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Why Your Nonprofit Is Struggling with Technology and How to Fix It

The relationship between technology and nonprofits has always been tenuous -- and not because NPOs are more "touchy feely" than their for-profit counterparts. Smaller nonprofits generally cannot afford the services of an IT Director or CTO, and it shows.

Smaller NPOs spend disproportionately more on technology than larger ones because technology is more expensive when you don’t have someone overseeing it and planning for change.

Many nonprofits rely on the advice of friends, board members, their own employees, or an ad hoc crew of consultants to answer tough technology questions.

All of these people no doubt mean well, but any expertise is likely in one particular area and they may not have any experience in enterprise-level technology. Individually they often lack the breadth of knowledge needed to plan technology integration at a high level. Together they offer no cohesive technology strategy.  

Making a series of decisions can feel like progress, but without a plan, it can simply lead to more trouble down the line. Those making choices with limited knowledge or expertise may choose platforms or hardware that don’t work together or don’t meet the full needs of the organization.

Technology mistakes can be costly.

And it’s also worthwhile to consider the role that technology will actually play within your organization. It’s not a fix-it button that makes things work.

There are some key things to take into account:

1. Technology is not always simple

I've noticed over the years a sense of entitlement at nonprofits: “We’re good people doing good work, so getting what we want out of this website shouldn’t be that hard."  Sadly, the website doesn't care.

Many of us think of ourselves as being technically proficient -- we use computers and smartphones for hours every day. But this level of experience is vastly different from the experience that it takes to set up and integrate a donation platform, configure site-wide analytics, or develop a technology solution for managing sensitive contributor data. Plainly put, it’s better to leave it to a professional.

2. The right solution won’t pick you

Software is a logical machine and lacks judgment, and few nonprofit staff members have enough experience to make good technology judgment calls. This means that NPOs are often left using tools and programs that don’t fit their needs, sometimes forcing them to try to adapt their organization to the technology rather than the other way around.

3. Technology can’t solve people problems

If your staff hates each other (or hates you), if they are lazy, mentally ill, or corrupt…technology won’t fix these problems. Technology is a tool, not a solution.

Technology model for small nonprofits

Technology decisions are commonly made for short-term convenience, under tight deadlines, and often by people with little or no experience using the systems they are contemplating. Sometimes projects turn out well, other times they're a disaster, but most often the proverbial can simply gets kicked down the road until turnover brings in the next batch of newly hired employees who then wonder "what the ____?"

How do we break the cycle?

There are a number of ways that a small organization can tackle their technology problems with a better level of confidence and success. But there are two key approaches that can make all the difference.

1. Hire a professional

Hire a consulting firm to develop and implement an ongoing technology strategy. The right vendor will have years of experience developing complex web systems and integrating various platforms--not just standing up cookie-cutter websites. They are wise and they know their stuff. They’re not cheap, but increasingly consultants are offering long term planning services for your nonprofit.

2. Commit to a system

Larger nonprofits buy or build a technology system and recruit people who can be taught to use it. If people can’t learn, they’re compassionately and politely shown the door. Smaller nonprofits are like families. Their sense of charity often extends to their staff, leading to untouchables. Decisions at small NPOs are often anxiety relief, rather than tough reality checks about the people you work with.

But the truth is that your organization needs technology just as much as it needs great people. And it needs great people who can use the tools that they’re charged with using.

In my next blog I’ll talk about hiring the right people for the job, and what to look for.

Stuart Gaston