don't have any IT staff or resident experts, so they're struggling to keep up with increasing technology demands, especially today, when there's an expectation that any nonprofit will have a web site with at least a donation engine of some sort. Various organizations (e.g. NTen, dotorganize, NetSquared, Aspiration) now work to connect nonprofits with the right technologies and people to support their efforts, but we can still do better.

Recently, NTen launched a TechImpact research project to help "understand what technology assistance means for nonprofit capacity." They've found that technology professionals serving nonprofits tend to work in small for-profit companies, usually building internal or external communication systems, as well as systems for service delivery and operational efficiency. Their work tends to be more tactical than strategic: "Only about one-third of [technology service providers] report often or always helping clients develop a technology plan or meeting with funders to ensure future technology funding."*

Realistic Tech-spectations

Though nonprofits can benefit from the recent proliferation of Open Source tools and web-based software services, they should be careful to temper their expectations. For instance, I've seen several projects where the Open Source Content Management System Drupal was selected as a platform because it's thought to be relatively inexpensive to install. However some organizations that chose Drupal had very specific site requirements for which Drupal was not an exact fit. Implementing those requirements was more costly and time-consuming than expected, and complicated by factors other than custom requirements. One project depended on the next Drupal upgrade for specific required features, and when the upgrade occurred, it broke some modules already in place, causing delays and frustration. In other projects, costs have escalated as a result of scope creep - not only were new requirements added, but they were requirements that weren't a great fit for Drupal.

I've also seen projects where nonprofits were hoping to save money by integrating Open Source tools, only to find that the tools didn't come together gracefully, and the resulting combination required more custom "glue" than the organization could afford.

Integration and Interoperatibility

Many organizations are still struggling with standard IT infrastructure issues. Within the nonprofit sector, there's a range of capability and need, from tiny organizations that have only obsolete equipment and software to global nonprofits that run like large corporations and use enterprise-level systems like Kintera, Convio, and Salesforce. The former need the most help. They aren't necessarily running old software on old equipment because they can't afford an upgrade - in many cases, they could find the money for new tools, but they lack the expertise to move forward.

There's also the need to integrate fragmented sets of data to improve efficiency, the problem that the Integration Proclamation hoped to address. If you check out the Proclamation site, you'll see that 419 representatives of nonprofits and vendors have signed - so what now?

Dotorganize has put together an Organizer's Tool Crib, and they're pursuing the concept of an API-palooza, "a proposed training conference for progressive developers to learn how to integrate their tools through Application Programming Interfaces."

APIs are the foundation layer of integrated tools. We learned from the [Nonprofit Software Development] Summit that many progressive tools providers are willing to create APIs, but not quite able. Good APIs are hard to create. They take skill, resources and expertise. API-apalooza would rapidly spread those skills, resources and expertise to the developers who need it.

This conference, if organized, will be a positive step toward better integration of various tools – how many? The Tool Crib lists 126 so far.

Tech Volunteers Needed

Tools and integration are great, but what nonprofits really need is technology expertise. To some extent, they can learn from events like Aspiration's Penguin Day, but what nonprofits really need is sustained commitment from knowledgeable volunteers, and vendors who can help with technology strategy as well as tactics.

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Good article. As a "tech geek" who works with non-profits, I've noticed this trend too. What bothers, though, is that when some organizations decide to use technology, they often do it because it is "cool" or "new."

How many organizations have decided to create a podcast, or a blog, or maybe a MySpace page? These are relatively simple to implement, but they need to be integrated into a communication or outreach strategy. The question that always needs to be asked (kudos to Tom Glaisyer) is "To what end?" You could do a million podcasts and still not make an impact, unless you can answer that question.

So if I were to add another item to the post above, it would be this. Non-profits: please think about what you want to accomplish first -- then decide which tool would work the best. Doing it the opposite way will just waste time and money.

Posted by: Andrew Burnette on 28 Mar 07

Amen, Andrew.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 28 Mar 07

Hi, another geek with NPO experience here to offer a corollary: once you've decided what to do and what tool to use, stick with it. Not just stick with the tool... but stick with the program. Even a website whose content is periodically refreshed can be almost worthless if its organization and design are not also periodically refreshed, taking into account new user expectations and information requests. What users wanted three years ago is at best only a subset of what they want today, so don't think your job is done just because the site is up and looks good.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 29 Mar 07



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