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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

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!

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 revisit the concept of failure-friendliness

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog article about failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology. It was very much inspired by my friend and colleague, Dan Scharfman. Since Dan died this week, and this is also a week when I have been thinking hard about the obstacles that nonprofit organizations face in tracking their outcomes, it seems appropriate to reprise the article here and now. Having coped with the need for failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology for years, I see that my understanding is still superficial when it comes to the difficulties that nonprofits have in acknowledging programmatic failure. I invite your thoughts on how we can be more transparent about and more open to learning from failure. Meanwhile, special thanks go out to Beth Kanter, for her outstanding blog articles on this topic.

FAIL stamp

Wed 26 Jan 2005 05:41 PM EST

The term “failure-friendly organization” was first introduced to me by a colleague I revere – Dan Scharfman of Baird Associates.

My first impression was that he was an unlikely champion of failure, since Massachusetts is well-supplied with nonprofit organizations that consider the technology services that he has provided to them very successful indeed.

However, many of us in the nonprofit sector have seen the following things happen with major implementations or upgrades:

  • The technology doesn’t work, or doesn’t work nearly as well as it should;
  • The intended users won’t have anything to do with the technology;
  • Major changes in technology in the outside world quickly render the organization’s choices obsolete;
  • Programmatic priorities change, and the technology is all but irrelevant;
  • The organization has not factored in the shocking cost of customizing, tweaking, maintaining, and upgrading the technology.

Although techies vary greatly in their attitudes about projects that don’t work out, we also tend to make tacit assumptions that everyone concerned understands that we are not engaged in an exact science but in an evolving process.

Techies also tend to regard failure as pretty interesting – as a good source of information about what ought to be fixed when Version 97.53.01 of the software is released.  We also enjoy working on cool tools, even if such tools don’t actually deliver the outcomes desired by those who are underwriting the project.  This form of process orientation can be less than endearing to decision-makers in nonprofit organizations.

Oddly enough, nonprofit workers tend to be very good at process orientation when they are on familiar ground.

Sometimes this process orientation is a grim necessity, with governmental agencies strictly mandating, auditing, and enforcing protocols that nonprofits must follow in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, accreditation, or contracts for services.  These are headaches that would impel just about any organization or individual to worry a great deal about operating according to plan and documenting the process, rather than ensuring a specific outcome. This of course is a very “functional” (or “instrumental“) form of process orientation.

A more “expressive” form of process orientation is also frequently seen in nonprofit organizations – manifesting as a desire to be flexible and responsive to changing situations, or as a desire to arrive at decisions through consensus.  However, it can be difficult to extend that attitude to technology, which tends to be difficult for non-specialists to comprehend, time-consuming, and expensive.

Another challenge is that organizations and individuals (including yours truly) can be reluctant to cut their losses, and say, “This isn’t working.  Let’s stop, figure out why, and decide on some next steps.”  Of course, in some settings, the decoded version of this message is “Let’s find someone to blame and punish…maybe YOU.”

Yikes!

Is there any solution in sight?  I only wish I had something certain and simple to offer.  Here are a few ideas, although none of them come with guarantees of success:

  • Techies need to understand the nonprofit organizational cultures in which they are operating.  Progress toward this goal is possible if the techies listen, ask questions, and listen some more.  These conversations should start early in the planning phase.
  • Nonprofit workers need to understand how technology innovations and implementations happen in real life, and have a reasonable idea of what factors can lead to unexpected outcomes in technology projects.  Progress is possible if – yes, you guessed it – the nonprofit workers listen, ask questions, and listen some more.
  • Everyone needs to cooperate in creating incentives for spotting, discussing, and correcting errors rather than evading their detection.  I freely admit that I always find it easier to do these things when the mistake was made by someone else, but am always striving to do better.

I wish I could remember who it was that first said to me, “This is not about one person against another. This is about our team against the problem.”  Anyone who can say that is a saint, a boddhisatva, a tzadik, or an unusually effective manager.

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

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