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  • Writer's picturePeter Gross

Nonprofit Technology: Why Organizations Don't Realize the Benefits (Hint: It's a People Problem)

They say you cannot talk your way out of a problem that you acted yourself into.

Similarly, you cannot technology your way out of organizational challenges that you managed yourself into.

Too many nonprofit executives, board members, managers and staff look to software and other technology solutions as the answer to their organization’s challenges.

Nonprofit leaders must find ways to examine and transform their approach to technology - and a good place to start is to examine how much (or little) investment they put in the people who manage that technology.

Why Nonprofit Technology Often Fails

In my 20 years of working with nonprofits on technology, the most common reason people reach out to me is embodied in the following:

  • The Raiser’s Edge is not working. We need Salesforce.

  • No one is able to use Salesforce. We need to go back to Raiser’s Edge.

  • My major gift officers won’t use X. We need to switch to Y so they will start using it.

  • This system is a mess. We need to start over with another system.

All of these comments point to a fundamental and widespread fallacy: that technology by itself is somehow going to solve the organization’s problems and that is where our investment should be largely focused. There are three fundamental challenges with this:

Challenge #1: Throwing money at technology is a perfect way to spend more money

Nonprofits struggle with technology not (usually) because the technology is wrong. More often, technology fails because of a lack of clear organizational strategy, direction and management from leadership. Organizations throw money at technology companies to fill those gaps - which inevitably fails. This results in poorly defined requirements and priorities for technology investment, inefficient processes and poor-quality data.

It also frequently results in a failure to attract, hire, invest in and support the kinds of nonprofit information professionals that can maximize that investment: Chief Information Officers, IT Directors, database administrators, knowledge managers, and others. As a result, nonprofits spend money on software licenses, vendor services and consulting that may (or may not) be successful in the short term but does not result in a stronger organization with the internal resources necessary to build on that investment

Challenge #2: Lack of leadership commitment and organizational trust dooms the technologist

Two things challenge nonprofits to build out a team that can support their critical business systems.

Divorcing leadership and strategy from technology

Even when nonprofits hire talented and experienced professionals, leadership will often take a hands-off approach by rationalizing “I am not a techie person.” Often, IT or IS is not represented on the leadership team and decisions that impact or are dependent on technology are made with no involvement from technologists. The next time leadership engages with that resource is when something goes wrong and want it fixed quickly. Technology success or failure is almost exclusively driven by the engagement of leadership and the tone of investment and collaboration set at the top.

Discounting internal advice

I can’t tell you the number of times I have met with technologists who clearly articulate the organizational challenges that have resulted in poorly organized and adopted systems. But, leadership and staff won’t listen to the internal experts. Sometimes they will listen to me as an external expert. Some of this is the natural tendency to trust those outside of the organization who are perceived to have no agenda. The morale of the technologist is crushed, however, both because of the lack of trust from the organization and also because they have not been equipped with the engagement and change management skills which they need to affect real change.

Challenge #3: Nonprofit technology job descriptions focus too narrowly on technical aptitude

You wouldn't go to a doctor who was only really good at operating an MRI machine or only focus on prescribing well-advertised drugs. We expect doctors to understand the science and technology but what we value is their ability to engage with patients, sift through mounds of data and offer a solution that is best for each individual.

Similarly, the technologists are often only evaluated based on technical aptitude. Technical aptitude is important but the most important role of any of the information professionals discussed above, is the ability to work with each business unit, understand their needs and guide them through a process that can invest those needs in effective (and sometimes transformative) processes, data and technology solutions.

99% of nonprofits should be out of the business of hiring staff who manage servers, network infrastructure, and computer maintenance. And 99.9% have no business hiring custom programmers. All of these skills are valuable, but they have largely become commoditized with the near universal availability of cloud solutions and outsourced IT management services.

Rather than relying on internal resources for those tasks, organizations should leverage some of the many outsourced providers and consultants that can manage all of that – and have the focus and the resources to attract, retain, train and grow employees with those skillsets.

A Vision for the Modern Nonprofit Technology Professional

The new Nonprofit Technologist needs a whole new set of skills – that involve managing relationships with leadership, business units, consultants and vendors. Technologists must now sit in that space between the work of the organization and the capabilities of software, hardware, and vendors.

The Nonprofit Technologist (or a team of them) should have the following skills and/or the organization should be prepared to invest in training, coaching and mentorship to build their capacity and, as a result, the capacity of the organization. These include:

Mindset and Perspective

These are desirable in ANY hire but particularly in a service-oriented position.

  • Teachable – willing and able to learn and grow

  • Humble – knows what they don’t know and can admit it.

  • Emotionally intelligent – can read people and adjust approach.

  • Service-oriented – approaches work with the needs of others at the forefront

  • Boundary setting – balances the service mindset with the need to prioritize and sequence and seek guidance on this from leadership and others

Engagement and Change Management Skills

These skills are key to success in today’s cloud-based and collaborative workplace.

  • Active listening – hear and validate the perspectives of stakeholders

  • Meeting management – create agendas, manage, facilitate and follow up

  • Facilitation – engage stakeholders, moving them toward consensus and decisions

  • Communication – concisely deliver verbal and written messages to both tech-savvy and non tech-savvy stakeholders

  • Project Management – organize a project team, create and maintain a project plan, report status regularly, identify and resolve roadblocks

Technological Aptitude

Comfortable with technology in general as well as:

  • Skilled in the core business systems of the organization

  • Skilled in leveraging project, collaboration, document management and communication toolsets

  • Able to understand and use new systems

  • Proficient in technical skills such as web development, programming, and data manipulation, transfer and integration, if necessary or

  • Understands the technical skills well enough to work with, manage and hold staff and vendors accountable

Nonprofit Domain Expertise

Experience with the specific business strategies, processes, and activities of the organization in all relevant areas:

  • Fundraising

  • Membership

  • Volunteer

  • Program delivery

  • Case management

  • Service provision

  • Finance

No one is going to have all of these capabilities. And not every organization can hire a full-time resource. But organizations can start to orient their hiring or contracting of technologists with the kind of framework outlined above. Through a combination of refined recruiting and hiring strategies, investments in training, mentoring and coaching and a renewed willingness of leadership and management to engage technology differently, the organizational transformation can start today.

Start Investing in the People who Manage Your Technology

Tomorrow’s thriving nonprofit organization will have made the shift from viewing technology for its own sake – to viewing it as a fully integrated tool that advances the strategies and programs and activities critical to the never more important mission of organizations.

If there is a blessing in the COVID19 pandemic, it is that no one has been immune from the need to use technology personally to connect with their colleagues, partners, vendors, board members and constituents.

Since we can’t go to the gym, the movies, coffee shops (that hurts) and restaurants, what if we took some time to rethink our approach to this incredibly important component of our business?

Take the Next Step in Your Technology-Supported Transformation

These times may be uncertain but the critical importance of both nonprofits and technology is not.

Take a few minutes to think about what technology looks like in your organization. Then reach out to me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation. We can talk through one of your challenges and brainstorm some approaches to solving it.

After all, there is no reason you shouldn’t practice your new Zoom™ skills.

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