Tag Archives: esteemed client

Where I fail: Balancing between billable hours and volunteerism

Balancing Stones

Inspired by Beth Kanter, I have been reading and reflecting intensively about how we cope with failure in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.  Today, I’ve been asking myself what my biggest failure is as an nptech professional.

No contest:  it’s my failure to balance the work I do on a volunteer basis with the work I do for which I am paid.

It’s tough to say no to anyone in our sector who needs help and can’t afford a consultant.  Fortunately, I have a much-loved client, the Data Collaborative, that underwrites my time to provide strategic assistance for a selected group of nonprofits that would not otherwise be able to receive help.  Unfortunately, the number of hours of my time that they can underwrite is limited.

In fact, I hate to say no, and in a typical week I often put in twenty or thirty hours of unremunerated service.

The truth is that, if I didn’t have to charge anyone, I could put in sixty hours of work a week throughout the year with mission-based organizations, and still have a waiting list. 

The demand for my services is that high – even if the availability of funding to pay me is somewhat lower.

So the big fail is that in the last month or two I have neglected to balance all the work I do without charge with the proper number of billable hours.  This is a bad idea, and works against everyone’s interests.

Here’s why everyone loses if I don’t achieve more balance in my consulting practice:

  • If I don’t charge for my work, then I cannot pay for food, for rent, or for health insurance.
  • If I don’t have these basics, then I will die of starvation, exposure, or chronic illness.
  • If I die, my services will not be available to mission-based organizations who need me, for either love or money.

So here I am, acknowledging my failure to bear these basic economic realities in mind.

Now I’ll go a step further, and ask for help.  You can help keep me doing useful work, by referring potential clients to me who are both willing and able to pay for my services.

Thank you!

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

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.

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: