Tag Archives: ceo

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.

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.

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?

%d bloggers like this: