Tag Archives: technology

Workforce development for the nonprofit tech professionals of the future: It will be a consortium, not a building with a dome!

We don't need an edifice; we need a consortium!

 

It’s been about a year and a half since I starting agitating for a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, an initiative that will kick off by training the nonprofit data analysts of the future.

The concept has morphed and evolved a great deal in that time, thanks to all the great input from Massachusetts stakeholders, but also from a team of ELP fellows from the Center for Collaborative Leadership.

One thing that is quite clear is that there is no need to create a new institution, or raise up a building with a splendid dome.  (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology can rest easy, without fear of competition, or brand encroachment.)  I believe that all of the necessary institutions exist already here in the Bay State.  What is needed is a consortium that can knit them together for this purpose, some funding, and some candidates.

It’s a pipeline, or perhaps a career ladder that the consortium needs to build – not an edifice.  Although I love the splendid domes of MIT, we can simply admire them, and hope that eventually some of the people who work and study under those domes will become part of the consortium.

Here’s what I think we need:

  1.  Allies from workforce development, job readiness, and college readiness programs.  These are the folks who will raise awareness of the coming need for technology professionals who can provide data analysis and other data services to nonprofits, and guide them to the next rung of the career ladder. Examples include Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), Shriver Job Corps, International Institute of New England, JFYnet, Jobs For the Future, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, SkillWorks, Boston PIC, YearUp, and Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
  2. Allies who provide relevant training and education to candidates who aspire to careers in data services and data analytics for nonprofits.  Examples include Bunker Hill Community College and Tech Foundry.
  3. An organization that is able to place, mentor, and coach candidates in entry level data services positions at local nonprofit organizations.  That’s TNB Labs.  These entry level workers will be known as “data support analysts,” or DSAs.
  4. Allies from local nonprofit organizations who are willing to host (and pay for the services of) a DSA for a period of one or two years.  TNB Labs will be the official employer of these workers, providing them with a salary, benefits, a modest sum for further professional development, coaching, and mentoring.  The DSAs will be working on site at the nonprofit organizations and dedicating themselves to tasks assigned by the nonprofits.  Examples of distinguished nonprofits that could play this role are Community Servings, Saint Francis House, Community Catalyst, Health Care For All, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Perkins School, City Year, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Cambridge Health Alliance, Family Service of Greater Boston, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Foundation, AIDS Action Committee, and the Home for Little Wanderers.  (Not that they’ve actually signed on for this, but that they would be great members of this consortium.)

At the conclusion of the one or two year placement at a nonprofit organization, I think that any of the following outcomes would count as a win:

  • The host nonprofit hires the DSA (with a raise and a promotion) as a long term regular employee.
  • The DSA lands a job providing data services at another nonprofit organization.
  • The DSA lands a job in a different field or sector that is congruent with his/her/their career aspirations.
  • The DSA is able to apply to a four-year degree program, transferring course credits, on the job experience, two-year degrees, or certifications that he/she/they have earned.

The latter scenario – of advancing in higher education – brings us to the final category of allies needed for our consortium.  The best example of this kind of ally is UMass-Boston, which has programs in related areas, such as:

In addition, our consortium has a great ally in an individual UMass-Boston faculty member, Michael Johnson, whose research focus is decision science for community-based organizations.  He has expressed a generous desire to be a mentor to community college students in this career ladder, and to encourage those who are qualified to apply to be Ph.D. students in this field.

And that’s just UMass-Boston!  I’m not as familiar with the offerings of other distinguished colleges and universities in the area, but the Boston University program in nonprofit management and leadership , the Nonprofit Leadership program at Wheelock, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice at Tufts come to mind immediately as potential allies.

So here we are. The need is there for data service providers who can serve the missions, programs, and operations of nonprofit organizations.  If we can weave all these allies together into a network, we can meet these needs.

All that we require is:

  • Allies who are ready, willing, and able to pitch in.
  • Public awareness that this career ladder is available.
  • Funding to assist candidates cannot afford tuition for college coursework and other forms of training.
  • Funding to assist nonprofits that would like to host a data service analyst from this program, but lack the (modest) funding to support one.

Let’s do this!

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

How much fun is the Nonprofit Technology Conference? This much fun. (Plus some thoughts about shifting from tactical to strategic support of nonprofit organizations.)

Deborah is delighted by the artist's rendition of a concept of Tech Networks of Boston's. The photo was taken at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference .

Photo by Peggy Duvette of Netsuite.Org.

The good folks of Netsuite.Org had a great idea for their exhibit area at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year.  They asked attendees to describe their technology visions in three words.  I chose “shared” “data,” and “outcomes.” and an artist quickly drew up a visual to express this.  (Unfortunately, I did not note down her name; I hope I can find it in order to give her proper credit for her work.)  The photo shown above was taken by Peggy Duvette, and as you can see, I was delighted to see this concept, which is part of Tech Networks of Boston’s strategic thinking, become part of the patchwork quilt of ideas that were being expressed.

Here’s a close-up of the TNB concept:

I (Deborah) took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

I took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

At TNB, we are thinking more and more about collaborative technology management – not just in terms of how we work with our nonprofit clients, but also about how clusters of NTAPs and nonprofits can work together toward a shared long term goal.   We have great relationships (and in many cases, shared nonprofit clients) with some great local nonprofit technology assistance providers, such as Annkissam* and 501Partners.  The three NTAPs are already collaborating on a series of sales-pitch-free evenings in which local nonprofit professionals are offered pro bono tech consultations.

However, the potential exists to do so much more, especially considering how many clients we share.

Wouldn’t it be great if the three NTAPs could offer their shared clients the following:

1) Seamless integration of TNB, AK, and 501P’s services.

2) Shared best practices for clusters of nonprofits with similar programs, operations, or missions.

3) Coordinated outcomes measurement and management for nonprofits that have overlapping constituencies.

The joy of #15NTC is in realizing that although we are just three NTAPs in one region, we are part of a wider movement.  In fact, if you were to look at the entire collection of artist’s renderings that were done at the Netsuite.Org exhibit area, you’d see that many nonprofit organizations are on the cusp of dreaming this dream.  Most of in the nonprofit sector understand that for lasting positive change in the world, one program at a single nonprofit organization is not enough.  The future is in sharing and coordinating our work.  What if nonprofit technology assistance providers started with that challenge, rather than the challenge of keeping a network server from crashing?  The emphasis would shift from the tactical support of nonprofits to the strategic support of their missions.  And by “missions,” I don’t mean vague statements; I mean specific (and even quantifiable) positive changes that nonprofit profits have committed themselves to delivering to their stakeholders.

Because mission achievement is why we all get up in the morning to do our jobs.

And because building a nonprofit technology movement that supports mission achievement is the best possible reason for participating in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

 

* I also serve Annkissam directly as a consultant.

 

 

 

I want a ribbon on my conference badge that says “TECHNOBABE”

15ntc name badge

 

Behold my name badge from the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc).

I’m much obliged to my beloved friend Peter Campbell for the #NTCBEER button, which I wore proudly throughout the conference.  You know it’s not just a good party but a great yearly tradition when a nondrinker looks forward to it.

However, at the moment, I want to call attention to the “Diva” and “Instigator” ribbons attached to my badge.  This was a brilliant swag offering from the folks at the Strategic Fulfillment table in the conference’s exhibit hall.  Usually at conferences, ribbons are given out by the event organizers to sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and various other V.I.P.s.  The Strategic Fulfillment Group was smart enough to make it a matter egalitarian self-determination.  Any visitor was welcome to take and wear the ribbon of his or her choice.

I like “Diva” and “Instigator,” but the ribbon I really want is one that says “TECHNOBABE.”

 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology: Let’s Do This!

Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology

 

We need a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, and I can tell you what degree program we need to establish first:  Bachelor of Nonprofit Data.

The inspiration for this comes from many conversations with many people, but I’d especially like to credit Susan Labandibar, Julia Gittleman, and Laura Beals for pointing out, in their different ways, that one of the most pressing real-life challenges in nonprofit technology today is finding people who can bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team (on one hand) and the information systems team (on the other hand) at a nonprofit organization.

Not that I’m a professional full-time data analyst myself, but if I were, I’d find the numbers, and start doing the math:

  • How many brilliant computer scientists are graduating right here in Massachusetts every year from our best high schools, colleges, and universities?
  • Of those graduates, what percentage have strong skills in database design, database development, database management, or data analysis?
  • Of those who have strong data skills, what percentage would be eager to use their geek skills for good, if they were offered an attractive career ladder?

That’s our applicant pool for the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology.  (Or MINT, if you prefer.)

Now, let’s figure out the absolute minimum of additional knowledge that these computer science graduates would need in order to be the kind of data analysts who could bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team and the information systems team  at a nonprofit:

  • Outcomes measurement
  • Outcomes management
  • Impact assessment
  • Evaluation
  • Social research methods
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational cultures of nonprofits
  • Nonprofit operations
  • Organizational cultures of philanthropic foundations

That’s our basic curriculum.

If we want to expand the curriculum beyond the basics, we can add these elective subjects:

  • Nonprofit budgeting
  • Group dynamics
  • Ethics
  • Etiquette
  • Negotiation
  • Project management
  • Appreciative inquiry
  • Meeting facilitation

All of these electives would pave the way for other degree programs, in which they would also be extremely useful:

  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Systems Engineering
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Web Development
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Help Desk Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Hands On Tech Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Social Media

I already have my eye on some great local colleagues who could be the faculty for the Bachelor of Nonprofit Data program.  In addition to Susan, Julia, and Laura, I’d want to recruit these folks:

Please note that three members of the TNB team top the list of potential faculty members.  Why?  Because I work there, and because TNB has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of developing the careers of 1,000 technology professionals. This undertaking would be very congruent with its vision!

However, setting up the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology must be a collaborative effort.  It will take a strong network of colleagues and friends to make this happen.

Do you think that this is needed?  Do you think my plan needs a lot of work?  Do you have any ideas or resources that you’d like to suggest?  Please feel free to use the comments section here to share your thoughts.

NPtech Labor Market Alert: The Big Job Title of 2015 Will Be “Data Analyst”

 

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

 

My training, such as it is, is heavily skewed toward qualitative methods; at the same time, I have a lot of respect for quantitative analysis.  However, my favorite form of research consists of staring off into space and letting ideas float into my head.  Sometimes I validate my findings by engaging in conversations in which I talk louder and louder until everyone agrees that I’m right.  It seems to work.

Lately, I’ve had a little time to stare off into space and let ideas float into my head; by this, I mean that I traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc) and had some down time on the plane.  By the time I arrived in Austin, I had become convinced that “Data Analyst” would be this year’s standout job title in the field of nptech.  At the conference, I was able to confirm this – by which I mean that I didn’t meet anyone there who talks more loudly than I do.

What are the take-ways?  It depends on who you are:

  • For data analysts who are now working in the field of nonprofit technology:  prepare to be appreciated.
  • For data analysts now working in other sectors: think about whether this is a good moment to make a career shift in which you use your geek powers for good. But make sure you know what you’re getting into.
  • For nonprofit executives: don’t kid yourselves. Brilliant data analysts who want to work in the nonprofit sector aren’t going to be attracted by job announcements that indicate that the successful candidate will also be responsible for network administration, hands-on tech support, social media, and web development.
  • For workforce development professionals:  this is your cue. It’s time to put together a program for training computer science graduates to be nonprofit data geeks.
  • For donors, grantmakers, and other funders:  if you want reports from nonprofits are based on reliable and valid methods of analysis, then you will need to underwrite data analysts at nonprofits.  That means money for training, for salaries, and for appropriate technology.

If you don’t agree with my findings, please take a moment to share yours in the comments section.

If you don’t know anyone at #15NTC, come stand (or sit) next to me!

15ntc

Srsly!

I’m very excited about participating in NTEN’s upcoming Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15NTC) in Austin, Texas!

I’ve been recruited by NTEN for my favorite volunteer task:  staffing the NTENer Center.  I’ll be at the Center on March 4th and 5th.  My job is to answer questions, engage people in conversation, and introduce them to each other.  (Actually, that’s what I enjoy doing throughout the conference – you can flag me down whenever you like, and not just when I’m on duty at the NTENer Center.)

Not only would I like to thank the NTEN team for tapping me to by an official greeter, I’d also like to thank Tech Networks of Boston for sending me to #15NTC as its representative.

My first nonprofit technology conference was the precursor to NTC, the Circuit Rider Roundup in Denver (2001).  It struck me then that it was really important to assist all attendees in feeling welcomed and included.   I like introducing people to each other, and have been doing my best ever since.

 

 

Meet the #NPtech mavens of November 2014!

I (heart) NPtech

On Monday, November 3rd, Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners
will be co-hosting an evening of pro bono, sales-pitch-free tech consultations for local nonprofit professionals!

This event will take place at the Venture Cafe in Kendall Square.  Nearly seventy nonprofit  professionals will be able to have short one-to-one consultations with as many mavens as they like.   (I will be one of them, offering consultations about strategic tech planning, knowledge management, social media, web strategy, and some other topics.)

I want to give a big shout out to my fellow mavens, who are volunteering to serve the nonprofit attendees in a completely sales-pitch-free environment:

In addition to the excitement of an event that enables me to work with a slew of nonprofits that are making the world a better place, I love the idea of showing the world that our local community of nonprofit technology professionals is a surprisingly collaborative one.  Three nonprofit technology assistance companies are coming together to host and underwrite the evening, and the 21 mavens will be working side by side in one room.  We’ll be encouraging all of our guests from the nonprofit sector to solicit second, third, and fourth opinions.  The goal isn’t to block them from exposure to other vendors, but to make sure they have the information they need and an opportunity to identify resources that are a good fit for their needs.

Pro bono help for Boston area nonprofit professionals: Three opportunities

pro bono

I am often asked if I can offer pro bono assistance to nonprofit organizations that need help aligning their technology strategies with their overall organizational strategies.

The good news is that there are three different events in the near future where I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations:

  1. At the Annkissam table, October 29th. (Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Conference & Expo, Sheraton Framingham.)  I will also be one of the facilitators at a conference workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits, along with Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.  For more information, please follow this link.
  2. At the Venture Cafe on November 3rd. (Cambridge Innovation Center, Kendall Square.)  The co-hosts of this event are Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners.  I will be one of 21 nonprofit technology mavens!  This event is currently booked to capacity, but you can put yourself on the waiting list by following this link.
  3. At the Annkissam table, November 17th, (Providers Council Convention & Expo, Boston Marriot Copley Place.)  For more information, please follow this link.

When I provide strategic pro bono assistance to nonprofits, it’s on the following basis:

  • No charge to the nonprofit organization
  • No sales pitches to the nonprofit organization
  • No further obligation on the part of the nonprofit organization

If you are a Boston area nonprofit professional in need of strategic technology assistance, then I hope to see you at one or more of these events!

Revamping the Nonprofit Tech jobs list

nptechjobs list

 

I’ve moved the Nonproft Tech Jobs email distribution list over from Yahoo Groups to Google Groups.  The reason is simple:  Yahoo Groups doesn’t offer an RSS feed, and Google Groups does.  What a trivial point of pain!

However, I’m very excited that NTEN now has a nonprofit tech jobs feed, and Amy Sample Ward asked me to point it at the @NPTechJobs Twitter account, which I was delighted to do.  This gave me nudge I needed to move the list I started to a platform that made it not only possible but easy to use its RSS feed.

Peter Miller on what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centers

peterbrodiemiller

At the Tech Networks of Boston Roundtable on November 7th, Peter Miller will be the featured guest, and the topic will be what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centersThird Sector New England will be playing cohost, and the session will be held at the Boston NonProfit Center.

If you’re wondering why you, as a nonprofit professional, need to know at all about community technology centers (CTCs), here are a few points to consider:

1) If your organization offers advocacy or direct services to the community, then it’s important to know that CTCs are powerful resources for your constituents.  They provide access to online tools and information, skills training, and a focal point for community members that are interested in bridging the digital divide.

2) Some CTCs are based in community access television organizations, and a key places for community members to learn about the overlap between online communications and other forms of media.

3) Some CTCs are based in libraries, and it’s clear that professional librarians can be powerful allies for nonprofits and their constituents.  Librarians understand about free access to information and about knowledge for the public good; they can bring their skills to bear in bridging not only the digital divide but the knowledge divide.

4) Some CTCs are based in housing developed by community development corporations.  They can be crucial in assisting residents with online education, with finding and applying for jobs, and with online organizing for local needs.

5) CTCs can help your nonprofit with its internal professional development needs, if they are offering courses or certification in software or hardware skills that are crucial to your operations.

In general, the worldwide community technology movement is a power for social good, and you should at least be briefed on what it’s all about!

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

I am much obliged to all the good folks who have posted suggestions and feedback about my first attempt to create an image that would represent my thinking on the role of data in mission-based organizations.  Likewise, those who emailed me their thoughts deserve thanks!
I’ve created a revised version that incorporates some of the feedback.  Before you take a look at it, please bear in mind that:

  1. I am not a graphic designer.
  2. I am not attempting to create a graphic that illustrates everyone’s ideas about the role of data in a mission-based organization.  I am merely trying to illustrate my ideas.
Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations - Round II

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

Item #2 on the list notwithstanding, I am enjoying very much the opportunity to learn more about what others in the field think about (and visualize) when they ponder the role of data in our sector.  Once again, I invite you to post your reflections, suggestions, and questions in the comments section here on this blog.

Data Day 2013 in Boston

Data Day 2013:  I'll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations

 

I’m excited about Data Day at Northeastern University tomorrow, which is being co-hosted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project.

I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consults at this event; my time is being underwritten by Tech Networks of Boston. If you’re planning to attend, please come say hello to me! Just look for this sign.

 

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

“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Redux)

A slide from the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is another article, salvaged with help from the Wayback Machine, from my now-defunct first blog. I think that the points I made then are as valid in 2013 as they were in 2005.  What do you think?

Mon 14 Feb 2005 06:41 AM EST

Most days of the week, I tend to think of information technology as morally neutral.  It isn’t inherently good or evil; the applications of a technology are good or evil.

But I do find some forms of information technology irritating or counter-productive – especially as they are often used in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.

PowerPoint happens to be in that category.

I came to conclusion through my favorite research method.  (I.e., staring off into space for about half an hour.)  During this strenuous research, I asked myself two questions:

  1. When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?
  2. When have I enjoyed or learned a lot from someone else’s PowerPoint presentation?

Although I try to avoid giving PowerPoint presentations these days, I had no trouble answering Question #1 on the basis of previous experience.  I almost always liked it.  It’s great to have my talking points, my graphic displays, and my annotations packaged in one document.  Assuming that there’s no equipment failure on the part of the projector, the screen, the computer, or the storage medium that holds the PowerPoint document – it’s very convenient – although it’s not very safe to assume that none of these factors will fail.

In short, PowerPoint is designed to make presenters reasonably happy.  (Except in cases of equipment failure.)

The answer to Question #2 is a little more difficult.  I can be an exacting judge of how information is presented, and of whether the presenter is sensitive to the convenience and learning styles of the audience.

Perhaps the presenter put too many points on each slide, or too few.  Perhaps I was bored, looking at round after round of bulleted text, when graphic displays would have told the story more effectively.  Perhaps I wondered why the presenter expected me to copy the main points down in my notebook, when he/she knew all along what they were going to be.  Perhaps the repeated words, “next slide, please,” spoken by the presenter to his/her assistant seemed to take on more weight through sheer repetition than the content under consideration.  Perhaps there were too many slides for the time allotted, or they were not arranged in a sequence that made it easy to re-visit specific points during the question and answer period.

In short, PowerPoint as a medium of presentation does not tend to win friends and influence people.  (Of course, the best designed PowerPoint presentations succeed spectacularly, but the likelihood of creating or viewing one is fairly low.)

However, all is not lost.  If you have struggled to attain some high-level PowerPoint skills, and your role in a nonprofit/philanthropic organization calls for you to make frequent presentations, I can offer you advice in the form of the following three-point plan:

  1. Knock yourself out.  Create the PowerPoint presentation of your dreams.  Include all the bells and whistles.  Be sure to write up full annotations for each slide.
  2. Print out this incredible PowerPoint presentation in “handout” format, and give a paper copy to each person at the beginning of your talk.  As a bonus, you can also tell your audience where they can view or download it on the web.
  3. Cull out all but five or six slides for each hour of your planned presentation.  These should only include graphics that must be seen to be believed, and text that is more effective when read silently than when spoken.  This severely pared-down version will be the PowerPoint document that you will actually use during your presentation.

I realize that this will probably not be welcome advice, but the interests of your organization will undoubtedly dictate that you deploy a PowerPoint strategy that will, at the very least, not alienate the audiences at your presentations.

If you have any lingering hopes that PowerPoint is the best tool for engaging stakeholders in your mission, my final advice to you to review the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 




A note on the title of this article:

I wish I had invented this aphorism, but I didn’t.

In 1887, John Dalberg-Acton (1st Baron Acton) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote “Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

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

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 meet at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in April!

myNTC page 2013

I’m getting very excited about the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis, MN in April!

For me, #13NTC will be all about dialogue.  I do attend sessions, but it’s not the most important item on my agenda.  If you want to have a conversation at the conference, then I want to have a conversation with you.

In some cases, folks at the conference would like to meet for pro bono consultation with me.  I’m delighted to be asked – as far as I’m concerned, any moment that I’m not otherwise engaged at the Nonprofit Technology Conference is a moment when I’m available to provide free help to nonprofit and philanthropic professionals.

Fortunately, NTEN has an online tool for scheduling meetings at the conference.  Please use it to set up a time with me!

Here’s how:

  1. If you have not already registered for the conference, you can do so right now.
  2. Once you’ve registered, go to my conference profile.
  3. Click on the “Request Meeting” icon.  (If you’re not sure which it is, see the orange arrow in the image above; it points to the icon.)
  4. Enter the date and location for the proposed meeting.
  5. Add a message that provides a little context. (E.g., who you are and whether there’s a specific topic you’d like to discuss.  If there isn’t a specific topic, that’s ok with me.)
  6. Click on the “Create” button.

It’s that easy!

See you in Minneapolis!

#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

See you at the Boston 501 Tech Club!

501 Tech Club

If you’re a nonprofit professional in Massachusetts with a strong interest in information and communication technologies, then please come to the next Boston 501 Tech Club event; it will be on January 30 at Space With A Soul.  The topic will be one that is very close to my hearttechnology planning.  It’s a free event, but you need to register for it.

I’m very proud of my history with the Boston 501 Tech Club (and also with the Rhode Island 501 Tech Club).  First time attenders are often pleasantly surprised by how warmly they are welcomed, and by how many solid professional relationships begin there.

If you’re a nonprofit professional in an area that doesn’t have a local 501 Tech Club, the good folks of NTEN will be happy to coach you about how to start one.

My current daydream: The marriage of outcomes management apps with data visualization apps

The marriage of outcomes management with data visualization

Given my current preoccupation with both outcomes management and data visualization for mission-based organizations, perhaps it’s not a surprise that I’m daydreaming about integrating applications that were designed for these two tasks.

This daydream was inspired by a recent conversation with Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares (a HandsOn Network affiliate).  She is keenly interested in both outcomes and data visualization, and she leads a nonprofit of modest size that collaborates not only with many local partners but also with a national network of sister organizations that facilitate short-term volunteering.  In other words, Boston Cares provides a gateway to volunteerism for individuals, corporations, and community-based nonprofits, and then shares best practices with its counterparts across the United States.

What better poster girl could there be than Patrice, for my Cause, which is making it not only possible but easy for her to take her outcomes analyses and turn them in visuals that tell the story of the social impact of Boston Cares?

Moreover, what good is a cause and a poster child, without a poster?  Here’s mine:

Patrice Keegan of Boston Cares
Special note to software developers in the nonprofit sector:  please take a look at that bright, shining face, and give your efforts to the cause.

What I love and hate about serving as a consultant

love hate

Talk about first world problems!  I love my clients as people. I love the projects. I love the missions.  I love working on strategyI love nonprofit technology.

In so many ways, my professional life is a dream.  But it can also be very sad, because I’m always worried about becoming the consultant’s version of the overly attached girlfriend.  I end up loving my clients so much that I don’t want to wrap up the project.

The truth is that I love being part of a team.  I love working with the same people over time, having an office that is somewhere other than my home, and having an organizational affiliation.  If someone hired me to be a full-time member of team, doing the work that I currently do, I’d be in heaven.  But it currently seems that being an independent consultant is my best option for doing what I love.

I’m not wrapping up any projects at the moment, but of course I’m wrapping up the year.  I want to pause and tell my past and current clients how much I love them. It really is a privilege to serve them.  In my mind, they’ll always be my clients, now matter how brief the project is or how long ago it was finished.  I also want to tell them that my separation anxiety is my problem, not theirs!

But most of all, I want to wish them a beautiful new 2013 – a year of peace, joy, prosperity, health, justice, and fulfillment of all their goals.

Should a nonprofit use a free email service? Gavin Murphy of Annkissam knows.

"askDeborah" podcast, NTEN:Change journal, December 2012


NTEN: Change
is a quarterly journal for nonprofit executives, and I’m pleased to say that the “askDeborah” podcast is one of its regular features.  The journal is available by subscription only but is free to all.

The December edition of NTEN: Change is out, and the podcast for this issue features a conversation about email for nonprofits.  The guest expert is Gavin Murphy of Annkissam; he and I ponder a question posed by a nonprofit professional who is wondering whether to go with a free email service (such as Gmail or Hotmail), or to allocate money to pay for what the organization needs.

It’s not a simple yes or no answer, although an organization with serious needs for maintaining security and privacy in email communication is probably better off looking for something more than a free service can offer.

Gavin explains this is a very reassuring, accessible way.  The whole point of the “askDeborah” podcast series  – as well as the point of the NTEN: Change journal – is to address these concerns for busy people whose expertise lies in other areas of nonprofit management.

Heartfelt thanks are due all around:  to Gavin, for offering his expertise; to NTEN, for publishing the segment in the quarterly journal; and to Community TechKnowledge, for underwriting the podcast series as part of its educational initiative.

My idea of fun

annkissam

caring it forward

 

I had a lovely time on Wednesday at the Providers Council conference and expo.  All told, I put in about six hours at the Annkissam table, along with Kevin Palmer and Matteo Ramos-MucciAs previously mentioned, Annkissam underwrote my time at the conference, so that I could provide pro bono strategic tech consultations on site and on demand.

It was fun.

I enjoyed the challenge of improvising the best possible assistance for each human service provider who sat down for a brief consultation.  I’m not sure I could do thirty-minute consultations all day and every day, but it was very satisfying day.

Other aspects of the conference that I enjoyed were the company of members of the Annkissam team, meeting the other exhibitors, chatting with acquaintances as they passed by our table, and striking up conversations with total strangers as they stopped to ask about what we were featuring: Annkissam’s services, NPO Connect, and on-the-spot pro bono assistance.

One phenomenon that interested me greatly was the response of total strangers to the idea that Annkissam was interested in offering strategic technology assistance that was free from cost, obligation, or sales pitches.  The responses appeared to include suspicion, incredulity, confusion, apathy, relief, and joy.  I can understand that it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know me or the folks from Annkissam to comprehend that they might get anything other than a sales pitch and a piece of candy when visiting the table.  Naturally, the passers-by who already knew us had no trouble with the concept.

It’s going to take a lot of repetition before the idea of pro bono strategic technology consultations at conferences for nonprofit professionals becomes a commonplace, but as long as it’s fun, I’m more than willing to keep at it.

Outcomes measurement for nonprofits: Who does the analysis?

I invite you to participate in this survey, bearing in mind that it is for recreational purposes, and has no scientific value:

There are many reasons that this survey is of dubious value, for example:

  • No pilot testing has been done to ensure that the choices offered are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

The list could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.  Although most of my training is in qualitative social research, I have taken undergraduate and graduate level courses on quantitative research, and the points I made about what’s wrong with my survey are what I could pull out of memory without consulting a standard text on statistics.

In other words, when it comes to quantitative analysis, I know just enough to be dangerous.

Meanwhile, I worry about nonprofit organizations that are under pressure to collect, analyze, and report data on the outcomes of their programs.  There are a lot of fantastic executive directors, program managers, and database administrators out there – but it’s very rare for a nonprofit professional who falls into any of those three categories to also have solid skills in quantitative analysis and social research methods.  Nevertheless, I know of plenty of nonprofit organizations where programmatic outcomes measurement is done by an executive director, program manager, or database administrator whose skill set is very different from what the task demands.  In many cases, even if they come up with a report, the nonprofit staff members may not even be aware that what have done is presented a lot of data, without actually showing that there is any causal relationship between the organization’s activities and the social good that they are in business to deliver.

Let’s not be too hasty in deprecating the efforts of these nonprofit professionals.  They are under a lot of pressure, especially from grantmaking foundations, to report on programmatic outcomes.  In many cases, they do the best they can to respond, even if they have neither the internal capacity to meet the task nor the money to hire a professional evaluator.

By the way, I was delighted to attend gathering this fall, in which I heard a highly-regarded philanthropic professional ask a room full of foundation officers, “are you requiring $50,000 worth of outcomes measurement for a $10,000 grant?” It’s not the only question we need to ask, but it’s an extremely cogent one!

I’d love to see nonprofit professionals, philanthropists, and experts in quantitative analysis work together to address this challenge.

We should also be learning lessons from the online tools that have already been developed to match skilled individuals with nonprofit professionals who need help and advice from experts.  Examples of such tools include the “Research Matchmaker,” and NPO Connect.

We can do better.  It’s going to take time, effort, money, creativity, and collaboration – but we can do better.

Nonprofits, vendors, and the RFP process

I’m not really enthusiastic about the “Request For Proposals” (RFP) model of identifying the right vendor for the job.  However, there are times when a much-loved nonprofit client really needs to go through the process, and in that case, I want to be there for the staff – as the designated worrier, the framer of requirements, the fierce defender of the organization’s interests.

That’s my role right now, with a highly esteemed client that needs a service provider.  Of the firms that I contacted in order to solicit proposals, three are led (or even owned outright) by valued friends of mine.  It’s a great exercise in professional ethics and appropriate boundaries!

Moreover, it can be painful to go to a friend and ask him/her to invest a significant amount of time – on spec – in jumping through hoops and preparing a document.  A difficult twist is that I’ve never been hired as a consultant through an RFP process.  In general, my clients simply decide that they need me.

I’m pleased to say that in the current RFP process, my client received some very strong proposals; none of my friends who submitted proposals did a perfunctory or substandard job.  However, we did get our share of the perfunctory and the substandard.

Here are a few tips for vendors, from someone who writes RFPs, solicits responses, and evaluates proposals on behalf of nonprofit clients:

  • Every item mentioned in the RFP is there for a reason.  Please respond to each, if only to say that you can’t offer what is requested in the form that the client organization wants it.
  • Someone like me will have to comb through every piece of information requested (e.g., services required, client concerns, references) and create an item-by-item, side-by-side comparison of each proposal.  Please make it easy for me or my counterpart, by including a spreadsheet that lists every item with your direct response to it, in the order each item is mentioned in the RFP.
  • If you simply must describe what your are offering with terms and categories that are utterly different from the ones used in the RFP, please provide annotations or diagrams that help us map your concepts to what we need.
  • Sometimes, “no” and “we need more information” are reasonable responses to an item listed in an RFP.  At the moment, I’m looking at a spreadsheet comparing the responses in seven proposals, and it’s littered with notes such as “not explicitly addressed,” “listed in proposal, but no details provided,” and “to be determined.” Please be clear and candid.

And here are a couple of questions for vendors who submit proposals:

  • Do you really want the person who is best acquainted with your proposal to be annoyed with you, when he/she meets with the decision-makers at the client organizations to brief them on the comparative merits of the candidates?
  • Would you rather have the chief decision-maker to call you up to say, “we’re seriously considering your proposal – when can we meet to discuss it?” or “we’ve read your proposal, but can’t figure out whether you can address our needs”?

I hope that vendors will think seriously about these questions, and base their future behavior on the answers.

The state of nonprofit data: Uh-oh!

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) has released a report prepared by Idealware on the current state of nonprofit data.  Highly recommended!

Some of the news it contains is scary.  In our sector, we currently aren’t very successful at collecting and analyzing the most crucial data.  For example, only 50% of the respondents reported that their nonprofit organizations are tracking data about the outcomes of clients/constituents.

According to the survey respondents, there are daunting barriers to tracking and using data:

  • issues related to collecting and working with data (27 percent of responses).
  • lack of expertise (24 percent of responses)
  • issues of time and prioritization (22 percent of responses).
  • challenges with technology (23 percent).

Page 13 of the report features a chart that I find especially worrisome.  It displays of types of data that nonprofit organizations should or could be using, with large chunks falling into three chilling categories:

  • we don’t know how to track this
  • we don’t have the technology to effectively track this
  • we don’t have the time/money to effectively track this

In the case of data about outcomes, 17% lack the knowledge, 20% lack the technology, and 22% lack the time or money (or both) to track it.

Are you scared yet?  I confess that I am.  Perhaps half of all nonprofits surveyed don’t know – and don’t have the resources to find out – whether there is any causal relationship between what their activities and the social good that they are in business to achieve.

And that’s just programmatic outcomes.  The news is also not very encouraging when it comes to capturing data about organizational budgets, constituent participation in programs, and external trends in the issue areas being addressed by nonprofit organizations.

So much for the bad news.  The good news is that now we know.

It takes some courage to acknowledge that the baseline is so low.  I applaud Idealware and NTEN for creating and publishing this report.  Now that we know, we can address the problem and take effective action.

Reconstructing my list of links

On my old Blogware site (1), I maintained an extensive list of online resources that would be of general interest to nonprofit professionals, and of especial interest to those who sought to use information and communication technology to support their missions.

I’ve devoted part of today to reconstructing that list of links, so that I can post it to this WordPress web site.  None of the available widgets seem to be set up to format my list the way I want it (2), so I have given up on the idea of displaying the list in the navigation column on the side, and created a special page on this site that lists “Recommended Readings and Resources.”

This new version of my link list is still quite rudimentary; I plan to add more items and arrange the list in a format that is easy to use.  Your suggestions of readings and resources that ought to be included will be very welcome.

1)  Which the host discontinued without notifying me in advance.  Not that I am bitter.

2)  Not that I am bitter.

Editor’s note:  Is there an echo in here?

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.

Nonprofit Technology 101: A case study

This fall, I made presentation about nonprofit technology at a local university.  The 200 students in the course were master’s degree candidates in the school of computer and information science.  Since very few of them were familiar with the operations of small nonprofit organizations, I prepared this hypothetical scenario.

The situation:

Chris is the systems manager (SM) for Helping Out, a nonprofit organization with ten employees and a budget of $500,000 a year. Helping Out’s mission is to serve anyone in need of aid following a major natural disaster that occurred last year in a metropolitan area; they seek to offer counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development. Chris works half time for Helping Out for a salary of $25,000 a year, and has an annual information systems budget of $15,000. The latter amount covers hardware, software, internet access, and consulting services.

Helping Out currently has three PCs and two Macs, all of which are over three years old. Two of the PCs and one of the Macs are hooked up to a local area network and have internet access, which Chris manages. (The other PC and Mac are over five years old and are not compatible with the LAN’s operating system.)

They currently track their interactions with stakeholders (such as clients, local community groups, concerned citizens, and elected officials) with index cards. Donors are tracked on an Access database that Chris put together. Finances are tracked on Quickbooks.

In addition to maintaining the desktop systems, the local area network, the Access database, and Quickbooks, Chris is responsible for updating the organization’s web site, its Twitter account, and its Facebook page, on the grounds that “Chris knows about computers.” Likewise, Chris is responsible for creating financial reports for the board and auditors with data received from the chief financial officer (CFO), because “Chris knows about Excel.”

The chief executive officer (CEO) recently read a blog article about the importance of constituent relationship management (CRM), and is particularly excited to learn that Salesforce.Com (a software as a service application) is being used widely by nonprofit organizations. The article explains that the Salesforce Foundation will grant free licenses to nonprofits on request and also urges the desirability of integrating constituent tracking with financial records.

Meanwhile, Community Philanthropy, a local grantmaking organization that donates about $200,000 a year to Helping Out, has urged the CEO and CDO (the chief development officer, who is a fundraiser) to start reporting back on their programmatic outcomes. Community Philanthropy is interested in knowing the demographic profiles of the populations that Helping Out is serving, and in knowing how many dollars and how many person-hours it takes to meet the organization’s goals in delivering counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development services.

The CEO calls a meeting with the SM, the CFO, and the CDO, and asks Chris implement Salesforce as a CRM that will integrate with Quickbooks. The goal is to support better case management, outcomes reporting, financial management, and fundraising.

Chris agrees that the right platforms – correctly implemented, well integrated with each other, and properly maintained – will significantly improve operations and support the organization’s goals. However, Chris also has some serious concerns:

  • Chris is a systems administrator, not a programmer, and would need a significant course of training to be able to implement this project adequately.
  • This project will extremely time-consuming, and Chris will either need to drop some responsibilities or be paid for more hours.
  • The alternative would be to retain an outside consultant to do the implementation, and such consultants are not only scarce but expensive.
  • Chris knows, from speaking with other nonprofit technology professionals, that some similar organizations that attempted this implementation consider it an expensive failure. Often the reasons given for considering the project a failure are as superficial as finding that employees intensely disliked the user interface.

The question:

How should Chris respond – in this meeting, and thereafter – to this challenge?

What are you own thoughts about this case study?  How, indeed, should the organization’s systems manager respond?

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