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People: Your Nonprofit's Technology Secret

I'd like to start with a tale of two small-to-midsize nonprofits.

They have a similar mission, budget and each about a dozen staff and volunteers. Their technical systems are similar: same website platform, same CRM, and similar email marketing software. Both have the same technology consultantme.

One nonprofit is succeeding and has generally positive views of their systems. 

The other complains of difficulty using the same technology.

Why?

The answer: People. People are the reason.

More specifically, one organization has effective people onboard who know to use the tools at their disposal. The other doesn’t.. And without the right people to use the technology, nothing happens. Nothing gets done if people can’t do the work. Technology is a tool, not a solution.

Sadly, it's hard to findmuch less keepgood people who can learn to use tools to pursue your mission. Staff turnover in the nonprofit sector is nearly 20% yearly, almost double that of for-profit companies! Let's get personal. That statistic means a few years from now, chances are good the four people you work most closely with will be gone, and you might be gone too.

Let's review more realities:

It’s clear that nonprofits can improve their process of hiring and maintaining staff. But it’s not just for the sake of continuity. Poor people management can lead to bigger, worse, and lingering problems for even established organizations.

Turnover hurts, bad planning hurts more

Let's reveal the hidden costs of turnover with a real example.

Last April, I started getting a lot of calls from a typically placid nonprofit. The website suddenly "doesn't work.”  They lost their Google password. They need a new this and a fix for that. I ask, "Where is Janet?," who is typically my point of contact. You can probably guess what comes next.

"She quit."

Although Janet gave two weeks’ notice, no one told me, and no transition plan was made. By July, their average monthly bill for my service had tripled.  

I was scrambling to train two new employees on systems that they were meant to use on a daily basis, but I had no role in interviewing or hiring. I was just expected to clean up the mess.

Over a year later, the two nice people they hired to replace Janet still struggle to use the tools at their disposal. Rather than build and grow their internal technology capacity, this nonprofit has regressed.

Forget about the nonprofit sector for a minute. What if you owned…

  • A nice restaurant

  • An accounting office

  • A hospital

  • An electronics factory

Could just anyone work there? Would you put them to work with no training?  Would you overlook their lack of qualifications because they're so enthusiastic? Absolutely not. But this kind of thing happens at nonprofits all the time.

People are hired for their commitment to the mission or their experience within a certain field, even if they are drastically under-qualified for the specific position. It’s just hoped that they’ll figure it out along the way. But that’s exactly how you end up with a person who doesn’t own a smartphone in charge of your mobile strategy.

As a technology consultant, it would be easy for me to say that a bigger, better, or shinier tool could solve all of your problems. But that’s simply not true. People are a finite resource and nonprofits need good people to use the technology that’s available.

What’s the solution?

While there isn’t a simple fix, you have to start by finding qualified applicants with real, relevant skills and experience for the tasks and tools they’ll be in charge of using. Provide training and plan for transitions. Once you’ve recruited someone skilled, qualified, and knowledgeable, you should be working actively to retain them. Don’t expect them to just stick around forever because of your mission.

In addition, select a technology consultant that’s a skilled communicator and can translate complex IT concepts into plain language for your non-technical staff members. Involve your consultant in creating training programs for your staff, especially during times of transition. Invite them to review the experience of potential hires and have them gauge the skills of candidates with respect to their job role.

Finally, ensure your consultant makes the jobs of your staff easier, not more difficult. If your qualified new hire finds working with your consultant frustrating and stressful, how long will they want to stay around? A good technology consultant can help you retain your staff longer, make them more skilled and efficient at their jobs, and allow your organization to reach its mission more effectively.

In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some of the internal dynamics of nonprofit technology decision making, how I see nonprofits hamstringing themselves, and explain how this problem can be solved.

Stuart Gaston