Tag Archives: nonprofit

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

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