Tag Archives: nonprofits

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.

 

 

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.

 

Nonprofit Knowledge Management: It’s alive!

nonprofit knowledge management

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure and privilege of helping to facilitate a workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits at the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network conference, along with my esteemed colleagues Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.

This session also marked the debut of Annkissam’s new web site, Nonprofit KM.  I’m thrilled with the design work that Tsholo Thekiso (also from Annkissam) has done to make it clean and beautiful.  Right now, the new site only has a few items on it; more will be forthcoming.  At the moment, I’d especially like to recommend two items to your attention:

Special thanks go out to the uber librarian, Rachael Stark, who has worked very closely with me on Annkissam’s knowledge management for nonprofits initiative, and is responsible for much of the information and insight that is infused in the new Nonprofit KM web site.  To know Rachael is to understand the power of librarianship, and to glimpse the potential for collaboration between librarians and nonprofit professionals.

I’m also grateful to the Annkissam team in general and its Drupal development team in particular.  Although Annkissam has developed an excellent Drupal-based knowledge management system for small nonprofits, Habitat, the new Nonprofit KM is all about providing crucial assistance to those who are struggling with knowledge management challenges, rather than a commercial message about Habitat.  Likewise, yesterday’s workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits was all about brainstorming the main problems and possible solutions, and not a sales pitch for this specific product.

And that’s the way it should be.  In fact, it’s important to understand that not every problem in nonprofit operations can be solved by knowledge management, that there is a range of strategies that stretches far beyond any one software solutions, and that a commitment to organizational change is crucial to success in adopting a knowledge management strategy.  Annkissam is right there, helping nonprofits to understand what lies ahead, rather than urging them to commit time, effort, and money to without regard for what will meet their needs.

The new web site is  a good starting point for nonprofit professionals who are not inherently interested in knowledge management, but are focused on achieving organizational goals.  There’s very little available, online or on paper, about KM for nonprofits, and much of it is more than five years old; we were able to ascertain this with the help of Rachael Stark, the uber librarian.  Fortunately, we can use Nonprofit KM to aggregate all the information that currently exists, and to make available the resources that we have created.

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!

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