Category Archives: nptech

“The Power of Dialogue on Nonprofit Data and Evaluation.”

Calvin and Hobbes do a happy dance

Happy dance

This is a blog article about a blog article.  I’m doing a happy dance, because the Foundation Center‘s GrantSpace blog has published my article on “The Power of Dialogue on Nonprofit Data and Evaluation.”

Please feel free to read the article and give me your feedback!

How grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients can do great things together with data and evaluation

This is not actually a photo from the dialogue series. We refrained from taking photos, because we wanted to foster an atmosphere of candor and comfort as grantors and grantees engaged in conversation about a difficult topic. However, it is a favorite photo from another recent Tech Networks of Boston event.

 

Oh, my!  It took Tech Networks of Networks almost two years to organize and implement a series of candid dialogues about data and evaluation for grantors and nonprofit grantees, and now it’s complete.  The process was a collaboration in itself, with TSNE MissionWorks, and Essential Partners serving as co-hosts. An advisory group and planning group gave crucial input about the strategy and tactics for this event.

What you see here are a few notes that reflect my individual experience. In this article, I am not speaking on behalf of any organization or individual.

As far as I can ascertain, this series was the first in which grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients came together in equal numbers and met as peers for reflective structured dialogue. World class facilitation and guidance was provided by Essential Partners, with the revered Dave Joseph serving as facilitator-in-chief.

Here’s how I’d characterize the three sessions:

  • June 2017:  Let’s get oriented. What is the heart of the matter for grantors and grantees?
  • September 2017:  You know, we really need to address the imbalance of power in the grantor/grantee relationship.
  • January 2018:  Ok, can we agree on some best practices how to address this as grantors and grantees? Why, yes. We can.

The plan is to make the recommendations that came out of the final dialogue publicly available online, to provide a starting point for a regional or even national conversation about data and evaluation.

Meanwhile, I’d like to offer my own recommendations.  Mine are based on what I learned during the dialogue series, and also on untold numbers of public and private conversations on the topic.

 

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My Recommendations

 

Funders can help by: 

  • Understanding that nonprofits perceive funders as having not just money but also much more power.
  • Asking nonprofits to define their goals, their desired outcomes, and their quantitative measures of success – rather than telling them what these should be.
  • Factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
  • Understanding the real cost in dollars to grantees who provide the data reporting and evaluation that you request.  These dollar amounts might be for staff time, technology, training, an external consultant, or even for office supplies.
  • Providing financial support for any data or evaluation that the funder needs –  especially if the nonprofit does not have an internal need for that data or evaluation.    Items to support might include staff time, technology, training, or retaining an external consultant with the necessary skill set.
  • Putting an emphasis on listening.

 

Nonprofits can help by: 

  • Engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and sharing this information with funders.
  • Understanding that grant makers are motivated to see nonprofit grant recipients succeed.
  • Understanding that grant makers are often under pressure from donors and their boards to deliver a portfolio of outcomes.
  • Integrating the use of data and evaluation into most areas of operation – this means building skills in data and evaluation across the entire organization.
  • Gathering with other nonprofits that have similar desired outcomes and comparing notes on failures and best practices.
  • Fostering a data-friendly, continuous learning culture within nonprofit organizations.

 

Both groups can help by: 

  • Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.
  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
  • Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
  • Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
  • Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.
  • Making “I don’t know” an acceptable response to a question.
  • Measuring what you really value, rather than simply valuing what you can easily measure.
  • Working toward useful standards of measurement.  Not all programs and outcomes are identical, but very few are entirely sui generis.
  • Sharing responsibility for building the relationship.
  • Speaking with each other on a regular basis.
  • Studying (and implementing) community-based participatory research methods.

 

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And now, because I can insert a poll here, I’m going to.

 

 

 

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And now, because I can insert a contact form here, I’m going to.  Please feel free to let me know if you’re interested in being part of a regional or national conversation about how grantors and grantees can move forward and work constructively with data and evaluation.

 

 

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My ever expanding theory of change for nonprofit data and evaluation

Workforce development for the nonprofit tech professionals of the future: It will be a consortium, not a building with a dome!

We don't need an edifice; we need a consortium!

 

It’s been about a year and a half since I starting agitating for a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, an initiative that will kick off by training the nonprofit data analysts of the future.

The concept has morphed and evolved a great deal in that time, thanks to all the great input from Massachusetts stakeholders, but also from a team of ELP fellows from the Center for Collaborative Leadership.

One thing that is quite clear is that there is no need to create a new institution, or raise up a building with a splendid dome.  (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology can rest easy, without fear of competition, or brand encroachment.)  I believe that all of the necessary institutions exist already here in the Bay State.  What is needed is a consortium that can knit them together for this purpose, some funding, and some candidates.

It’s a pipeline, or perhaps a career ladder that the consortium needs to build – not an edifice.  Although I love the splendid domes of MIT, we can simply admire them, and hope that eventually some of the people who work and study under those domes will become part of the consortium.

Here’s what I think we need:

  1.  Allies from workforce development, job readiness, and college readiness programs.  These are the folks who will raise awareness of the coming need for technology professionals who can provide data analysis and other data services to nonprofits, and guide them to the next rung of the career ladder. Examples include Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), Shriver Job Corps, International Institute of New England, JFYnet, Jobs For the Future, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, SkillWorks, Boston PIC, YearUp, and Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
  2. Allies who provide relevant training and education to candidates who aspire to careers in data services and data analytics for nonprofits.  Examples include Bunker Hill Community College and Tech Foundry.
  3. An organization that is able to place, mentor, and coach candidates in entry level data services positions at local nonprofit organizations.  That’s TNB Labs.  These entry level workers will be known as “data support analysts,” or DSAs.
  4. Allies from local nonprofit organizations who are willing to host (and pay for the services of) a DSA for a period of one or two years.  TNB Labs will be the official employer of these workers, providing them with a salary, benefits, a modest sum for further professional development, coaching, and mentoring.  The DSAs will be working on site at the nonprofit organizations and dedicating themselves to tasks assigned by the nonprofits.  Examples of distinguished nonprofits that could play this role are Community Servings, Saint Francis House, Community Catalyst, Health Care For All, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Perkins School, City Year, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Cambridge Health Alliance, Family Service of Greater Boston, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Foundation, AIDS Action Committee, and the Home for Little Wanderers.  (Not that they’ve actually signed on for this, but that they would be great members of this consortium.)

At the conclusion of the one or two year placement at a nonprofit organization, I think that any of the following outcomes would count as a win:

  • The host nonprofit hires the DSA (with a raise and a promotion) as a long term regular employee.
  • The DSA lands a job providing data services at another nonprofit organization.
  • The DSA lands a job in a different field or sector that is congruent with his/her/their career aspirations.
  • The DSA is able to apply to a four-year degree program, transferring course credits, on the job experience, two-year degrees, or certifications that he/she/they have earned.

The latter scenario – of advancing in higher education – brings us to the final category of allies needed for our consortium.  The best example of this kind of ally is UMass-Boston, which has programs in related areas, such as:

In addition, our consortium has a great ally in an individual UMass-Boston faculty member, Michael Johnson, whose research focus is decision science for community-based organizations.  He has expressed a generous desire to be a mentor to community college students in this career ladder, and to encourage those who are qualified to apply to be Ph.D. students in this field.

And that’s just UMass-Boston!  I’m not as familiar with the offerings of other distinguished colleges and universities in the area, but the Boston University program in nonprofit management and leadership , the Nonprofit Leadership program at Wheelock, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice at Tufts come to mind immediately as potential allies.

So here we are. The need is there for data service providers who can serve the missions, programs, and operations of nonprofit organizations.  If we can weave all these allies together into a network, we can meet these needs.

All that we require is:

  • Allies who are ready, willing, and able to pitch in.
  • Public awareness that this career ladder is available.
  • Funding to assist candidates cannot afford tuition for college coursework and other forms of training.
  • Funding to assist nonprofits that would like to host a data service analyst from this program, but lack the (modest) funding to support one.

Let’s do this!

Drowning in data, drafting a data checklist, and asking “WHY?”

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Now that TNB Labs is up and running, we’re receiving a lot of requests from nonprofit organizations who are perplexed about how to manage the data that they have, before they plunge any further into data analytics or think about acquiring a new data analysis tool.  This has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on how difficult it can be for people whose expertise lies elsewhere to orient themselves to data governance.

Steve Pratt‘s blog article “Drowning in Data?” has been a huge inspiration.  In it, he explains the importance of data inventories, and offers to send the Root Cause template to anyone who requests it.  I highly recommend that you send an email to info@rootcause.org, and ask for a copy.

At the same time, as I went over Steve’s template, I had a nagging feeling that we needed something even more elementary.  Remembering my friend Bob Penna‘s exhortation of a few months before, about asking “who, when, where, what, how, and why,” I quickly drafted a data checklist that focused on those basic questions.  When I sent it to Bob, he very quickly returned it with some excellent enhancements; the most brilliant one was to start the checklist with the question “WHY?”  As he very sensibly pointed out, if you can’t come up with a good reason why you are collecting, analyzing, reporting, and archiving information, you might as well stop there.  In the absence of a persuasive answer to the question “why?” there’s no need to ask “who, when, where, what, and how;” in fact there’s no reason to collect it at all.

With that wisdom in mind, I have tweaked the draft of the data checklist, and herewith present it to you for feedback. This version is the result of a Penna/Finn collaboration:

You can view it by clicking on this link.

Before you take a look at it, I recommend reading “Drowning in Data?”  After you’ve perused the spreadsheet, I recommend reading Bob Penna’s book, “The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.”

 

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Every nonprofit needs a theory of change for its technology. . .and for its evaluation process

if then

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life (thus far) thinking about the missions of nonprofit organizations, and about information/communication technologies for nonprofits.

In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to talk about the importance of a “theory of change” for nonprofits.  This is merely a way of underlining the importance of making an explicit statement about the causal relationship between what a nonprofit organization does and the impact that it has promised to deliver.  I applaud this!  It’s crucial to say, “if we take all of the following resources, and do all of the following actions, then we will get all of the following results.”  An organization that lacks the capacity to marshal those resources and take those actions needs to reconsider, because it is on track to fail. If its capacity is not aligned with its commitment, it should acquire the resources or change its commitment to results.  Of course, it some cases, it will merely need to revise its theory of change.  In any case, it will have to work backward from its mission, and understand how each component contributes to achieving it.

This kind of thinking has lead to a lot of conversations (and a lot of anxiety) in the nonprofit sector about performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, and impact assessment.

I’d love to have some of this conversation focus on the information/communication technologies that nonprofit organizations are using.  In other word, it’s time to be explicit about a theory of change that explains in detail how every component of the technology an organization uses contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver a specific kind of social, cultural, or environmental impact.

Likewise, I’d love to have the conversation address the ways in which the efforts of a nonprofit organization’s performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, or impact assessment team contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver the kind of impact that it promised its stakeholders.

 

 

Sunlighting

sunlighting.jpg

So now we have launched TNB Labs, and all sorts of queries are starting to come in – not just from folks who needs services, but also from folks who want to be part of our circle of mavens who provide services.

From the beginning, we have thought of TNB Labs as a lean organization, nurturing a community of practice that would provide fractional resources to nonprofits that need data and evaluation services.

What follow here are some personal reflections on mobilizing a community of practice.  These are free associations, based on a recent conversation with Susan Labandibar.  Please don’t regard these ideas as official TNB Labs policy, but as an invitation to engage in your own free associations.

Let’s talk about a hypothetical scenario.

Let’s say that you are a full time employee of a medium-size nonprofit organization.  Your job title is “data analyst.” By temperament and training, you are a data geek, and you are proud of using your powers for good.   You are passionate about the importance of your work, because it helps your organization document the ways in which it is making the world a better place, while also identifying ways that it could do even better.

However, there are a few things that aren’t perfect about your job:

1) You’re the only person with any kind information technology training at your organization.

1a) This means that you don’t really have people with whom you can regularly compare notes about the intersection of technology and the nonprofit sector.

1b) It also means that you are asked to do all sorts of tasks that aren’t in your areas of interest or expertise, because you are reputed to “know all about computers.”  In vain, you do your best to explain that social media campaigns require a different skill set from data analysis, even though there could be some overlap.

2) You’re interested in new challenges, such as becoming an evaluation specialist.  However, you don’t want to quit your job at a nonprofit organization that you love, even though you don’t see opportunities opening up there.

3) You’d like to get some experience with the challenges at other nonprofits, but you don’t really want to moonlight, because that implies doing something underhanded, without the knowledge of your home organization.

How about sunlighting?  (Not to be confused with the Sunlight Foundation, which is a great and entirely unrelated organization with a great and entirely different mission.)

Here’s how sunlighting might work for you:

1) You join the TNB Labs Community of Practice, which has regular meetings for peer support and professional development.

2) You work with TNB Labs and your home organization to create a three-cornered agreement, so that a certain percentage of your time is devoted to assignments from TNB Labs to provide services at other nonprofits.  (That’s what we mean by “fractional resources.”)  It’s all done in an ethical and above-board manner.  TNB Labs takes responsibility for finding assignments, invoicing the client organizations, and paying you.  It might even represent a cost saving for your home organization; they can hire an entry level person at a lower rate to do some of your routine tasks.  It will mean less boredom for you, and valuable on-the-job experience for the entry level person.

3) In accordance with nonprofit client demand and your preferences, your potential TNB Labs assignments will vary.  They might involve 2 hours or 200 hours of time for a one time-project, or they might involve an hour or a day every week for three years.

4) TNB Labs’ share will be an administrative fee.  This will be an excellent value for the client nonprofit, because they can get a fraction of the time of a first-rate professional (that’s you) without having to add another full time position to their payroll for a set of tasks that doesn’t require a full time person.

If you’re a nonprofit data analyst, would you consider this scenario?

If you’re an executive at a nonprofit organization that needs data analysis or evaluation services, would you consider going to TNB Labs for help from a member of our community of practice?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TNB Labs has launched, and its first priority is data services for nonprofits!

tnb labs logo july 2016

 

Greg Palmer and I are very pleased to announce the launch of TNB Labs, a company dedicated to providing nonprofit organizations with high quality data services and program management.  TNB Labs works with organizations to audit and assess data management methodology, develop and implement data standards, and provide structural oversight through data governance to organizations of all sizes.

Through our partnership with Tech Networks of Boston, we have had a unique opportunity to listen to hundreds of stakeholders at TNB’s Roundtables uncover a need to elevate the role of data in nonprofit organizations.  TNB Labs is focused on improving the capacity of nonprofit organizations at every stage of the outcome management process.

The immediate priorities of TNB Labs are:

1) Providing Master Data Management (MDM) services to nonprofit organizations in support of their missions, focusing on data governance, data quality, data modeling, data visualizations, and program evaluation.

2) Providing workforce program management for Desktop Support Technicians (DST), Data Support Analysts (DSA), and Data Analytics/Data Evaluation entry level professionals.

3) Managing the TNB Roundtable series, which is now jointly owned by Tech Networks of Boston and TNB Labs.

TNB Labs is led by Greg Palmer (chief executive officer), and Deborah Elizabeth Finn (chief strategic officer).  The other co-founders are Bob Master (former CEO of Commonwealth Care Alliance) and Susan Labandibar (founder of Tech Networks of Boston).

TNB Labs is here to solve your problems.  Please contact us with any questions and comments you have about TNB Labs, or to learn more about data management or program management services that might be helpful to your organization.

Best regards from Deborah and Greg

Greg Palmer
gpalmer@tnblabs.org
508.861.4535

Deborah Elizabeth Finn
definn@tnblabs.org
617.504.8188

TNB Labs, LLC
PO Box 2073
Framingham, MA 01703
www.tnblabs.org

 

 

Wearing many hats, and adding a new one

many hats

deborah as unicorn

Continuing my practice of wearing many hats, I will be coming out tomorrow with a detailed announcement of my latest headgear.

In addition to my work as a solo consultant, I am also:

1) Moderator and administrator of the Mission-Based Massachusetts group, which is sponsored by Annkissam, an organization committed to the strength of Massachusetts nonprofits.

2) Senior strategist at Tech Networks of Boston.

3) Chief strategic officer at TNB Labs.

Number 3 on this list is quite new, since TNB Labs is a brand partner of Tech Networks of Boston.  It was separately incorporated on July 1, 2016.

Please check back tomorrow for the official announcement!

Today I turned down a free Samsung Galaxy tablet. What’s WRONG with me?

Samsung Galaxy tablet

I really enjoy visiting my local Sprint storefront, but it isn’t usually a philosophically challenging experience.  Today was a little different.

My main reason for going there today was that the connector card that I use for mobile internet access on my laptop stopped working.  This took more than an hour to straighten out, during which I  waited around, doing as much work as I could with the help of my Samsung Galaxy smart phone and a portable Bluetooth keyboard.

The store associate who was helping me had good news: my connector card was covered by insurance, and a free replacement will be available. He also went over my service plan with me, eliminating a monthly $10.00 fee for an option I never use.  He then offered me a free tablet, if I added another phone line to my account, which would probably cost me $12.00 a month.  I explained that I didn’t need one.  He apparently found this not only baffling but mildly upsetting.  How could I not want a new device?  Didn’t I deserve a treat?  Wasn’t I tired of the small screen of my smart phone?

In fact, I like the size of my smart phone very much.  I also dislike making snap decisions.  I also wasn’t feeling like there was any gap in my life that a tablet could fill.  He appealed to me, to his colleagues, and then to me again to explain the mystery. I jokingly invoked Occam’s razor: “non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate  (i.e., “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”).

He then asked what I did for a living, I explained that I was a technology strategist for nonprofits and philanthropies, and that shiny object syndrome is a known hazard in the world of nptech. This had roughly the explanatory power of Occam’s razor – which is to say that it had none at all.  By this time, I was laughing at the absurdity of being pressured to take an electronic device that I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed, and he begged me to explain this.  “Help me to understand, so I can grow.”

I did my best to explain that sometimes more is not better, that simplicity can be a philosophical choice, that impulsive purchases did not necessarily lead to happiness.  He excused himself, and retired to a back room.  He returned with a tablet model that he had not previously shown me, a white Samsung Galaxy that looks a great deal like my Samsung Galaxy smartphone but larger.  (In other words, very appealing.) Unboxing it, he told me that not only was it free, but if I added another line and took the tablet today, they’d give me a $50.00 credit.  In other words, he was prepared to give me money to take an electronic device that he was convinced that I needed.

I ended up thanking him and saying that I’d think about it, and perhaps come back in a couple of days for it.  He protested that the $50.00 credit was only on offer if I took it today. I explained that I didn’t need a $50.00 credit badly enough to justify an impulse purchase, and thanked him again.

For me, it raises two sets of questions:

1) How do sales commissions work at Sprint stores?  Would the $50.00 credit have come out of this associate’s commission?  In fact, was it worth it to him forgo the commission he might have received in order resolve the cognitive dissonance he was experiencing at the thought that a customer would not take a free (and very appealing) tablet?

2) What is WRONG with me? I’m not such a disciple of simplicity that I never fall into the delusion that buying a specific object will make my life complete. So what made me so stubborn about committing to a new electronic device?  Is my geek cred forever destroyed?

Obviously, this Samsung Galaxy tablet is not just a mobile device – it’s a learning experience.  I suspect that what I’m about to learn is that in the next 48 hours, I will start craving the tablet, and having waited a decent interval to satisfy my self-respect as a judicious consumer, I’ll go back to the Sprint store and get it.  Cognitive dissonance is not merely something that happens to other people.

Meet the volunteer nonprofit technology mavens of March 2015!

An Evening of Pro Bono, Sales-Pitch-Free Tech...

 

I love working with Annkissam, and one of my favorite tasks is assisting in organizing their pro bono, sales-pitch-free  tech consultation events for local nonprofit professionals.

The next pro bono event will be on the evening of March 31st at the Cambridge Innovation Center.

Tech Networks of Boston and 501 Partners will be serving as co-hosts; I love to see these three mission-driven nonprofit technology assistance firms collaborating to serve nonprofit organizations.

I also love to see a wide range of other nonprofit technology mavens volunteering a few hours of their time at these events to offer consultations to any of the nonprofit guests who request assistance and advice.  In addition to the immediate help that this provides to the attendees, the event is a opportunity for nonprofit techies to do skills-based volunteering together, and sends a crucial message about our ability to collaborate.

Here is the all-star March 2015 team of nptech volunteers!

Nonprofit technology and drive-by volunteering: Not a good combination!

scream

This is not a popular point of view, but hackathons and other short term tech volunteering opportunities bring on my anxiety rather than my enthusiasm.  I think of these situations as drive-by volunteerism, and potential disasters for nonprofit organizations.

Let’s switch to a less violent metaphor than a drive-by shooting – we can talk in terms of the perinatal year.  (I’ve worked with programs for teen mothers and their babies, which gave me the idea for the comparison.)

The birth of a child and the completion of a nonprofit technology project have a lot in common:

  • Planning (This does not always happen, but it’s advisable.)
  • Conception (I admit that this generally more fun in cases of human reproduction than in cases of nonprofit technology projects.)
  • Gravidity (This often includes nausea and stretch marks.)
  • Labor (This is usually painful.)
  • Delivery (This can involve emergency surgery.)
  • After care for mother and child (This often includes a hand-over from one specialist to another.)

Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy; however, it illustrates my point that it’s realistic to think in terms of a twelve-month cycle for the successful implementation of a nonprofit technology project.  A technology implementation does not begin at the labor stage, and delivery certainly does not mark the end.

Skills-based volunteering, especially skills-based tech volunteering, is simply different from spending the afternoon stuffing envelopes on behalf of your favorite cause.

Moreover, volunteer management is a professional skill set in its own right; it requires experience and knowledge of best practices. It’s not something than just anyone can do spontaneously.

Unfortunately, the sort of nonprofit that is most in need of volunteer assistance with its technology – a small, under-funded organization – is the least likely to have a professional volunteer manager on staff, or an IT professional who can take long term responsibility for the tech implementation.

This is why the thought of a short term tech volunteer project for a small, under-funded and highly worthy nonprofit fills me with horror.  The likelihood seems so strong that the long term implications haven’t been considered, and that it might actually be a disservice to the organization.

This is also why I’m deeply grateful that Common Impact, a wonderful nonprofit based here in Boston, has developed a model for skills-based volunteering that is highly effective for tech implementations.  Fortunately for all of us, they are willing to share what they’ve learned.  Tomorrow, Patricia Vaccaro-Coburn of Common Impact will be our featured guest at a TNB Roundtable session on best practices in managing tech volunteers, and I am confident that this will be an enlightening experience for nonprofit professionals who see short-term volunteer tech projects as the solution to their problems, rather than the beginning of new set of challenges.

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk outlines a necessary factor in successfully implementing a nonprofit technology project

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO and founder of Community TechKnowledge

 

I’ve learned a lot from my buddy Tom McLaughlin, but the moment I first became a devoted fangirl of his was when I heard that he had quipped, “organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It’s true.  It’s so true in nonprofit technology that it hurts every time I think about it. However, I was immediately and immensely grateful to Tom for articulating so succinctly and eloquently what had been merely tacit knowledge for me.

One of the biggest problems in any nonprofit technology implementation is the difficulty in reconciling it with the organization’s culture.  It’s not just that individuals within it may not want to learn new things or do things differently – it’s that every organization is a delicate ecosystem of incentives, disincentives, alliances, and hostilities. A change in information and communication technology systems can easily upset the organization’s equilibrium.  Just the same, new implementations may become necessary, and at that point the challenge is not to arrive at an abstract understanding of group dynamics, but to gain the good will and participation of all the stakeholders by demonstrating that the potential benefits of the change are far greater than the threats to the status quo.

In other words, getting buy-in becomes a crucial goal; its a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the success of the implementation.  This is a cost-benefit analysis that takes place at a very emotional level at a nonprofit organization.

That’s where Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk can help.  She’s just published a white paper on “Getting 100% Buy-In for Your Next Nonprofit Technology Adoption.”  You can download it for free from the Community TechKnowledge web site.  I strongly recommend it!

(And now for a full disclosure of financial relationship:  I’ve served as a paid consultant to Kathryn’s organization, Community TechKnowledge, for some time.  However, she did not ask me to endorse this white paper, and she certainly is not paying me to recommend it.)

 

 

 

 

“Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing”

don't tell

 

Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field of nonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”

I wish I could tell you the story of my first experience with this tacit rule, but the people involved are still living, and they would never want me to mention their names or give anyone any information about the programs that they ran.  So please use your imagination.  All I can say is that all of the relevant facts about this organization’s programs are freely available to today on this organization’s web site, for anyone who cares to look it up. As far as I know, providing the names and phone numbers of the people directing the sites at which the programs are offered has not led to any catastrophes.

We’ve come a long way in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, thanks to leadership from folks at organizations such as the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the Caring Force at the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.  They have done some hard work in fostering collaboration, and with collaboration comes more freely shared information about what each nonprofit is doing.  (In my opinion, sometimes information sharing is the cause, and sometimes it’s the effect.)

I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providers can support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)

However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is an information age phenomenon.  As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where every stakeholder is a free agent online.  People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency.  So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.

Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture.  Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.

 

It’s not just a half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives – it’s an occasion for rejoicing!

snoopy happy dance

For more than two years, I have been worrying aloud about the lack of training for nonprofit professionals who want to lead their organizations in implementing outcomes management and data visualization.  Today I’m rejoicing, because Tech Networks of Boston opened registration for a free (and sales-pitch-free) half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives.

It’s happening in April because some wonderful allies have stepped up – such as TNB’s co-hosts, the Mel King Institute and the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, and the wonderful Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk of Community TechKnowledge, who will serve as our trainer.

This isn’t the full series of three day-long trainings on outcomes management and outcomes data visualization that I had originally envisioned, and that I still hope we can organize.  If we are able to do that, the other trainers will be the equally wonderful Beth Kanter and Georges Grinstein.  Right now, I’m looking at plans for Kathryn’s half-day outcomes management training as a miracle in itself, but also as the thin edge of the wedge.  (If you prefer more up to date jargon, you can call it a “proof of concept.”)

Of course, my thinking has become even more grandiose since I originally came up with the idea of a three-day outcomes/data viz training series.  Now I’m thinking in terms of a “Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology,” in which the first initiative would be a degree program in nonprofit data analysis.

Let’s take this training opportunity, which will be brief in comparison to the more elaborate programs that I’ve envisioned, and build on it!

 

 

How much fun is the Nonprofit Technology Conference? This much fun. (Plus some thoughts about shifting from tactical to strategic support of nonprofit organizations.)

Deborah is delighted by the artist's rendition of a concept of Tech Networks of Boston's. The photo was taken at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference .

Photo by Peggy Duvette of Netsuite.Org.

The good folks of Netsuite.Org had a great idea for their exhibit area at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year.  They asked attendees to describe their technology visions in three words.  I chose “shared” “data,” and “outcomes.” and an artist quickly drew up a visual to express this.  (Unfortunately, I did not note down her name; I hope I can find it in order to give her proper credit for her work.)  The photo shown above was taken by Peggy Duvette, and as you can see, I was delighted to see this concept, which is part of Tech Networks of Boston’s strategic thinking, become part of the patchwork quilt of ideas that were being expressed.

Here’s a close-up of the TNB concept:

I (Deborah) took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

I took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

At TNB, we are thinking more and more about collaborative technology management – not just in terms of how we work with our nonprofit clients, but also about how clusters of NTAPs and nonprofits can work together toward a shared long term goal.   We have great relationships (and in many cases, shared nonprofit clients) with some great local nonprofit technology assistance providers, such as Annkissam* and 501Partners.  The three NTAPs are already collaborating on a series of sales-pitch-free evenings in which local nonprofit professionals are offered pro bono tech consultations.

However, the potential exists to do so much more, especially considering how many clients we share.

Wouldn’t it be great if the three NTAPs could offer their shared clients the following:

1) Seamless integration of TNB, AK, and 501P’s services.

2) Shared best practices for clusters of nonprofits with similar programs, operations, or missions.

3) Coordinated outcomes measurement and management for nonprofits that have overlapping constituencies.

The joy of #15NTC is in realizing that although we are just three NTAPs in one region, we are part of a wider movement.  In fact, if you were to look at the entire collection of artist’s renderings that were done at the Netsuite.Org exhibit area, you’d see that many nonprofit organizations are on the cusp of dreaming this dream.  Most of in the nonprofit sector understand that for lasting positive change in the world, one program at a single nonprofit organization is not enough.  The future is in sharing and coordinating our work.  What if nonprofit technology assistance providers started with that challenge, rather than the challenge of keeping a network server from crashing?  The emphasis would shift from the tactical support of nonprofits to the strategic support of their missions.  And by “missions,” I don’t mean vague statements; I mean specific (and even quantifiable) positive changes that nonprofit profits have committed themselves to delivering to their stakeholders.

Because mission achievement is why we all get up in the morning to do our jobs.

And because building a nonprofit technology movement that supports mission achievement is the best possible reason for participating in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

 

* I also serve Annkissam directly as a consultant.

 

 

 

I want a ribbon on my conference badge that says “TECHNOBABE”

15ntc name badge

 

Behold my name badge from the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc).

I’m much obliged to my beloved friend Peter Campbell for the #NTCBEER button, which I wore proudly throughout the conference.  You know it’s not just a good party but a great yearly tradition when a nondrinker looks forward to it.

However, at the moment, I want to call attention to the “Diva” and “Instigator” ribbons attached to my badge.  This was a brilliant swag offering from the folks at the Strategic Fulfillment table in the conference’s exhibit hall.  Usually at conferences, ribbons are given out by the event organizers to sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and various other V.I.P.s.  The Strategic Fulfillment Group was smart enough to make it a matter egalitarian self-determination.  Any visitor was welcome to take and wear the ribbon of his or her choice.

I like “Diva” and “Instigator,” but the ribbon I really want is one that says “TECHNOBABE.”

 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology: Let’s Do This!

Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology

 

We need a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, and I can tell you what degree program we need to establish first:  Bachelor of Nonprofit Data.

The inspiration for this comes from many conversations with many people, but I’d especially like to credit Susan Labandibar, Julia Gittleman, and Laura Beals for pointing out, in their different ways, that one of the most pressing real-life challenges in nonprofit technology today is finding people who can bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team (on one hand) and the information systems team (on the other hand) at a nonprofit organization.

Not that I’m a professional full-time data analyst myself, but if I were, I’d find the numbers, and start doing the math:

  • How many brilliant computer scientists are graduating right here in Massachusetts every year from our best high schools, colleges, and universities?
  • Of those graduates, what percentage have strong skills in database design, database development, database management, or data analysis?
  • Of those who have strong data skills, what percentage would be eager to use their geek skills for good, if they were offered an attractive career ladder?

That’s our applicant pool for the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology.  (Or MINT, if you prefer.)

Now, let’s figure out the absolute minimum of additional knowledge that these computer science graduates would need in order to be the kind of data analysts who could bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team and the information systems team  at a nonprofit:

  • Outcomes measurement
  • Outcomes management
  • Impact assessment
  • Evaluation
  • Social research methods
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational cultures of nonprofits
  • Nonprofit operations
  • Organizational cultures of philanthropic foundations

That’s our basic curriculum.

If we want to expand the curriculum beyond the basics, we can add these elective subjects:

  • Nonprofit budgeting
  • Group dynamics
  • Ethics
  • Etiquette
  • Negotiation
  • Project management
  • Appreciative inquiry
  • Meeting facilitation

All of these electives would pave the way for other degree programs, in which they would also be extremely useful:

  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Systems Engineering
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Web Development
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Help Desk Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Hands On Tech Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Social Media

I already have my eye on some great local colleagues who could be the faculty for the Bachelor of Nonprofit Data program.  In addition to Susan, Julia, and Laura, I’d want to recruit these folks:

Please note that three members of the TNB team top the list of potential faculty members.  Why?  Because I work there, and because TNB has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of developing the careers of 1,000 technology professionals. This undertaking would be very congruent with its vision!

However, setting up the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology must be a collaborative effort.  It will take a strong network of colleagues and friends to make this happen.

Do you think that this is needed?  Do you think my plan needs a lot of work?  Do you have any ideas or resources that you’d like to suggest?  Please feel free to use the comments section here to share your thoughts.

NPtech Labor Market Alert: The Big Job Title of 2015 Will Be “Data Analyst”

 

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

 

My training, such as it is, is heavily skewed toward qualitative methods; at the same time, I have a lot of respect for quantitative analysis.  However, my favorite form of research consists of staring off into space and letting ideas float into my head.  Sometimes I validate my findings by engaging in conversations in which I talk louder and louder until everyone agrees that I’m right.  It seems to work.

Lately, I’ve had a little time to stare off into space and let ideas float into my head; by this, I mean that I traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc) and had some down time on the plane.  By the time I arrived in Austin, I had become convinced that “Data Analyst” would be this year’s standout job title in the field of nptech.  At the conference, I was able to confirm this – by which I mean that I didn’t meet anyone there who talks more loudly than I do.

What are the take-ways?  It depends on who you are:

  • For data analysts who are now working in the field of nonprofit technology:  prepare to be appreciated.
  • For data analysts now working in other sectors: think about whether this is a good moment to make a career shift in which you use your geek powers for good. But make sure you know what you’re getting into.
  • For nonprofit executives: don’t kid yourselves. Brilliant data analysts who want to work in the nonprofit sector aren’t going to be attracted by job announcements that indicate that the successful candidate will also be responsible for network administration, hands-on tech support, social media, and web development.
  • For workforce development professionals:  this is your cue. It’s time to put together a program for training computer science graduates to be nonprofit data geeks.
  • For donors, grantmakers, and other funders:  if you want reports from nonprofits are based on reliable and valid methods of analysis, then you will need to underwrite data analysts at nonprofits.  That means money for training, for salaries, and for appropriate technology.

If you don’t agree with my findings, please take a moment to share yours in the comments section.

If you don’t know anyone at #15NTC, come stand (or sit) next to me!

15ntc

Srsly!

I’m very excited about participating in NTEN’s upcoming Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15NTC) in Austin, Texas!

I’ve been recruited by NTEN for my favorite volunteer task:  staffing the NTENer Center.  I’ll be at the Center on March 4th and 5th.  My job is to answer questions, engage people in conversation, and introduce them to each other.  (Actually, that’s what I enjoy doing throughout the conference – you can flag me down whenever you like, and not just when I’m on duty at the NTENer Center.)

Not only would I like to thank the NTEN team for tapping me to by an official greeter, I’d also like to thank Tech Networks of Boston for sending me to #15NTC as its representative.

My first nonprofit technology conference was the precursor to NTC, the Circuit Rider Roundup in Denver (2001).  It struck me then that it was really important to assist all attendees in feeling welcomed and included.   I like introducing people to each other, and have been doing my best ever since.

 

 

Is KM for you?

km equals no wtf

I had a great time collaborating with Rachael Stark (the uber librarian) on the Annkissam white paper about knowledge management for nonprofits.  One of our challenges in writing it was our recognition that many nonprofit professionals might be in a lot of organizational pain without realizing that the pain might be addressed by a knowledge management strategy.  We then had fun coming up with typical scenarios that anyone would recognize as problems, and that we knew to be knowledge management challenges.  By articulating them, we might be able to meet nonprofit professionals where they were and offer them assistance.

We were well into the creation of the white paper, when I realized that I had been unconsciously influenced by a pamphlet that a friend of mine gave me long ago.  He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and this pamphlet asked some simple questions to help problem drinkers decide whether A.A. was for them.

Here are the scenarios that Rachael and I offered in our white paper on knowledge management for nonprofits.  If you are a nonprofit professional, you can decide for yourself whether KM is for you:

  • When a staff member gets sick, takes a leave, retires, resigns, or goes on vacation, then other employees are unable to locate crucial information.
  • The executive director (or another top-level staff member) is scheduled to retire, but his/her most crucial organizational knowledge is not written down, and there is no strategy in place for conveying it to his/her successor.
  • Project teams generate multiple versions of key documents, but it’s hard to gather all the changes in one place. No one knows for sure which version is the final one, and the wrong version may be used by accident.
  • Staff members don’t know which colleague to approach with questions on a specific topic.
  • No one in the nonprofit organization is certain about the history or current status of its relationship with a specific project, funder, or partner.
  • Manuals of policies and procedures exist, but staff members have difficulty finding the relevant passage in them when they have a specific question that urgently needs to be answered.
  • Staff members don’t know about existing resources and reports that could help them make good strategic decisions.
  • Standard information that is needed for a routine operation must be gathered by hand from disparate paper and electronic sources each time it is needed.
  • The organization has scaled up to national operations. Now that the staff members are geographically distant from each other, they have difficulty sharing or obtaining
    information from their colleagues.
  • Staff members feel frustrated, rushed and overworked because information is hard to find, or because they are never confident they have the right version.
  • It is difficult to determine whether the nonprofit organization is meeting its mission fully, partially, or not at all.
  • If the nonprofit organization is meeting its mission, it is difficult to ascertain what factors are making this possible, and what factors are extraneous.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a great organization, and one of the bits of A.A. wisdom my friend taught me is that success in helping people happens through “attraction, not promotion.” It is only when people are in enough pain that they are able to hear that help is available and willing to try doing things differently. Perhaps we can hypothesize, in a limited way, that as with recovery from alcoholism, so with adoption of a knowledge management strategy within a nonprofit organization.

Disinvitations are painful but sometimes necessary

disinvited

I’m so excited about this evening’s pro bono tech consultation event for employees of local nonprofit professionals!

At the same time, I’m now in the painful position of needing to issue disinvitations to people who want to come.

Why?  Well, the reasons vary:

  • We’re holding this event in a building that has tight security, and were obliged to submit the final guest list last Friday.  People who try to enter without confirmed invitations may be escorted out ignominiously by security officers, and it’s best to avoid that.
  • We have a long waiting list.  The people on that list who honor our request not to show up without a confirmed reservation would be slighted if we allowed others to walk in.  Moreover, we’d be condoning rude behavior if we allowed people to walk in to an event that is by reservation only.
  • We have made it clear to the mavens that they will be volunteering their time to serve employees of nonprofit organizations.  This was made clear to the invitees as well.  It’s rude and possibly fraudulent to take advantage of free services that are intended only for nonprofit professionals.

I have a surprisingly wide conservative streak, when it comes to etiquette.  I am fully capable of being shocked when people are oblivious to (or intentionally ignore) the ground rules of events that are by invitation only.

 

Meet the #NPtech mavens of November 2014!

I (heart) NPtech

On Monday, November 3rd, Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners
will be co-hosting an evening of pro bono, sales-pitch-free tech consultations for local nonprofit professionals!

This event will take place at the Venture Cafe in Kendall Square.  Nearly seventy nonprofit  professionals will be able to have short one-to-one consultations with as many mavens as they like.   (I will be one of them, offering consultations about strategic tech planning, knowledge management, social media, web strategy, and some other topics.)

I want to give a big shout out to my fellow mavens, who are volunteering to serve the nonprofit attendees in a completely sales-pitch-free environment:

In addition to the excitement of an event that enables me to work with a slew of nonprofits that are making the world a better place, I love the idea of showing the world that our local community of nonprofit technology professionals is a surprisingly collaborative one.  Three nonprofit technology assistance companies are coming together to host and underwrite the evening, and the 21 mavens will be working side by side in one room.  We’ll be encouraging all of our guests from the nonprofit sector to solicit second, third, and fourth opinions.  The goal isn’t to block them from exposure to other vendors, but to make sure they have the information they need and an opportunity to identify resources that are a good fit for their needs.

Nonprofit Knowledge Management: It’s alive!

nonprofit knowledge management

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure and privilege of helping to facilitate a workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits at the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network conference, along with my esteemed colleagues Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.

This session also marked the debut of Annkissam’s new web site, Nonprofit KM.  I’m thrilled with the design work that Tsholo Thekiso (also from Annkissam) has done to make it clean and beautiful.  Right now, the new site only has a few items on it; more will be forthcoming.  At the moment, I’d especially like to recommend two items to your attention:

Special thanks go out to the uber librarian, Rachael Stark, who has worked very closely with me on Annkissam’s knowledge management for nonprofits initiative, and is responsible for much of the information and insight that is infused in the new Nonprofit KM web site.  To know Rachael is to understand the power of librarianship, and to glimpse the potential for collaboration between librarians and nonprofit professionals.

I’m also grateful to the Annkissam team in general and its Drupal development team in particular.  Although Annkissam has developed an excellent Drupal-based knowledge management system for small nonprofits, Habitat, the new Nonprofit KM is all about providing crucial assistance to those who are struggling with knowledge management challenges, rather than a commercial message about Habitat.  Likewise, yesterday’s workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits was all about brainstorming the main problems and possible solutions, and not a sales pitch for this specific product.

And that’s the way it should be.  In fact, it’s important to understand that not every problem in nonprofit operations can be solved by knowledge management, that there is a range of strategies that stretches far beyond any one software solutions, and that a commitment to organizational change is crucial to success in adopting a knowledge management strategy.  Annkissam is right there, helping nonprofits to understand what lies ahead, rather than urging them to commit time, effort, and money to without regard for what will meet their needs.

The new web site is  a good starting point for nonprofit professionals who are not inherently interested in knowledge management, but are focused on achieving organizational goals.  There’s very little available, online or on paper, about KM for nonprofits, and much of it is more than five years old; we were able to ascertain this with the help of Rachael Stark, the uber librarian.  Fortunately, we can use Nonprofit KM to aggregate all the information that currently exists, and to make available the resources that we have created.

“Accidental Evaluator” is the new “Accidental Techie.” I’m just saying.

laura beals

Laura Beals, who is director of evaluation at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Boston, published a great article on the NTEN blog earlier this month, called “Are You an ‘Accidental Evaluator?’ “

I think that this is a great question to ask, because many nonprofit professionals currently managing program evaluation within small nonprofits are indeed coming to the task with less preparation than they would like.  Perhaps they are program directors, or grant writers, or chief financial officers, or database administrators.  And now the pressure is on them to come up with numbers that show that their organizations are actually creating the positive change in the world that the organization has promised to deliver.

In fact, many of today’s accidental evaluators at nonprofits are in the same position that accidental techies were ten or fifteen years ago.

I respectfully disagree with those of my esteemed colleagues who want to help nonprofit professionals by reassuring them that they don’t have to meet the standards of academic peer reviewed journals when they use data to tell their stories.  While it’s true that the level of rigor required for nonprofit programmatic evaluation is much less strict, it’s not enough to point this out and encourage nonprofit professionals to relax.  Those nonprofit professionals are running organizations with a special legal status that make them answerable to the public and responsible for contributing to the common good.  This is a serious ethical obligation.

From my point of view, those of us who understand the importance of evaluation in the nonprofit sector should be working to deliver appropriate forms of professional development to “accidental evaluators,” just as NTEN has labored mightily to deliver professional development to “accidental techies.”

In fact, NTEN itself is in a very good position to assist “accidental evaluators,” because many technology topics are intimately tied up with nonprofit evaluation, such as database development, data integration, and data visualization. Indeed, if you look at some the companion articles on the NTEN blog, you’ll see that this effort is underway:

I’m pleased to say that here in Boston we’re actively addressing this.  For example, Laura and her wonderful JF&CS colleague Noah Schectman recently led a meeting of local nonprofit professionals who are seeking to improve their skills in bridging between evaluation and technology.  A pivotal moment at this session came when the executive director of a tiny nonprofit raised her hand and asked Noah, “Will you be my best friend?”  Noah’s face lit up, and he told her that he would.  That’s the kind of reassurance that we should be offering nonprofit professionals who feel overwhelmed; we should be telling them that support and training are on the way.

 

Pro bono help for Boston area nonprofit professionals: Three opportunities

pro bono

I am often asked if I can offer pro bono assistance to nonprofit organizations that need help aligning their technology strategies with their overall organizational strategies.

The good news is that there are three different events in the near future where I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations:

  1. At the Annkissam table, October 29th. (Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Conference & Expo, Sheraton Framingham.)  I will also be one of the facilitators at a conference workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits, along with Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.  For more information, please follow this link.
  2. At the Venture Cafe on November 3rd. (Cambridge Innovation Center, Kendall Square.)  The co-hosts of this event are Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners.  I will be one of 21 nonprofit technology mavens!  This event is currently booked to capacity, but you can put yourself on the waiting list by following this link.
  3. At the Annkissam table, November 17th, (Providers Council Convention & Expo, Boston Marriot Copley Place.)  For more information, please follow this link.

When I provide strategic pro bono assistance to nonprofits, it’s on the following basis:

  • No charge to the nonprofit organization
  • No sales pitches to the nonprofit organization
  • No further obligation on the part of the nonprofit organization

If you are a Boston area nonprofit professional in need of strategic technology assistance, then I hope to see you at one or more of these events!

Revamping the Nonprofit Tech jobs list

nptechjobs list

 

I’ve moved the Nonproft Tech Jobs email distribution list over from Yahoo Groups to Google Groups.  The reason is simple:  Yahoo Groups doesn’t offer an RSS feed, and Google Groups does.  What a trivial point of pain!

However, I’m very excited that NTEN now has a nonprofit tech jobs feed, and Amy Sample Ward asked me to point it at the @NPTechJobs Twitter account, which I was delighted to do.  This gave me nudge I needed to move the list I started to a platform that made it not only possible but easy to use its RSS feed.

Peter Miller on what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centers

peterbrodiemiller

At the Tech Networks of Boston Roundtable on November 7th, Peter Miller will be the featured guest, and the topic will be what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centersThird Sector New England will be playing cohost, and the session will be held at the Boston NonProfit Center.

If you’re wondering why you, as a nonprofit professional, need to know at all about community technology centers (CTCs), here are a few points to consider:

1) If your organization offers advocacy or direct services to the community, then it’s important to know that CTCs are powerful resources for your constituents.  They provide access to online tools and information, skills training, and a focal point for community members that are interested in bridging the digital divide.

2) Some CTCs are based in community access television organizations, and a key places for community members to learn about the overlap between online communications and other forms of media.

3) Some CTCs are based in libraries, and it’s clear that professional librarians can be powerful allies for nonprofits and their constituents.  Librarians understand about free access to information and about knowledge for the public good; they can bring their skills to bear in bridging not only the digital divide but the knowledge divide.

4) Some CTCs are based in housing developed by community development corporations.  They can be crucial in assisting residents with online education, with finding and applying for jobs, and with online organizing for local needs.

5) CTCs can help your nonprofit with its internal professional development needs, if they are offering courses or certification in software or hardware skills that are crucial to your operations.

In general, the worldwide community technology movement is a power for social good, and you should at least be briefed on what it’s all about!

Let’s call it the Wisdom Cycle: Further adventures in clarifying the role of data in a mission-based organization

NewWisdomCycle

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  I created the concept and this graphic representation is by Tsholo Thekiso of Annkissam.

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

I am much obliged to all the good folks who have posted suggestions and feedback about my first attempt to create an image that would represent my thinking on the role of data in mission-based organizations.  Likewise, those who emailed me their thoughts deserve thanks!
I’ve created a revised version that incorporates some of the feedback.  Before you take a look at it, please bear in mind that:

  1. I am not a graphic designer.
  2. I am not attempting to create a graphic that illustrates everyone’s ideas about the role of data in a mission-based organization.  I am merely trying to illustrate my ideas.
Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations - Round II

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

Item #2 on the list notwithstanding, I am enjoying very much the opportunity to learn more about what others in the field think about (and visualize) when they ponder the role of data in our sector.  Once again, I invite you to post your reflections, suggestions, and questions in the comments section here on this blog.

Data Day 2013 in Boston

Data Day 2013:  I'll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations

 

I’m excited about Data Day at Northeastern University tomorrow, which is being co-hosted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project.

I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consults at this event; my time is being underwritten by Tech Networks of Boston. If you’re planning to attend, please come say hello to me! Just look for this sign.

 

And now, a word from your Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist…

Tech Networks of Boston

deborah-finn

I am totally delighted to announce that I have joined Tech Networks of Boston as their Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist.  It’s a pleasure to count as immediate colleagues my friends Susan Labandibar and Michael Fenter, and to be working with the client engagement team headed up by the awesome John Marchiony!

Here’s the TNB mission:

  • Engage with people at all levels of the client organization so that they can learn, manage information, and communicate easily in a safe and supportive computing environment.
  • Use experience, skills, and knowledge to help our clients build a mature information technology function that aligns with organizational mission and goals.
  • Enable nonprofit organizations to use innovative and effective information technology tools to serve human needs.

Talk about mission alignment!  I’ve already dedicated my professional life to these goals (plus a few others), but now I will be an integral part of an organization whose motto is “we’re better together,” rather than a lone nut! The ultimate in desired outcomes is that the world will be a better place, because the organizations that Tech Networks of Boston is serving will be succeeding in their missions.

At the same time, I want to assure my current clients that I will continue to be available to them on the usual basis, whenever they wish.  My commitment to TNB is for four-fifths time, to allow me to continue to work with clients as a solo practitioner.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to be in touch through the usual channels.  You are also welcome to contact me at my new office:

Tech Networks of Boston
1 Wadleigh Place
South Boston, MA  02127
617.269.0299 x (359)
888.527.9333 Fax
deborah.elizabeth.finn@techboston.com
http://www.techboston.com

“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Redux)

A slide from the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is another article, salvaged with help from the Wayback Machine, from my now-defunct first blog. I think that the points I made then are as valid in 2013 as they were in 2005.  What do you think?

Mon 14 Feb 2005 06:41 AM EST

Most days of the week, I tend to think of information technology as morally neutral.  It isn’t inherently good or evil; the applications of a technology are good or evil.

But I do find some forms of information technology irritating or counter-productive – especially as they are often used in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.

PowerPoint happens to be in that category.

I came to conclusion through my favorite research method.  (I.e., staring off into space for about half an hour.)  During this strenuous research, I asked myself two questions:

  1. When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?
  2. When have I enjoyed or learned a lot from someone else’s PowerPoint presentation?

Although I try to avoid giving PowerPoint presentations these days, I had no trouble answering Question #1 on the basis of previous experience.  I almost always liked it.  It’s great to have my talking points, my graphic displays, and my annotations packaged in one document.  Assuming that there’s no equipment failure on the part of the projector, the screen, the computer, or the storage medium that holds the PowerPoint document – it’s very convenient – although it’s not very safe to assume that none of these factors will fail.

In short, PowerPoint is designed to make presenters reasonably happy.  (Except in cases of equipment failure.)

The answer to Question #2 is a little more difficult.  I can be an exacting judge of how information is presented, and of whether the presenter is sensitive to the convenience and learning styles of the audience.

Perhaps the presenter put too many points on each slide, or too few.  Perhaps I was bored, looking at round after round of bulleted text, when graphic displays would have told the story more effectively.  Perhaps I wondered why the presenter expected me to copy the main points down in my notebook, when he/she knew all along what they were going to be.  Perhaps the repeated words, “next slide, please,” spoken by the presenter to his/her assistant seemed to take on more weight through sheer repetition than the content under consideration.  Perhaps there were too many slides for the time allotted, or they were not arranged in a sequence that made it easy to re-visit specific points during the question and answer period.

In short, PowerPoint as a medium of presentation does not tend to win friends and influence people.  (Of course, the best designed PowerPoint presentations succeed spectacularly, but the likelihood of creating or viewing one is fairly low.)

However, all is not lost.  If you have struggled to attain some high-level PowerPoint skills, and your role in a nonprofit/philanthropic organization calls for you to make frequent presentations, I can offer you advice in the form of the following three-point plan:

  1. Knock yourself out.  Create the PowerPoint presentation of your dreams.  Include all the bells and whistles.  Be sure to write up full annotations for each slide.
  2. Print out this incredible PowerPoint presentation in “handout” format, and give a paper copy to each person at the beginning of your talk.  As a bonus, you can also tell your audience where they can view or download it on the web.
  3. Cull out all but five or six slides for each hour of your planned presentation.  These should only include graphics that must be seen to be believed, and text that is more effective when read silently than when spoken.  This severely pared-down version will be the PowerPoint document that you will actually use during your presentation.

I realize that this will probably not be welcome advice, but the interests of your organization will undoubtedly dictate that you deploy a PowerPoint strategy that will, at the very least, not alienate the audiences at your presentations.

If you have any lingering hopes that PowerPoint is the best tool for engaging stakeholders in your mission, my final advice to you to review the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 




A note on the title of this article:

I wish I had invented this aphorism, but I didn’t.

In 1887, John Dalberg-Acton (1st Baron Acton) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote “Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

What every nonprofit executive needs to know about information technology (Redux)

Smart Nonprofit Executive

This article is another in a series of republications of items from my now-defunct first blog.  I wrote this in 2004, as one of my first blog articles.  Reflecting on these ten items, I’d say that the underlying principles still hold true, although if I were writing if from scratch today, I’d include more examples and different examples.  I’d be less sure about the percentage break down of a typical nonprofit’s budget. I’d be more sanguine about donated services and hardware, in cases where a really well-planned and well-executed model was in place.The availability of cloud computing has probably made a couple of the bonus items obsolete, but it’s still important for a nonprofit CEO to know how to deal with the organization’s digital storehouse. 


29 Dec 2004 01:03 PM EDT

1.  Very little technical knowledge is required in order for nonprofit 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 nonprofit 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.)

Example: You work for a nonprofit organization with five employees and four non-networked computers. It’s time to link them up so that you and your colleagues can share information and regularly back up your work. As you read articles on wireless networking, and look at the building where you work – which is a pre-electricity Victorian house only somewhat successfully retrofitted for its current functions – you see that you may actually save money by going wireless.

You ask your IT vendors for estimates on drilling and running cables through the building, and find that the cost of labor, support, upgrades, future expansion, and maintenance for a more conventional network will exceed that of a simple wireless network.

5.  Information technology, no matter how strategically you apply it, will probably never save your nonprofit 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 staff – administration and finance, programmatic, secretarial. Be sure to include staff members who are overtly or covertly technophobic; their concerns should be addressed.

7.  Secretaries and administrative assistants should be the lynchpins of your IT infrastructure. Budgeting for IT training for these employees can be one of your best investments.

Which staff members are more likely to be there when problems arise, to knowabout 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% of your IT budget.

The more obvious line items – such as hardware, software, and network services – will comprise about 30%. This is a highly counter-intuitive fact of nonprofit 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 non-standard or sub-standard configurations is astonishingly high, and donated equipment tends to be in non-standard or sub-standard. Likewise, donated services will cost you a great deal of time in support, supervision, and ongoing maintenance. Beware of the web site 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 nonprofit 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 need 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.

Now that you’ve read what I formulated in 2004, I’d like to invite you to post comments about what you’d add, cut, or revise in this list of crucial knowledge for nonprofit executives.

Basic concepts in technology planning for nonprofits

501 Tech Club

I had a delightful time at last week’s meeting of the Boston 501 Tech Club.  The theme was technology planning (a topic close to my heart), and Gavin Murphy of Annkissam (a colleague, esteemed client, and friend) gave an outstanding overview that I recommend to any nonprofit professional who has mastered his/her own field and is ready to think about the big picture in technology for his/her organization.  Naturally, during the Q&A time after Gavin’s presentation, I did some nitpicking on the topic of metrics, but never mind.  What you see below is the complete set of Gavin’s notes for this presentation, with no editorial changes from yours truly.  Many thanks are due to Gavin for permission to post his notes!


Technology Planning
Presented at the Boston 501 Tech Club
Gavin Murphy
Chief Operating Officer
Annkissam

1. What is Tech Planning?

  • “Technology” can means lots of things, from office wiring and networks to social networking and RFID chips.
  • Today we will focus on concepts of technology planning that should be universally applicable to whatever planning you need to do.
  • One key concept is recognizing that most decisions involve trade-offs; there is rarely a “right” option, rather different options will present different trade-offs (upfront cost, ongoing cost, quality, time, other resources or risks, etc.).
  • At the end we’ll talk about some resources that are available for people that are interested in exploring more specific topics, and we’ll also have a short Q&A session.

2. Strategic Alignment

“Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.”  – Dwight D. Eisenhower, general and president (1890-1961)

  • Technology strategy (and planning) should support organization strategy.
  • Show of hands: how many people are part of an organization that has a strategy (and you know what it is, on some level)?
  • How many people’s organizations have a technology strategy (and you know what it is, on some level)?
  • If you don’t have an organizational strategy, that’s a bigger issue!  And, frankly, one that should be addressed first.

3. Why Plan?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin, scientist

  • Planning will help you be more adaptable to change.
  • The act of planning will force you to think through the resources you have to commit to the process (both time and money) and tradeoffs that different options represent.
  • The executive leadership needs to be involved in the planning process to some degree, although other staff or by someone from outside the organization can manage the process.
  • Even if your plans change, the act of planning will get people engaged in the options and will help to avoid “shiny object syndrome”.  Ultimately, planning will help you respond to both expected and unexpected changes to your organization or environment.

4. Planning is a Process!

  • It’s not an event, or even a single project (although there could be a project to kick it off or reevaluate things).
  • Similarly, planning can produce documents that are quite helpful, but only to the extent those documents are used to guide the decisions of the organization.
  • It’s important to budget time and resources to technology planning and implementation, just as you would dedicate ongoing resources to other critical aspects of your organization.
  • One potential trap is committing to an ongoing technology obligation without anticipating the resources it will take to maintain; for example, maintaining your own servers or establishing a social media presence.
  • It’s possible that technology is not a critical part of your organization, and that’s fine too as long as you are engaging in the process of evaluating tradeoffs to come to that conclusion.

5. Importance of metrics and measurements

  • Once you have decided on a strategy, the next thing is to think about is how to measure your progress.
  • Metrics are one way to make sure your technology strategy is closely aligned to your organizational strategy.
  • For example, if data security is a concern, you might track the percentage of your computers that have AV or disk encryption installed; if outreach is an organizational imperative then perhaps Twitter followers or Facebook friends might be a better metric.
  • Metrics should be as quantitative as possible, to minimize the risk that people will make subjective judgments and obscure the true picture of how things are going.

6. Need to set goals and track success (or failure)

  • Once you have chosen your metrics, you should set goals for those metrics and track your progress over a preset time period which should be long enough to judge results but short enough to preserve momentum.
  • If you succeed in achieving your goals–great! Adjust your goals for the next time period to be a little more challenging and keep trying to meet them. It’s important to avoid “autopilot” goals that are too easy to meet and never adjust up.
  • If you don’t meet your goals, that’s ok too. Now you have valuable information and you can either adjust your plan, your metrics, your goals, or the resources you are applying to technology. After a few cycles you should be able to find the right balance and establish a pattern of success.

7. Things went wrong?!

“Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson, Boxer

  • If things go wrong, that’s ok! That’s all part of the process.
  • The benefit of having a plan is that at least you will know when things are going wrong, which is always preferable (even if nothing can be done about it in the short run) to finding out everything has already gone wrong in the past and now things are in crisis.

8. Resources

“Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” – Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

Freecycle.Org (Redux)

This is another article, salvaged with the help of the Wayback Machine, from my now-defunct first blog. Since 2005, Freecycle has only grown more awesome, and I have only grown more deeply obsessed with online tools that assist nonprofits and philanthropies in matching underutilized resources with unmet needs.  Although Freecycle serves everyone, regardless of sector, there is certainly a soft spot in the heart of Deron Beal (Freecycle’s founder) for nonprofits in need.  He is a member of an informal group on capacity mapping and resource matching that I facilitate, and I frequently point to his work as an example of success in using online tools to make the world work more effectively.  I would love to see Freecycle-type tools for locating other kinds of resources that nonprofits need, and my big vision is to create a single sign-on, data sharing, and a consolidated project wish list for all such online tools.

Freecycle

Wed 23 Feb 2005 05:16 PM EST

The world does not have to be divided between beggars and donors; it can be divided between those who have a spare toaster ovens today and those who need them now.  Tomorrow – or five minutes from now – these categories will be completely different.  We all have needs and surpluses, but it’s hard to arrange for easy redistribution of goods on the scale of a cupboard rather than a planeload.

One of the things that really appeals to me about putting the world online is the possibility that nearly everyone in the community can both offer and receive resources seamlessly.

We are very far from realizing this ideal at the moment; there are many digital divide issues that must be resolved.

However, the Freecycling movement is an excellent example of internet-based community sharing that can work wherever obstacles to access have been solved. It has one central web site, and thousands of intensely local email distribution lists.

The process is simple:  you begin by joining (or creating) your local Freecycle list.  If you have one to give away, you post a message with the subject heading “Offered:  Toaster Oven.”  If you’re looking for one, you post a message with the subject heading “Wanted:  Toaster Oven.”  If you see a possible match, it’s up to you to take it off-list and arrange for a pick-up; various guidelines are in place to ensure that this is done in a manner suitable to civil society. For example, no payments or barters are allowed; anything posted to a Freecycle list must be freely offered and freely taken.

This is not a solution to all of the world’s problems or even a perfect instrument for fulfilling its modest goals, but Freecycling is an excellent way to combine the internet with community-building, recycling, and volunteerism.The potential exists for effective, local, pin-pointed giving that goes beyond – and complements – what institutions such as foundations and nonprofit agencies are able to do.

Now that Freecycle.Org has been invented, it seems simple and obvious.  But that’s the way it seems with many innovations in information technology – after the fact!

Michael Fenter will be joining Tech Networks of Boston!

Michael Fenter Tech Networks of Boston

I’ve been doing a happy dance about this, because we’re all about to see fantastic people working together!

Susan Labandibar is the founder of Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), a passionate environmental activist, my friend, my colleague, my sometime client, and a fellow Boston Technobabe.

Michael Fenter is a consummate  technology professional, a man who cares deeply about making the world a better place, a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, my friend, my colleague, and my neighbor.

I was thrilled when Susan called me recently to say that she had hired Michael.  Two people I admire deeply will now be on the same team, and the beneficiaries will be nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts that need IT support.

Both Susan and Michael are individuals with a profoundly spiritual calling – though not necessarily in the denominational or doctrinal sense of that phrase.  They believe in service to mission-based organizations, and they manifest their commitments in the form of very practical assistance.  Their heads may be in the clouds, but their feet are on the ground.

Susan has a talent for hiring great people, and I hope that the other members of her organization’s staff won’t think I’m disregarding their wonderful qualities.*  However, it’s especially delightful when two of my special buddies work together. I’m expecting to see a great leap forward for TNB team, as they expand their “Collaborative Technology Management” offerings.


* Likewise, there are other firms in the Boston area that provide first-rate IT support to nonprofit organizations.  It all depends on finding a really good fit between the support model and the client organization’s needs – however, I will say that the other two firms that have really impressed me are Baird Associates, NPV, and InSource Services.

The telephone analogy (Redux)

This is another article salvaged from my now-defunct first blog.  (Many thanks are due to the Wayback Machine, which enabled me to retrieve a copy.) It was first published in 2005, well before smart phones were prevalent among non-geeks. 

An inherent flaw in the analogy at the time was that telephones, once installed, caused much less trouble to nonprofit executives than the typical IT infrastructure. 

As we flash forward to 2013, with a culture in which smart phones are not only prevalent but offer functions previously associated with information systems, it’s interesting to reflect on how well the telephone analogy has stood the test of time. 

So many of us, inside and outside of the nonprofit sector, devote an inordinate amount of time looking forward to upgrading our phones, and that’s a shocking change. 

One thing that hasn’t changed enough is the failure of many nonprofit organizations to think through the budgetary and operational implications of acquiring new technologies.

The telephone analogy

Fri 11 Feb 2005 10:52 AM EST

Are you a nonprofit/philanthropic professional who is having trouble making the case that your organization needs to bring its technology infrastructure into the 21st century – or at least into the 1990s?

Please allow me to acquaint you with the telephone analogy.*

First of all, can you think of a functioning nonprofit/philanthropic organization whose board, chief executive officer, or chief financial officer would ever say…

  • “… we don’t need to find or raise the money to install telephones or pay our monthly phone bill.”
  • “…we don’t need to dedicate staff time to answering the phone or returning phone calls.”
  • “…we don’t need to orient staff and volunteers about personal use of the phones, about what statements they can make on our behalf to members of the media and the public who call our organization, or about how queries that come into the main switchboard are routed to various departments, or about how swiftly high-priority phone calls are returned.”
  • “…we don’t need to make sure that when donors, stakeholders, constituents, and clients call our main number they can navigate the automated menu of choices.”
  • “…we don’t need to show staff members how to put callers on hold, transfer calls, or check voice-mail now that we have an entirely new phone system.”

Apparently, most mission-based organizations have resigned themselves to the fact that telephone systems are an operational necessity.  Somehow, the leadership finds the money, time, and motivation to meet the organization’s telephony needs.

If only we could get the same kind of tacit assumption in place for every mission-based organization’s technology infrastructure!

I propose two possible strategies, either of which would of course need to be tailored your organization’s culture:

  • Encourage your board, CEO, and CFO to see your technology infrastructure as analogous to your telephone system.
  • Persuade them that your telephone system is an information and communication technology system – and then encourage them to regard other components of the system (such as computers, networks, and web sites) with the same kind of tacit support and acceptance.

I look forward to hearing from anyone who has tried this strategy – or developed one that is even more persuasive.



* N.B.:  I need to warn you in advance that all analogies eventually break down, but this is a pretty useful one, especially since a telephone these days really is the front end of an information and communications technology system.

Why are you always talking about “saving the whales?” (Redux)

This is an article that appeared in my first blog in January 2005.  Many thanks are due to the Wayback Machine, which enabled me to salvage it. 

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11:46AM (EST) on January 20, 2005

Whenever I am speaking or writing on the topic of mission-based technology planning, I seem to end up talking about  “saving the whales.”  Several people have asked me (or teased me) about this, so here are some reasons:

  • I like whales. It’s quite possible that they have forms of language, cognition, and social structure that are as rich as – but completely different from – what humans have developed. For someone with my moderate-progressive values, saving them from extinction seems like an obviously good idea.
  • It sounds like a very straightforward mission, but is actually fraught with complexity and nuance.  I have a sort of fantasy scenario about the disconnect between serious techies and nonprofit professionals.  The techies might be brought in to help a nonprofit organization that exists to save the whales; they get very excited telling the nonprofit team about how they are going to equip all the staff and volunteers of the nonprofit with personal digital assistants (with global positioning systems, naturally) and program them so that the PDAs will start beeping whenever a whale is washed ashore within ten miles of the person with the PDA.  Everyone on staff delves deep into considering whether there’s room in the budget for this exciting but possibly complicated and expensive technology.  Then the Cyber-Yenta does her best to call time-out and remind both the techies and the nonprofit workers that their organization does not actually “save the whales” by going down to the beach with big nets to drag them back into the water.  In fact, what they do is “save the whales” by working for laws and policies that protect the whales.  Can they think of a way that PDAs with GPS would help them do that?  Usually, the answer is no, because legislators and policy-makers won’t consent to being tagged and tracked like wildlife by lobbyists.  In this fantasy scenario, the optimum outcome is that everyone goes back to thinking about technology that actually supports their mission, strategy, and tactics.
  • It’s a great way to introduce the concept of realistic outcomes measurement to a nonprofit organization that is struggling with it.  The introductory question can be:  how many whales do you save a year?  This is actually very difficult to calculate, but is absolutely crucial before moving on to advanced questions such as: how many MORE whales will you save a year with that new technology implementation?

 

Let’s meet at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in April!

myNTC page 2013

I’m getting very excited about the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis, MN in April!

For me, #13NTC will be all about dialogue.  I do attend sessions, but it’s not the most important item on my agenda.  If you want to have a conversation at the conference, then I want to have a conversation with you.

In some cases, folks at the conference would like to meet for pro bono consultation with me.  I’m delighted to be asked – as far as I’m concerned, any moment that I’m not otherwise engaged at the Nonprofit Technology Conference is a moment when I’m available to provide free help to nonprofit and philanthropic professionals.

Fortunately, NTEN has an online tool for scheduling meetings at the conference.  Please use it to set up a time with me!

Here’s how:

  1. If you have not already registered for the conference, you can do so right now.
  2. Once you’ve registered, go to my conference profile.
  3. Click on the “Request Meeting” icon.  (If you’re not sure which it is, see the orange arrow in the image above; it points to the icon.)
  4. Enter the date and location for the proposed meeting.
  5. Add a message that provides a little context. (E.g., who you are and whether there’s a specific topic you’d like to discuss.  If there isn’t a specific topic, that’s ok with me.)
  6. Click on the “Create” button.

It’s that easy!

See you in Minneapolis!

Nonprofit Tech Jobs

Nonprofit Tech Jobs

Since I run the Nonprofit Tech Jobs list (which also appears as a Twitter feed and a WordPress web site), I’m often asked about who in the nonprofit/philanthropic world is currently hiring.  Fortunately, I can direct those who ask to the list, since I publicly post every relevant job announcement I know about there.

However, there are some other good sources of news about nptech job openings, and as a public service, I’m happy to post links to them here:

Nonprofit technology job listings:

General job listings that sometimes include nonprofit technology jobs:

At various times, I’ve thought about shutting down the Nonprofit Tech Jobs list, because there are so many scattered announcements out there, and it’s really time consuming for one already-busy volunteer (yours truly) to keep up with it.  Thus far, I haven’t found a technical solution – something that will scrape the data and aggregate it into one easy RSS feed – but I’m still hoping.  Meanwhile, I post every nptech job announcement I can to the list.

#13NTC = The Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis

venn diagram #13ntc

Creative Commons License
This diagram is licensed by Deborah Elizabeth Finn under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

The main reason for attending NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference can be illustrated with the Venn diagram shown above.  As you can see, the overlap between passionate computer geeks and passionate nonprofit/philanthropic professionals is very small.  But the folks in that green zone, it’s somewhat of a tribe, an ethnic group.  If you fall into that zone, then you simply need to be at the conference.  You need to be with your people.

I will of course be there, although my primary purpose will not be to attend the sessions.  My goal is to have as many conversations as possible with people who share my interests. Historically, it happens at NTC in hallways, in lounges, over dinner, and at gatherings that are not listed on the official schedule.  In the early years, the most exciting place for conversation was breakfast and lunch – however, to my ongoing sorrow, the conference organizers shifted to the principle that if you gather everyone in the tribe for a meal, the best thing that you can do for them is preclude conversation by bringing in a plenary speaker.  I love the NTEN staff very much, but on this point, I think that they are as wrong as they can be.  We just have to agree to disagree.

Therefore, I will be at NTC, available for conversations in hallways, in lounges, over dinner, and at unofficial events.  If you want to talk, let’s talk.  Send me an email, and let me know where and when.

NTEN's Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13ntc) in Minneapolis

See you at the Boston 501 Tech Club!

501 Tech Club

If you’re a nonprofit professional in Massachusetts with a strong interest in information and communication technologies, then please come to the next Boston 501 Tech Club event; it will be on January 30 at Space With A Soul.  The topic will be one that is very close to my hearttechnology planning.  It’s a free event, but you need to register for it.

I’m very proud of my history with the Boston 501 Tech Club (and also with the Rhode Island 501 Tech Club).  First time attenders are often pleasantly surprised by how warmly they are welcomed, and by how many solid professional relationships begin there.

If you’re a nonprofit professional in an area that doesn’t have a local 501 Tech Club, the good folks of NTEN will be happy to coach you about how to start one.

My current daydream: The marriage of outcomes management apps with data visualization apps

The marriage of outcomes management with data visualization

Given my current preoccupation with both outcomes management and data visualization for mission-based organizations, perhaps it’s not a surprise that I’m daydreaming about integrating applications that were designed for these two tasks.

This daydream was inspired by a recent conversation with Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares (a HandsOn Network affiliate).  She is keenly interested in both outcomes and data visualization, and she leads a nonprofit of modest size that collaborates not only with many local partners but also with a national network of sister organizations that facilitate short-term volunteering.  In other words, Boston Cares provides a gateway to volunteerism for individuals, corporations, and community-based nonprofits, and then shares best practices with its counterparts across the United States.

What better poster girl could there be than Patrice, for my Cause, which is making it not only possible but easy for her to take her outcomes analyses and turn them in visuals that tell the story of the social impact of Boston Cares?

Moreover, what good is a cause and a poster child, without a poster?  Here’s mine:

Patrice Keegan of Boston Cares
Special note to software developers in the nonprofit sector:  please take a look at that bright, shining face, and give your efforts to the cause.

CTK Foundation extends its grant application deadline to January 14th

CTK Foundation deadline extension

My much-loved client, CTK Foundation, has extended the deadline for applications to January 14th.  This means that there’s still time to apply for an unrestricted grant by submitted a short poem about your nonprofit organization’s mission.

If you have any questions about CTK’s grant program, you can check the official guidelines, or send your questions to inquiries (AT) ctkfoundation (DOT) org.

“Please pose all questions in the form of a compliment”

please pose all questions in the form of a compliment

I have just had the amusing experience of reading an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, entitled “Thanking Your Nonprofit Techie:  A Holiday Wishlist,” and finding that none of the gift suggestions listed there appealed to me very much.

If I were in the market to brighten the life of a nonprofit organization’s nptech professional, I definitely would not toss a E-Waste CD Clock from Hipcycle into the shopping cart.  No.  The really satisfying gift might be an intangible.  For example, a realistic line item for information and communication technology in the organization’s annual budget, or a substantial shift in organizational culture toward including ICT staff in the crucial conversations where strategic decisions are made.  No elaborate announcement or ritual would be needed; just do it.

But if I were in the market for an object that I could wrap up and present to a loyal, resourceful, hard-working, knowledgeable, dedicated nonprofit techie, it would be the desk plaque that says, “Please pose all questions in the form of a compliment.”  Or if you’d rather not spend $10.00 on a purchase, just promulgate it as an official staff policy.

Regardless of whether you mark the holidays with a gift to the nptech professionals in your organization’s life, and regardless what you might choose to give, I wish one and all a very happy holiday, and a joyous new year!

Measuring what we value, and presenting the findings more interactively than ever

Boston Indicators Project logo

First of all, a personal resolutionI will not whine.

The Boston Indicators Project, which is an initiative by the Boston Foundation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, relaunched its web site in November, and I was not invited to the event.  I will subdue my inclination to pout, and move on to praising the new web site.

Fortunately, a fellow Boston Technobabe, Kat Friedrich, did attend; you therefore have the option of skipping my blog article and going straight to hers.  Kat’s focus is on “How Nonprofits Can Earn News Coverage Using Data Visualization,” which is certainly a great take-away for mission-based organizations.

My interest is slightly different.  Here are a few things that are especially striking:

The new Boston Indicators web site is great example of nonprofit technology in the service of a mission that is much greater any one community foundation or specific region.  I happen to live in the greater Boston area, so I’ve been more easily drawn to it than I would be if I were living elsewhere.  But it’s an example to any individual or organization, of the power of the universal access to the significant data, and the importance of analyzing it in ways that benefit the community.

The agony of choice

I recently had both the pleasure and the pain of sitting in with a much-loved nonprofit, as its staff members interviewed several nonprofit technology assistance firms regarding a contract for services.  It was certainly a pleasure to find that my esteemed client organization had more than a few really strong options.

Here are a few thoughts that I took away from that series of interviews:

  • Local is good.  The client organization is all about social responsibility, and it would be good to know that the dollars that they spend on this contract – which is pretty big, by their standards – will go back into the local economy.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that a great local business can be bought and swallowed up by a faceless mega-corporation.
  • Small is good.  I’d feel much better knowing that the staff of my client organization will be talking to the same small group of specialists at the NTAP’s help desk over time.  It’s not just about the relationships, but also about the intimate knowledge of the client’s infrastructure that the technology assistance firm’s team has in their heads when the phone rings.  A small firm with low turnover can offer that.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that the small firm will be bought out by a much larger, much more impersonal one.
  • The “soft” stuff is good.  It’s not just about technical prowess.  A good personality, an ability to build relationships, and an eagerness to communicate are all crucial in a technology firm that will be successful in serving my client.
  • Strategic is good.  This wonderful nonprofit really needs it’s nonprofit technology vendors to help it stay aware of important new opportunities and challenges, and to think ahead about the best way to support the mission.  I don’t mean up-selling; I mean actively working in the interests of the client.

(God knows that as a consultant I try to embody these positive qualities myself. If you want to know whether I’m succeeding, don’t ask me.  Ask my clients, or if you are one my clients, please feel free to tell me how I can improve.)

For the client in question, it’s not a matter of desperation stemming from scarcity of available services, but a tough choice.  No matter which firm the nonprofit organization chooses, it will involve risk, and they’ll never know for sure whether they would have been much happier with another choice.

Given the difficulties, the good news is that with the strong options before them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll make a disastrous choice.  But that also means that some extremely nice and extremely well-qualified people will be disappointed, because they are all really eager to get the contract, and only one will be selected.  That really hurts.

Fortunately, I’m in a good position as a yenta to nonprofits and foundations; as I learn more about each of these technology support firms, I will keep them in mind, and recommend them when I am asked for referrals.  In the best of all possible worlds, both the beloved clients and the esteemed vendors find the perfect matches; since we haven’t quite arrived there yet, people like me should do our best to help the process whenever we can.

Should a nonprofit use a free email service? Gavin Murphy of Annkissam knows.

"askDeborah" podcast, NTEN:Change journal, December 2012


NTEN: Change
is a quarterly journal for nonprofit executives, and I’m pleased to say that the “askDeborah” podcast is one of its regular features.  The journal is available by subscription only but is free to all.

The December edition of NTEN: Change is out, and the podcast for this issue features a conversation about email for nonprofits.  The guest expert is Gavin Murphy of Annkissam; he and I ponder a question posed by a nonprofit professional who is wondering whether to go with a free email service (such as Gmail or Hotmail), or to allocate money to pay for what the organization needs.

It’s not a simple yes or no answer, although an organization with serious needs for maintaining security and privacy in email communication is probably better off looking for something more than a free service can offer.

Gavin explains this is a very reassuring, accessible way.  The whole point of the “askDeborah” podcast series  – as well as the point of the NTEN: Change journal – is to address these concerns for busy people whose expertise lies in other areas of nonprofit management.

Heartfelt thanks are due all around:  to Gavin, for offering his expertise; to NTEN, for publishing the segment in the quarterly journal; and to Community TechKnowledge, for underwriting the podcast series as part of its educational initiative.

Farewell to Holly Ross – NTEN’s loss is the Drupal Association’s gain

Holly Ross in 2008 as the new executive director of NTEN

Holly Ross as NTEN’s new E.D. in 2008.

It’s official.  Holly Ross, the executive director of our professional association, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), is leaving to become the E.D. of the Drupal Association.

I know that she won’t disappear from our sight, but just the same, I will miss her in her NTEN role.  A lot.  It’s not just that she’s smart, collaborative, creative, ethical, well-informed, and committed to making the world a better place.  It’s that she is the only person I know who can actually quiet a ballroom full of thousands of conference attendees in order to make some mundane housekeeping announcements.  She is that compelling, that likable as a leader.

I first met Holly in 2001, at the Circuit Rider Roundup in Denver, CO.  The circuit rider movement was the precursor to NTEN, and the roundup was the precursor to the huge annual conference that NTEN now coordinates.  Holly was then working for (the now-defunct) TechRocks.  I was a second or third wave circuit rider, attending a roundup for the first time.  There was definitely an inner circle of cool kids, and the TechRocks team was part of it.  Holly was one of them, and she was also a friendly face to newcomers.  Later on, she made the transition to the newly-formed NTEN staff, and in 2008, she became the E.D.

Through the years, I’ve had plenty opportunities to collaborate with Holly to advance the field of nonprofit technology, in order to serve the organizations that are fulfilling important social missions.  No one who knows me will be at all surprised if I point out that this “collaboration” has often consisted of Holly listening while I explained to her why NTEN was doing something wrong and what NTEN should do instead!  Likewise, no one who knows Holly will be surprised to learn that she has in turn always been gracious, responsive, and helpful.  Good heavens, she has even thanked me for my guidance and feedback!  And then she has gone on lead NTEN brilliantly, regardless of whether my suggestions turned out to be worth the time it took to listen to them.   I don’t know how many other longtime NTEN supporters would say the same, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority would.

Happy trails to Holly!  I wish her the best, and I hope that we’ll be seeing her at NTEN conferences in the future as a relaxed attendee who is not responsible for running the show, but who is allowed to enjoy the fruits of a profession and a movement that she was so crucial in creating.

Would you write a short poem about your mission for a $10,000 cash grant?

2013 heart & soul grant

My much-loved client, CTK Foundation, will start accepting applications from nonprofits for its “Heart & Soul” cash grants on Monday, December 3rd.

As usual, the foundation isn’t interested in receiving a long grant proposal with a lot of boilerplate; instead, they want each nonprofit that applies to submit a short poem about its mission.

Poems can be written by the applicant organization’s constituents, staff, board, or volunteers.  It’s an opportunity to focus on what’s unique and important to you about the organization.

The signature grant of this year’s cycle will be $10,000 in cash, plus a professionally written and recorded song by the Grammy Award-winning group, the original Blind Boys of Alabama.

The other grants are:

  • $10,000 HHS grant — available to an Austin, Texas-area nonprofit specializing in the provision of services to at risk children and families — a gift from the Cipione Family Foundation.
  • Two $5,000 grant awards to two nonprofits in the United States.
  • Five $1,000 grant awards to Community TechKnowledge, Inc. customer organizations attending the 2013 Outcomes Immersion Certification Training.
  • $20,000 in matching cash grants to nonprofits for CTK software purchases.
  • Three autographed guitars: one by The Original Blind Boys of Alabama, one by Los Lonely Boys, and one by Sunny Shipley.

If you’re interested,  take a break from the usual grantwriting process, gather together the people who most love your mission, and bring forth a poem that expresses the heart and soul of what you do.

My idea of fun

annkissam

caring it forward

 

I had a lovely time on Wednesday at the Providers Council conference and expo.  All told, I put in about six hours at the Annkissam table, along with Kevin Palmer and Matteo Ramos-MucciAs previously mentioned, Annkissam underwrote my time at the conference, so that I could provide pro bono strategic tech consultations on site and on demand.

It was fun.

I enjoyed the challenge of improvising the best possible assistance for each human service provider who sat down for a brief consultation.  I’m not sure I could do thirty-minute consultations all day and every day, but it was very satisfying day.

Other aspects of the conference that I enjoyed were the company of members of the Annkissam team, meeting the other exhibitors, chatting with acquaintances as they passed by our table, and striking up conversations with total strangers as they stopped to ask about what we were featuring: Annkissam’s services, NPO Connect, and on-the-spot pro bono assistance.

One phenomenon that interested me greatly was the response of total strangers to the idea that Annkissam was interested in offering strategic technology assistance that was free from cost, obligation, or sales pitches.  The responses appeared to include suspicion, incredulity, confusion, apathy, relief, and joy.  I can understand that it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know me or the folks from Annkissam to comprehend that they might get anything other than a sales pitch and a piece of candy when visiting the table.  Naturally, the passers-by who already knew us had no trouble with the concept.

It’s going to take a lot of repetition before the idea of pro bono strategic technology consultations at conferences for nonprofit professionals becomes a commonplace, but as long as it’s fun, I’m more than willing to keep at it.

Nonprofits, vendors, and the RFP process

I’m not really enthusiastic about the “Request For Proposals” (RFP) model of identifying the right vendor for the job.  However, there are times when a much-loved nonprofit client really needs to go through the process, and in that case, I want to be there for the staff – as the designated worrier, the framer of requirements, the fierce defender of the organization’s interests.

That’s my role right now, with a highly esteemed client that needs a service provider.  Of the firms that I contacted in order to solicit proposals, three are led (or even owned outright) by valued friends of mine.  It’s a great exercise in professional ethics and appropriate boundaries!

Moreover, it can be painful to go to a friend and ask him/her to invest a significant amount of time – on spec – in jumping through hoops and preparing a document.  A difficult twist is that I’ve never been hired as a consultant through an RFP process.  In general, my clients simply decide that they need me.

I’m pleased to say that in the current RFP process, my client received some very strong proposals; none of my friends who submitted proposals did a perfunctory or substandard job.  However, we did get our share of the perfunctory and the substandard.

Here are a few tips for vendors, from someone who writes RFPs, solicits responses, and evaluates proposals on behalf of nonprofit clients:

  • Every item mentioned in the RFP is there for a reason.  Please respond to each, if only to say that you can’t offer what is requested in the form that the client organization wants it.
  • Someone like me will have to comb through every piece of information requested (e.g., services required, client concerns, references) and create an item-by-item, side-by-side comparison of each proposal.  Please make it easy for me or my counterpart, by including a spreadsheet that lists every item with your direct response to it, in the order each item is mentioned in the RFP.
  • If you simply must describe what your are offering with terms and categories that are utterly different from the ones used in the RFP, please provide annotations or diagrams that help us map your concepts to what we need.
  • Sometimes, “no” and “we need more information” are reasonable responses to an item listed in an RFP.  At the moment, I’m looking at a spreadsheet comparing the responses in seven proposals, and it’s littered with notes such as “not explicitly addressed,” “listed in proposal, but no details provided,” and “to be determined.” Please be clear and candid.

And here are a couple of questions for vendors who submit proposals:

  • Do you really want the person who is best acquainted with your proposal to be annoyed with you, when he/she meets with the decision-makers at the client organizations to brief them on the comparative merits of the candidates?
  • Would you rather have the chief decision-maker to call you up to say, “we’re seriously considering your proposal – when can we meet to discuss it?” or “we’ve read your proposal, but can’t figure out whether you can address our needs”?

I hope that vendors will think seriously about these questions, and base their future behavior on the answers.

The state of nonprofit data: Uh-oh!

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) has released a report prepared by Idealware on the current state of nonprofit data.  Highly recommended!

Some of the news it contains is scary.  In our sector, we currently aren’t very successful at collecting and analyzing the most crucial data.  For example, only 50% of the respondents reported that their nonprofit organizations are tracking data about the outcomes of clients/constituents.

According to the survey respondents, there are daunting barriers to tracking and using data:

  • issues related to collecting and working with data (27 percent of responses).
  • lack of expertise (24 percent of responses)
  • issues of time and prioritization (22 percent of responses).
  • challenges with technology (23 percent).

Page 13 of the report features a chart that I find especially worrisome.  It displays of types of data that nonprofit organizations should or could be using, with large chunks falling into three chilling categories:

  • we don’t know how to track this
  • we don’t have the technology to effectively track this
  • we don’t have the time/money to effectively track this

In the case of data about outcomes, 17% lack the knowledge, 20% lack the technology, and 22% lack the time or money (or both) to track it.

Are you scared yet?  I confess that I am.  Perhaps half of all nonprofits surveyed don’t know – and don’t have the resources to find out – whether there is any causal relationship between what their activities and the social good that they are in business to achieve.

And that’s just programmatic outcomes.  The news is also not very encouraging when it comes to capturing data about organizational budgets, constituent participation in programs, and external trends in the issue areas being addressed by nonprofit organizations.

So much for the bad news.  The good news is that now we know.

It takes some courage to acknowledge that the baseline is so low.  I applaud Idealware and NTEN for creating and publishing this report.  Now that we know, we can address the problem and take effective action.

Reconstructing my list of links

On my old Blogware site (1), I maintained an extensive list of online resources that would be of general interest to nonprofit professionals, and of especial interest to those who sought to use information and communication technology to support their missions.

I’ve devoted part of today to reconstructing that list of links, so that I can post it to this WordPress web site.  None of the available widgets seem to be set up to format my list the way I want it (2), so I have given up on the idea of displaying the list in the navigation column on the side, and created a special page on this site that lists “Recommended Readings and Resources.”

This new version of my link list is still quite rudimentary; I plan to add more items and arrange the list in a format that is easy to use.  Your suggestions of readings and resources that ought to be included will be very welcome.

1)  Which the host discontinued without notifying me in advance.  Not that I am bitter.

2)  Not that I am bitter.

Editor’s note:  Is there an echo in here?

A word of gratitude for an online community: Mission-Based Massachusetts

Map of Massachusetts

Today is Thanksgiving, so I want to express some gratitude to a community of colleagues here in Massachusetts.

I started the “Mission-Based Massachusetts” (MBM for short) email list in 2005, in order to provide a forum for people who care about nonprofit, philanthropic, educational, community-based, grassroots, socially responsible, and other mission-oriented organizations here in the Bay State.

My inspiration for starting the MBM list (and several other projects) was a series of conversations with Tim Gassert of the Boston Foundation, starting in about 2003.  We agreed that nonprofits in Massachusetts needed some sort of online tool that would help them stay current with each other about upcoming events, best practices, and available resources.  At the time, I hoped that a highly reputable institution, such as TBF or Third Sector New England, would take on the task, but neither was able to espouse the cause.  (Later, when the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network was organized, I hoped that MNN would sponsor it, but had no luck there either.)

It didn’t seem to me that an individual should take on such a critical task, but in 2005, I hunkered down to the task of creating, moderating, recruiting members for, and maintaining the MBM list as a lone volunteer.  Fortunately, my friend John McNutt (then living in Massachusetts, but now teaching at the University of Delaware) kindly volunteered to be the alternate moderator, thus allowing me to take some urgently needed breaks.

I’m deeply grateful for the way that MBM members have coalesced into a peer network, a group of people who are helping each other make the world a better place.  People constantly tell me in person or email me how much they have benefited from participating in this community.  They thank me, but the truth is that it weren’t for each of them, the Mission-Based Massachusetts group would not be thriving in this way. I also believe that as a community, they have greatly benefited the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts, and the many people served by the sector.

It takes a lot of effort to maintain the MBM list, but I’m not really a lone individual anymore.  In addition to John (to whom I’m deeply grateful), and Tim (who continues to inspire me) I have more than 1,400 colleagues in group who are helping me and each other.  It is indeed an occasion for gratitude!

Common Impact, Hands On Tech Boston, and volunteer management

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting with some colleagues at Common Impact and Hands On Tech Boston.

We talked about a number of subjects (and a few ways that I might be able to be helpful to them), but it seems to me that a really important theme of our conversations was about volunteer management. It’s a complex challenge that requires finely honed skills, plenty of experience, solid relationships, and a good head for strategy.

Of course, this is ever so much more so the case when a nonprofit is relying on volunteers to do a mission-critical technology implementation.  I definitely have moments when I agree with the Nonprofit Curmudgeon that when it comes to nonprofit technology,  “volunteerism is great but it ain’t the long term solution.”   However, Common Impact provides a superlative model for skills-based corporate volunteering, and it works for technology implementations.

However, Common Impact can only work directly with a limited number of nonprofits.  Fortunately, they are now making available online a “Readiness Roadmap” that will help organizations do the self-assessment and active preparation for a skills-based volunteer project.  Actually, I suspect that using this tool will help any nonprofit that is seriously contemplating a major technology implementation, regardless of whether volunteers are part of the plan.

Pro bono strategic technology consultations for human service professionals

The Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers37th conference and expo will take place on November 28th at the Copley Place Marriott in Boston.  Thanks to generous underwriting from Annkissam, I will be offering pro bono strategic technology consultations on-site at the conference to conference registrants!

If you have registered for the conference, you can sign up online right now for a 30 minute consultation.

These consultations will be provided  to conference attendees on the following basis:

  • No charge
  • No sales pitches
  • No further obligation on your part

Nonprofit Technology 101: A case study

This fall, I made presentation about nonprofit technology at a local university.  The 200 students in the course were master’s degree candidates in the school of computer and information science.  Since very few of them were familiar with the operations of small nonprofit organizations, I prepared this hypothetical scenario.

The situation:

Chris is the systems manager (SM) for Helping Out, a nonprofit organization with ten employees and a budget of $500,000 a year. Helping Out’s mission is to serve anyone in need of aid following a major natural disaster that occurred last year in a metropolitan area; they seek to offer counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development. Chris works half time for Helping Out for a salary of $25,000 a year, and has an annual information systems budget of $15,000. The latter amount covers hardware, software, internet access, and consulting services.

Helping Out currently has three PCs and two Macs, all of which are over three years old. Two of the PCs and one of the Macs are hooked up to a local area network and have internet access, which Chris manages. (The other PC and Mac are over five years old and are not compatible with the LAN’s operating system.)

They currently track their interactions with stakeholders (such as clients, local community groups, concerned citizens, and elected officials) with index cards. Donors are tracked on an Access database that Chris put together. Finances are tracked on Quickbooks.

In addition to maintaining the desktop systems, the local area network, the Access database, and Quickbooks, Chris is responsible for updating the organization’s web site, its Twitter account, and its Facebook page, on the grounds that “Chris knows about computers.” Likewise, Chris is responsible for creating financial reports for the board and auditors with data received from the chief financial officer (CFO), because “Chris knows about Excel.”

The chief executive officer (CEO) recently read a blog article about the importance of constituent relationship management (CRM), and is particularly excited to learn that Salesforce.Com (a software as a service application) is being used widely by nonprofit organizations. The article explains that the Salesforce Foundation will grant free licenses to nonprofits on request and also urges the desirability of integrating constituent tracking with financial records.

Meanwhile, Community Philanthropy, a local grantmaking organization that donates about $200,000 a year to Helping Out, has urged the CEO and CDO (the chief development officer, who is a fundraiser) to start reporting back on their programmatic outcomes. Community Philanthropy is interested in knowing the demographic profiles of the populations that Helping Out is serving, and in knowing how many dollars and how many person-hours it takes to meet the organization’s goals in delivering counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development services.

The CEO calls a meeting with the SM, the CFO, and the CDO, and asks Chris implement Salesforce as a CRM that will integrate with Quickbooks. The goal is to support better case management, outcomes reporting, financial management, and fundraising.

Chris agrees that the right platforms – correctly implemented, well integrated with each other, and properly maintained – will significantly improve operations and support the organization’s goals. However, Chris also has some serious concerns:

  • Chris is a systems administrator, not a programmer, and would need a significant course of training to be able to implement this project adequately.
  • This project will extremely time-consuming, and Chris will either need to drop some responsibilities or be paid for more hours.
  • The alternative would be to retain an outside consultant to do the implementation, and such consultants are not only scarce but expensive.
  • Chris knows, from speaking with other nonprofit technology professionals, that some similar organizations that attempted this implementation consider it an expensive failure. Often the reasons given for considering the project a failure are as superficial as finding that employees intensely disliked the user interface.

The question:

How should Chris respond – in this meeting, and thereafter – to this challenge?

What are you own thoughts about this case study?  How, indeed, should the organization’s systems manager respond?

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