Tag Archives: planning

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.

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

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?

 

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