In computers we trust?

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It happens all the time. You're feeling good — your funders are onboard; the programs you've been struggling with are finally in place — it seems you've got it under control.

But then your colleague's nephew — you know the one, the computer geek everyone refers to as the "whiz kid"— leaves town for a couple of months. All of a sudden the core of your operations has lost its footing, usurping your sense of confidence along with it.

Who's watching the house?

Sound familiar? It should, considering it's a common refrain for many in the sector. Organizations need to be cautious about who maintains and designs their data infrastructure, says Peter Turk of Sumac, a company that designs software specifically for nonprofits. Hiring someone simply because they're good with computers but who lack expertise can be dangerous. "You'll get no documentation, no training, it won't be properly supported, there'll be no tools for data conversion, and it won't be very expandable cause they haven't been in field long enough," he explains. Nevermind that amateur systems are not typically tested adequately. "It can be pretty expensive in the long-run if you decide to do it yourself," he adds "Even if you do it for free, you can suffer from loss of productivity for a long time."

Jane Zhang, would probably agree. Program director of TechSoup Canada — helping organizations access technology by overcoming barriers — she says organizations often turn to interns and volunteers for help. But when it comes to the core of their basic operations, they need to think twice. "Do you really want your whole operations to be run by a volunteer? Do you want core decisions to be made by a volunteer? So why do we do that when it comes to technology?" she asks. "You really have to invest the time and money to find the right person to do that for you."

Online challenges

Of course reliance on informal, oft-times unreliable IT support is just one obstacle but there are many more. Just ask Joshua Bensimon of Positive Sum, a web consulting company serving nonprofits and start ups. Specializing in the use of open source web technology, the company helps organizations manage their websites internally with minimal need for ongoing support. In that way, says Bensimon, "organizations can move past the technical challenges and focus on the message they're trying to communicate."

That laudable goal is made more challenging when nonprofits choose technology without first conducting a comprehensive analysis of their needs or their budget. "Sometimes simpler solutions can address the real need once it's uncovered through a needs discovery process," offers Bensimon. And let's not forget the continuous stream of new, cost effective solutions that offer robust feature sets. "The challenge is keeping up with what's available and possible, choosing from the variety, and knowing the total cost implications of their choice," he says. An open source solution, for example, may be cheaper to setup than a 'software as a service' (SaaS) solution that require monthly payments. But open source solutions often require maintenance and support, already included in SaaS solutions.

Money talks

Which, of course, brings us to one of the most pervasive challenges for nonprofits: cost. It's a concern Zhang knows all too well. On a very basic level there's the lack of financial means to purchase a lot of the software at retail prices. Though organizations often receive donated software and hardware, gifts are not always a panacea. Sometimes you need to factor in the cost of gratis. Always being one step behind is one. The fact that older technology often requires high maintenance costs or creates problems five years later when their machine is rendered obsolete is another. "Just because it's free, does it mean it's good for you?" Zhang asks rhetorically.

TechSoup Canada's Product Donations Program addresses this issue head-on. With a solid understanding of their client's needs, the organization approaches corporations like Microsoft and Adobe and requests the latest, newest software, "not just what corporations want to get rid of," she says. For example, when Windows 7 and Office 2010 launched for retail, Zhang received the same product in the donations program on the same day.

Talking about costs, always be wary of hidden fees, says Turk. There's a misperception that Raiser's Edge cost $7,500, for example. But all that gets you is a single user system that can record names and addresses. When you factor in other features and things like installation training, "I challenge you to find anyone who hasn't paid $20,000."

Keep in mind vendors have nonprofit rates, so be sure to inquire, advises Bensimon. "And do upfront planning to avoid extra costs at the end of project or down the road." On the web end of things, the good news is open source has matured. "There are now solid Open Source platforms for many application categories that have large communities of people supporting them," he adds emphatically.

Stay informed

Robin Porter, president and founder of RESolutionsTECH, offers another solution to the challenge of expensive technology: don't always assume the most expensive choice is the best; know your options. That assumption is common, says Zhang. It often comes down to lack of knowledge, another pervasive technology challenge. TechSoup Canada's donation program may boast 300 types of software but 10 to 20 are most often requested simply because they are the recognizable names. Everyone wants Symantec AntiVirus and Windows 7 but ask them whether they have a Sequel Server for their database or whether they've heard of the MyFax application (it allows you to receive digital copies of faxes in their inbox) and suddenly they're lost, says Zhang. "It's not their fault," she adds. People running organizations are not only swamped but, as discussed above, they don't often have an IT person in-house .

On the same page

That can also lead to a lack of continuity. "It means a lot of times very inexperienced people are using software, database or other technologies," Porter explains. "They don't have the background knowledge." Even if you have someone knowledgeable on board, there's still the obstacle of training the entire organization to ensure they're on the same page. After all, a lot of people from older generations approach technology in totally different ways than 20-year-olds who for whom texting and tweeting are alternate sources of oxygen. While the former may feel resentful and take a lot more time to adjust to new computer technology, the latter will be 10 ten steps ahead.

Similarly, challenges arise when employees enter data in dissimilar ways. A common result is an overabundance of dirty data, information that is inconsistently inputted or updated. Porter recommends charities update change of addresses two or three times a year to ensure you're not sending mailings to old addresses.

Organizations need to focus on establishing organizational memory, adds Turk. They need a rich database that houses information on everyone you deal with and made available to the entire organization. In that way, even if the person who had been in charge of the database for the past 20 years leaves, a shared, comprehensive, organized database will make the loss less devastating.

Making the most of technology

These types of disconnects usually means organizations are not using technology to its fullest capacity. Donor databases, for example, are being used as glorified address books, offers Porter. "Not using things like media clipping, articles, research, they may not be identifying how close they are to closing a deal with their prospective donors." And let's not forget the integration problems. An organization may have one piece of software to collect online donations, another for paper files and a third for survey information. The end result is a bunch of silos with the same or similar data. "Charities need one centralized location where everything flows into," Porter says.

According to Zhang, part of the problem stems from the fact that organizations think of technology as a solution rather than a tool. "They're looking for technology to solve their problems," she says. They say, "Llet's throw some money at it and it'll get better." But unless you think it through and define your most optimal workflow, any investment could be for naught. If they are going to have an impact, if they're going to truly implement technology properly, they have to broaden their perspective. "Otherwise, it's a vicious cycle."

Tips from Bensimon,Porter, and Turk

  1. Hire an ICT consultant to work with you to choose a vendor and/or solution; but they shouldn't be the solution provider to avoid bias.
  2. Avoid overly custom solutions as they lock you into a vendor.
  3. Review your ICT environment annually as technology changes rapidly. New technology could afford more cost effective solutions.
  4. Hire a third party do an audit of technology use annually; it will provide a roadmap of where problems exist and where priorities are for the year.
  5. Beware of biased consultants who pretend to be objective but in fact always recommend the same software.
  6. Big bang doesn’t work. People will look for software that does 20 things at once but these are often very difficult to implement and will fail. Better off to start with two or three processes and once they’re working, add another two or three etc.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at:

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