Higher, faster, stronger: A primer on how to effectively integrate technology at your nonprofit organization

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Technology is defined as tools to solve problems, but when we talk about technology, we often think about the latest and greatest gadgets and apps that were supposed to, but don’t always, make our lives easier.

We thought it would be interesting to take a hard look at new technology that can help people working in the nonprofit sector, but as we began to talk with tech-savvy experts in and around the sector, we realized we might have to take a few steps back, starting the discussion with the challenges and opportunities that come with today’s technology.

The challenges

Back in the late 1950s, agricultural researchers looked at profiles of farmers in terms of their acceptance of new farming practices, coining terms used widely today to describe how people get on board with technology generally. Those eager to embrace the newest technology are innovators or early adopters, while those preferring to stick to the tried and true are late adopters or even laggards.

While there isn’t a lot of Canadian-specific data about nonprofits and technology, Joyce Hsu, communications manager of TechSoup Canada (a nonprofit whose mission is to help other nonprofits use technology effectively) observes there are few early adopters of technology among nonprofits and that most people working in the sector are mid- to late-adopters.

“Surveys of nonprofits show that 97% say they want to do data well, for instance, but when it comes to whether they are dedicating staff and resources to this, the majority are not. They want to move forward but they don’t have the capacity for continued development when it comes to technology.”

Jack E. Kowalski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement examines why adopting technology is particularly daunting for nonprofits. While for-profit companies begin with the concept of whether technology “does the job”, he says that, for nonprofits, that question comes behind financial considerations and whether it is easy to use and learn.

The financial question reflects the priorities of funders, Hsu says, many of whom want data – impact reports, real time data and metrics — but who often balk at the idea of putting funds specifically into administration and infrastructure.

When it comes to being user-friendly, Kowalski writes, “Unless you have additional resources to train people and bring them up to speed on updates, chances are it won’t be used the way it was intended, if at all.” Jason Shim, director of digital strategy at Pathways to Education agrees, adding, “The idea that adopting new technology will take me away from work is a valid concern which must be addressed.”

There is also the reality that technology is ever-changing; it isn’t simply a one-time learning curve. Norman Valdez, senior manager of digital media & communications, CERIC, says, “Technology is moving very quickly and this can be threatening for people to get a handle on. They can feel out of control.” Shim adds, “Every tech migration is accompanied by fear and doubt.” Even Valdez, who describes himself as being “in love with tech”, says, “I struggle to keep up with technology. There are only so many hours in a day.”

Finally, Hsu notes, a sometimes-forgotten challenge to the adoption of technology among nonprofits is that some organizations based in remote locations may not have access to stable high-speed Internet on which so much of today’s technology depends.

Making the case

Some of these valid challenges, however, are precisely the reason why nonprofits should welcome technology. Hsu emphasizes that adopting the right technology can save any organization “mountains of stress.” And Valdez goes even further, saying, “It’s actually in the best interest of small organizations with few staff and resources to think about how technology can fill the gaps. The premise of technology working for you is that it can facilitate processes that will save time. It can be expensive in terms of time and money, but that investment can pay off if it saves time later and helps facilitate tasks better.”

One recent example of this kind of investment in technology occurred with The Community Fund for Canada’s 150th anniversary which dispersed $200M in grants to 1700 community projects across the country. With thousands of applicants and hundreds of reviewers through 191 community foundations, the funding process was an enormous logistical challenge that would have taken a lot of time if done manually and individually. Instead, for the first time, the community foundations used a centralized grant management system (SurveyMonkey’s Apply tool) to collect, review and track applications, projects and their impact. Pej Javaheri, head of SurveyMonkey's Ottawa office, says, “Having a system that can centralize all of these tasks allowed the Community Fund to automate their workflow and centralize their capabilities so that they didn’t need to spend time on the process but instead could focus on their mission.” He adds, “Technology is more than simply tools. It enables organizations to have bigger impact in their communities, to maximize their reach, and to build brand and awareness around their cause.”

Sometimes technology can help organizations in vital ways: during the wildfires in Fort McMurray, one in ten nonprofits in the area lost data including client and historical files, information that could have been preserved through using cloud-based technology or off-site data storage. Valdez also warns that if organizations fail to keep up with technology, “You will miss out on potential, won’t support your mission and will fall farther and farther behind organizations that are trying to keep up. Your resistance or inability can even have an impact on keeping your organization afloat and could be a reason for an organization’s downfall.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom – integrating good technological processes can allow an organization to thrive, allowing you to better communicate with donors according to their preferences, increasing your organization’s scale of activity beyond what is possible for people to manage manually, or helping your organization to better manage its internal security.

How to get there

1. Start where you are. Paul Nazareth, vice president, community engagement at CanadaHelps offers this advice: “Stop being embarrassed or thinking only big charities are doing this, and instead figure out how to start where you are with what you can handle.” Nazareth suggests starting by looking up your own organization on your phone to see what information is easily accessible on a mobile device. He also encourages people to play with technology, such as by borrowing tablets from a local library.

2. Begin with your “pain points”. Valdez says, “Figure out what isn’t working for your organization, what is difficult or cumbersome — and look for a technological solution that will make things easier.” He adds, “It doesn’t have to be life-transforming, but if it solves an annoying problem for you, it’s worth it.” Hsu recommends talking with other staff members in an organization to also understand their pain points. Shim adds, “Start with the problem rather than the solution, or you may end up with a technological solution trying to find a problem, which is a problem in itself.”

3. Think Olympics, Shim recommends. “In terms of seeking out new technology, we always need to come back to our mission. I like to apply an Olympics (faster, higher, stronger) litmus test to new technology: will this help us go faster, build more revenue, build stronger relationships? Any new tech needs to fulfill one if not all three of those parameters.”

4. Choose a champion. For each technology change, choose a tech champion to manage the project, ensuring they have both dedicated time and necessary resources available to them.

5. Hire well. Whether this refers to a consultant, a “digital native” intern or simply someone who is eager to learn about technology, hire people who are able to integrate technology into your organization. At the same time, Hsu cautions it is important to not to simply find someone who can add all the bells and whistles, but rather people who recognize the realities of your organization and its people, so that new technologies can be adopted comfortably by all within the parameters of the organization.

6. Learn how to learn. Shim says, “Many skills in the 21st century have more to do with learning how to learn, and to relearn as technology changes.” He adds, “Today, just as you need to have finance, HR and operational awareness, you also need to have digital awareness. But remember that everything is a Google search away.”

7. Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb questions.” Shim advises, “Even as seasoned professionals, it’s okay to ask for help, to ask for recommendations for technological solutions to your problems, to make use of your networks, whether on LinkedIn or forums like the Nonprofit Technology Network. This can save significant time.” He adds, “Build your tech tribe – people who are knowledgeable about certain niches, people working in organizations of a similar size to your own who are doing technology well.”

8. Stay up to date effectively and efficiently. For Valdez this means following specific people or hashtags on Twitter, as well as participating on LinkedIn and Skype forums, Quora and Reddit boards. “By doing so,” Valdez says, “new content comes to me, rather than me having to actively search for it online.” It’s also helpful to look for resources more broadly: Shim scans the startup sector for tools that can be used in the nonprofit world, while Nazareth uses sales podcasts to enhance fundraising.

9. Get mobile. With more than three-quarters of Canadians using smartphones, Nazareth urges nonprofits to consider that many users today and the majority of future users will access information, communicate and donate through a mobile device.

10. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Shim says, “If your system is working well, you have to have a good reason to adopt new technology beyond ‘hey, let’s change it up.’”

Good tech resources

There are many resources available to help nonprofit professionals stay up to date with technology. Shim suggests, “The expectation isn’t that someone will use them all, but rather it’s like reading journals to stay abreast of changes in your field.” Among recommended resources are the following:

TechSoup Canada. With more than 32,000 active members across Canada, TechSoup Canada helps other nonprofits use technology effectively. They offer education and learning resources, particularly around Canadian-specific issues that are hard to find elsewhere online.

Nonprofit Tech Network. NTEN is an international organization that helps nonprofit organizations use technology skillfully and confidently to meet community needs and fulfill their missions. NTEN is a membership organization of nonprofit technology professionals, and Shim, who sits on the NTEN board says that members come from a wide variety of jobs within the nonprofit sector

CBC Spark is a weekly radio show that addresses innovations in technology and related issues.

CanadaHelps. Canada’s online fundraising/donating platform is offering several courses, online and in-person:

What’s new and useful

Technology continues to change, but the following are programs and current trends our tech experts have identified as new and useful.

Cloud technology. Nonprofits are starting to recognize the importance of where their data lives, says Hsu. A recent article found that 64% of CFOs said that adopting cloud technology would cut operational costs by up to 20%, but while most nonprofits are using the cloud for common tasks like email, only about 15% use cloud-based accounting and fundraising. Some nonprofits are tied to certain provincial grants that require their data to be stored within Canada. Large cloud providers such as Microsoft and Google are starting to offer dedicated Canadian data centres, so for nonprofits concerned with data residency, the cloud is becoming a viable option.

Password Management software. Few nonprofits recognize the security risk around protecting data within an organization, says Hsu, who observes that Keepass is an open-source, offline option that allows safe password management.

Google For Nonprofits is a program offering qualified organizations access to free versions of paid Google products and special features designed for nonprofits. It includes up to $10,000 of AdWords advertising a month to promote your website on Google.ca through keyword targeting. Nonprofits can register for this program through TechSoup Canada.

Office365 for nonprofits is a cloud-based application that provides you and your staff with web-based access to Microsoft Office applications, including email, instant messaging, calendar, video conferencing, and access to your documents from anywhere. Nonprofits can register for this program through Microsoft Philanthropies.

Slack, which functions as a kind of one-stop intranet within larger organizations, offers a discount to Canadian nonprofits.

Finally, there is a place for nonprofits to go low-tech or no-tech. Technology is not a substitute for personal contact, says Valdez whose organization has sometimes found that a phone call can be more persuasive or meaningful than the easier but less personal mail merge. There is also a growing recognition, even among Silicon Valley tech innovators, that disconnecting from technology from time to time is healthier for people. Hsu says, “When it comes to technology, it’s not about the shiny, newest thing, or how many tools you can try. It really is about finding whatever works best for you and your organization.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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