Tag Archives: mission-critical

Chris Zibailo: A hero in ICT and expectation management

Chris Zibailo, DSCI

This morning, I ran into a long-lost colleague whom I remember as a hero.  Or rather, Chris Zibailo recognized my voice, and ran over to reintroduce himself to me this morning.

Chris and I met in 1999, when I was the information systems manager at Family Service of Greater Boston (FSGB).  FSGB was in the middle of a big geographic transition; we had sold our headquarters on Beacon Hill, and moved our information systems, plus everything else, to temporary quarters in Downtown Crossing. We were now facing, for the second time in just under a year, a move to our permanent headquarters in Jackson Square.

Fortunately, I was reporting to the world’s best chief administrative officer for a nonprofit human service organization, Bill Chrisemer.  I should take a moment and acknowledge Bill as a hero as well, because he always did his utmost to help me succeed in supporting FSGB.

It was the right time for Bill and me to think about state of the art voice and data lines.  Enter Chris, with a promise on behalf on his firm that got our attention:  we suck less.

Chris is my hero, because he delivered extraordinary service; he not only managed our expectations perfectly, but exceeded them.  We not only received the information and communication technology components that were critical for our operations, but all the personal care that Chris could give us in a difficult move.  I remember a particularly harrowing moment, while planning the weekend cut-over of all services for the entire organization, when we realized that someone had to be at our Quincy satellite office to wait for and let in the Bell Atlantic workers.  It was a thankless task and one that might have entailed hours of waiting around, and our information systems team had already been assigned critical tasks.  Just as I remember the harrowing moment of that realization, I also remember my overwhelming feeling of gratitude and relief when Chris volunteered for the job, which most definitely was not in the contract for services that we signed with him.  We gave him the keys, he did this tedious task, and all was well.

Later that year, Bill Chrisemer left, I was diagnosed with cancer (and had successful surgery), and DSCI underwent some significant changes. It was a very tough time, partly because Family Service of Greater Boston’s organizational culture had changed. In 2000, I left FSGB to take a job as TechFoundation’s national nonprofit liaison officer, and in 2002, I left TF to become a solo consultant.  I had lost touch with Chris, and heard a rumor that he had left his firm, but I still thought of him as the gold standard whenever I dealt with telephone and internet service providers on behalf of my clients.

Fast forward to this morning.  Imagine my delight when Chris caught up with me!  Delight was piled on delight when Chris told me that the acquisition of his firm, those many years ago, was not satisfactory, so he and his colleagues banded together to invest in DSCI and turn it into a hosted communication and connectivity service provider for the 21st century.

Kudos to you, Chris.  You’re still my hero.

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

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.

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