10 Things Every Nonprofit Executive Needs to Know About IT

Desktops, laptops, websites, e-blasts, Blackberries and the many other tools of information technology have proven to be a godsend for nonprofits, especially small to midsized ones. The use of technology can help level the playing field between a 5-person nonprofit and a corporate behemoth when it comes to getting a message out and mobilizing constituents around a pressing issue.

Desktops, laptops, websites, e-blasts, Blackberries and the many other tools of information technology have proven to be a godsend for nonprofits, especially small to midsized ones. The use of technology can help level the playing field between a 5-person nonprofit and a corporate behemoth when it comes to getting a message out and mobilizing constituents around a pressing issue.

But every non-profit executive and accidental techie knows the terror that seizes you when your information and communications systems no longer hum along smoothly.

In a recent blog entry, Deborah Finn shared some guiding principles to help you, as a non-profit executive (and accidental techies, too), stay on track in keeping your technology working for you and subordinated to your mission. In the excerpt that follows, she also points you in the direction of more free help and advice.

Strategic IT Planning

1.  Very little technical knowledge is required in order for non-profit CEOs to participate actively in strategic IT planning.

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.

Example: Your mission is to save the whales (not to maintain a local area network). In order to save the whales, you need a strategy: to stay informed and inform others about the issues, lobby for policy changes, to issue action alerts, to raise money and to maintain relationships with various legislators, constituents, communities, donors, potential friends and allies. Keep pressing for tactics that will help you achieve your desired outcomes (saving whales). This will enable you to hold your own in most discussions with technical experts.

2.  Your board of directors should be calling for and participating in your strategic information technology planning.

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.

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.

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. 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 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. Professional development that includes IT training is likely to increase job satisfaction and employee retention. Don’t forget to revise job descriptions and job titles as your secretaries and administrative assistants move into IT management responsibilities.

8.  In the long run, IT training and support (and other operating expenses) will make up about 70 percent of your IT budget.

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 in nonstandard or substandard. Likewise, donated services will cost you a great deal of time in support, supervision and ongoing maintenance. Beware of the website design services donated by a close relative of the chair of your board. You may end up with something that you don’t like, can’t use, or can’t easily change.

10.  In a non-profit organization, most strategic IT problems are actually organizational development problems.

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 the 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? All the information technology in the world won’t resolve these issues, if you don’t address them at the organizational level.

BONUS ITEMS: Hands-on IT skills that the CEO, CFO and COO of every small nonprofit ought to have:

  • How to compose, send, read, and delete email, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to create and save a simple text document, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to do the daily back up of the system.
  • How to bring down and bring up the network server.

About the author: Deborah Elizabeth Finn is a self-described Cyber-Yenta, an independent consultant who lives only to bring resources and needs together in the non-profit sector. She does this mostly by helping non-profit organizations to use information and communication technologies to support their missions. She uses her blog, “Technology for the Nonprofit and Philanthropic Sector,” to make information and advice available at no charge to mission-based organizations.

The information above was originally developed as part of a workshop offered in October 2006 by the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing and Third Sector New England.

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