How to Measure the Value of an IT Investment

This article was originally published by Techsoup on July 8th, 2016

 Person's hand holding several dice that are about to be rolledSome say life’s a gamble. But gambling can be very random, as in the rolling of a die, or very scientific, as in the calculation of odds and percentages. Investing in technology should not be a gamble, in as much as you can predict what it will do for you. In the standard business lingo, we call this prediction “return on investment” or “ROI.” And whether you calculate that with all the vigor of two college students on a weekend trip to Reno, or a scientist who deeply understands the odds, is important. In this article, we’ll discuss the many factors that go into a fully informed determination of the ROI for a technology project.

What Is ROI?

The simplest definition of ROI is that, for any project or purchase, it’s the amount saved or realized minus the cost to invest. If we spend $75 for a new fundraising widget for our website, and we make $125 in donations from it, then our return on investment is $50.


Or maybe not, because we invested in web developer time to deploy the widget to our website and staff time to process the donations. Plus, we spent a portion of each donation on credit card processing fees, right?

Not Strictly a Financial Formula

So ROI is not a strictly financial formula. Actual ROI is based on many factors, including hard-to-quantify things such as organizational culture, training, and readiness for adoption. The benefits of a major tech investment are proportional to the readiness of your particular organization.

Let’s try another example. We’ll spend $2,000 to upgrade to a new version of our fundraising system. It boasts better reporting and data visualizations, which, per the salesperson, will allow us to increase our donations by 10 percent. We think we’ll make $10,000 a year in additional donations, and expect the upgrade to benefit us for two years. So the strictly financial return is $18,000 ($20,000 new revenue – $2,000 upgrade cost).

But that 10 percent increase isn’t based solely on having the new features available in the product; it’s based on using the new features strategically, which your staff might not know how to do. It assumes that the software will be configured correctly, which assumes you are fully cognizant of your needs and processes related to the information that the system will manage. And it assumes that you have a staffing level that might be larger than you can afford.

It Doesn’t Start with Dollars

The concept here is pretty simple: it is easier to bake a cake from a recipe if you buy the ingredients beforehand. Then you need to have all of the required mixing implements and receptacles, clear the necessary counter space, and know how to turn on the oven.

Similarly, successfully calculating the return on investments requires having a complete picture of what you will be investing in.

Ask Yourself These Four Questions

  1. Do I understand what improvement this investment will result in and/or the problems it will solve?Core to measuring the return on the investment is knowing what it is that you have to measure. That will be some quantifiable amount of anticipated revenue, productivity gain, staffing reduction, or increase in clients served. You should know what those metrics are at the start of a project.
  2. Have I thoroughly considered the staffing changes that this investment might enable or require?For any large investment, like a new fundraising database or constituent management system, or a new, complex initiative, you want to know upfront how your day-to-day operations will be impacted. A new system might automate laborious processes, allowing you to repurpose staff. Or it might well require additional staffing in order to maximize the return. Those costs or savings are a key factor in the ROI.
  3. Do I have the necessary buy-in from the board, executives, and staff that will result in a successful implementation?Key to any large project’s success is having the support from the key decision makers. If you’re in middle management, and your initiative is not well understood and appreciated by those in charge, then there’s a significant chance that the project will fail. As right as you might be that your organization would benefit, again, the return on investment requires that the organization is invested.
  4. Have I identified any required training and ensured that we have the resources to provide it and the time to take it?So much of the value in a new system is derived from people knowing how to use it. In resource-strapped nonprofits, training time is often seen as frivolous or less important than whatever the crisis du jour might be. Don’t let that happen, because what you get out of a system is all contingent on being able to use it well and strategically. Without training, people will tend to try and emulate what they did before the new system was in place, and that will more likely reduce your return than produce it.

Tools and Tactics

There are some techniques for calculating ROI. As noted above, you should start with metrics that identify your current conditions and can be tracked after implementation. These might be dollars received, hours spent doing tasks, or number of employees dedicated to a process. Consider this your baseline. From there, you can forecast a scenario based on the advantages that you anticipate having upon completion of the project.

For example, if your current fundraising system can’t track multiple donors at the same address, then you’re probably expending time and effort to track such things in creative ways. A system that properly supports “householding” will eliminate the workarounds that you’ve created to maintain that data. You can estimate the time saved.

Once completed, these before and after numbers will help you quantify the anticipated return, as well as guide the implementation. That’s because the forecast is a set (or subset) of your goals.

  • Be sure to track both short- and long-term impacts. One basic calculation is a 5- or 10-year financial analysis. It’s not uncommon to have increased implementation costs in the first year, so tracking the annual cost fluctuations over the expected life of the investment will give you a better picture of its value.
  • For example, say you decide to invest in a donor tracking system, replacing a laborious task of tracking donations in Excel. Your current annual fundraising is about $1 million. You have reasonably estimated that the new system will net you an additional $50,000 a year, after a two-year ramp-up phase with the system. It’ll achieve that via cost savings due to efficiencies realized and increased revenue based on superior fundraising tools. Here’s what a 10-year analysis might look like:
Example spreadsheet showing ten-year analysis of costs, revenue, and net revenue

Other things might impact revenue as well, such as improved marketing, so we’re only tracking anticipated revenue associated with this investment.

Finally, don’t work in isolation. Talk with peers who have done similar projects. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t, and what successes they were able to measure. Much of this forecasting is based on speculation, and your job is to fact-check that speculation and get it closer to reality as much as you can.

Checking Your Work

As noted above, you should start with metrics that identify your current conditions and can be tracked after implementation. These metrics could be dollars received, hours spent doing tasks, or number of employees dedicated to a process. Checking your work may seem unnecessary, as the dollars have already been spent, but tracking your progress is the best way to improve on calculating ROI on subsequent investments. You can learn a lot, not only about the particular project, but about your organizational effectiveness as a whole.

The Secret to Calculating ROI

This is the secret: it’s not the return on the dollars spent. It’s the improvements in your organizational capacity and efficiency that can be made if you develop a culture that can predict which investments are worthwhile.

Further Reading

Image: Twinsterphoto / Shutterstock

It’s Past Time For The Overtime Change

Last week, the house held hearings on the new overtime rules that double the base salary requirement for exempt employees. With these changes, if you make $47,476 a year or less, you can not be granted exempt status and, therefore, must be paid overtime when you work extra hours (per your state regulations). The hearings were dramatically one-sided, with tMoney bagestimony from a stream of nonprofits and small businesses that oppose the increase. My hope is that the politicians that staged this play had to look pretty far and wide to find nonprofits willing to participate, but I doubt that they did.

We can’t change the rest of the world by abusing the piece that we manage. If we want to cure diseases, reduce poverty, help Veterans or protect the environment, we can start by building an effective organization that is motivated and resourced to make a difference. And that means that we reasonably compensate our staff. I’ve blogged before on my take that the perk of serving a personally meaningful mission can offset some of my salary requirements, but that the discrepancy between a nonprofit salary and what one could make next door can’t be too vast, because too large of gap leads to high turnover and resentment.

What needs to be understood about this overtime law is that it isn’t setting some new bar. It’s addressing an existing abusive situation. The justification for exempt status revolves around the responsibilities an employee has, and their leverage to influence the success or failure of the company. Managers can be exempt. People with highly specialized skills can be exempt. And the odds are, if you have people on your payroll who, by being bad at their jobs, can sink your nonprofit, you’re already paying them $50,000 or more. It’s simple risk management: you don’t want to undervalue your critical personnel.

Accordingly, if you’re Easter Seals of New Hampshire (one of the nonprofits that testified at the hearing), and you’re saying that this increase will destroy your business, then I’m here to tell you that it’s one in a number of things that are lined up to take you down, starting with the mass walkout you might experience if your overworked and underpaid staff get fed up.

In my time in the nonprofit sector:

  • I’ve learned of nonprofits that exploit “apprentice laws”, allowing them to pay people as little as $5 an hour to do repetitive labor while the CEO makes hundreds of thousands.
  • I regularly see talented people ditch nonprofits after two or three years of doing amazing, transformative work, but never seeing a raise for it (or a penny of overtime). It takes these orgs months on end to recover.
  • And I’ve seen nonprofits loaded with staff that have worked there for decades, doing their job in the same ways that they’ve done them since “Microsoft” was a company name yet to be coined.

Because paying people fairly and competitively isn’t a giveaway. It’s a sound business practice. And we can’t continue to say that we are the people improving lives when we’re abusing those closest to us. This increase is long overdue and, if it breaks the back of a nonprofit to compensate staff for working long hours, then they are supporting the wrong mission to begin with.

Hillary Clinton’s Shadow IT Problem

As you likely know, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she set up a private email server at home and used it for her email communication, passing up a secure government account. This was a bHillary_Clinton_Testimony_to_House_Select_Committee_on_Benghaziad idea, for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that sensitive information could be leaked on this less secure system, and that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests could be bypassed. But the burning question, at a time when Clinton looks likely to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for President, is what her motivation was for setting up the server in the first place. Was it to bypass the Freedom of Information Act? Was it to easily trade classified materials, as her most critical accusers suspect? Or was it, as she claims, because she had a lot of personal email to send and she didn’t want to manage two accounts? 

This post doesn’t seek to answer those questions. Instead, it pitches yet another theory: that Clinton’s motivations might have had everything to do with technology and little to do with politics. Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation looking for evidence that Clinton broke laws in her handling of the email, received some fascinating information in response to a recent FOIA request. 

Upon joining the State Department in early 2009, Clinton immediately requested a Blackberry smartphone. Having used one extensively during her 2008 Presidential campaign, she, like almost every attorney in that decade, had fallen in love with her Blackberry, hence the request. After all, Condoleezza Rice, her predecessor as Secretary of State, had used one. President Obama had a special secure one that the NSA had developed for him. But they said no. Even after being called to a high level meeting with Clinton’s top aide and five State Department officials, they still said no.The NSA offered Clinton an alternative. But it was based on Windows CE, a dramatically different, less intuitive smartphone operating system. A month later, Clinton started using her own server. Judicial Watch claims that this info proves that Clinton knew that her email was not secure, but I think that she has already admitted that. But it also reveals something much more telling.

As a three plus decade technology Director/CIO (working primarily with Attorneys), I can tell you that people get attached to specific types of technology. I know a few Attorneys who still swear to this day that Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS was the best word processing software ever released. And there are millions who will tell you that their Blackberry was their virtual right arm in the 2000’s.

How devoted are people to their favorite applications and devices? I worked for a VP who was only comfortable using Word, so when she did her quarterly reports to the board, she had her assistant export huge amounts of information from our case management system. Then she modified all of it in Word. Once delivered, she had her assistant manually update the case management system in order to incorporate her changes. Efficient? Not at all. But she loved herself some Word. I’ve seen staff using seven year old laptops because they know them and don’t want to have to learn and set up a new one. And it wasn’t until the bitter end of 2014 that both my boss and my wife finally gave in and traded up their Blackberries for iPhones.

Again, the point here is not that Clinton should have ditched the secure, government system in order to use her phone of choice. In her circumstances, the security concerns should have outweighed her personal comfort. But for many, the desire to stick with tech that they know and love is often counter to logic, efficiency, security and policy. And most of us work in environments where bucking the system isn’t quite as dire as it could be for the nation’s top diplomat.

Shadow IT” is technology that users install without company approval because they prefer it to what’s offered. What I know is that I can’t secure my network if it’s packed with technology that my users hate. Smart people will bypass that security in order to use the tools that work for them. An approach to security that neglects usability and user preference is likely to fail. In most cases, there are compromises that can be made between IT and users that allow secure products to be willingly adopted. In other cases, with proper training, hand-holding, and executive sponsorship,  you can win users over. But when we are talking about Blackberries in the last decade, or the iPhone in this one, we have to acknowledge that the popularity of the product is a serious factor in adoption that technologists can’t ignore. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton.

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

Creating A Tech-Savvy Nonprofit Culture

This article was originally published in NTEN Change Magazine in June of 2015.


What kind of challenge does your organization have supporting technology? Below are several scenarios to choose from:

  • Little or no tech staff or tech leadership: We buy inexpensive computers and software and rely on consultants to set it up.
  • Our IT support is outsourced: there is no technology plan or any staff training.
  • We have a tech on staff who does their best to keep things running: no staff training, no technology planning.
  • We have a tech on staff and an IT Director, but no technology plan: IT is swamped and not very helpful.
  • We have staff and IT leadership, but strategic plans are often trumped by budget crises. Training is minimal.
  • IT Staff, Leadership, budget, and a technology plan, but executive support is minimal. IT projects succeed or fail based on the willingness of the departmental managers to work with IT.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? A lack of a functional technology plan, little or no staff training, and/or no shared accountability for technology in the organization. While it’s likely that the technical skills required in order to successfully perform a job are listed in the job descriptions, the successful integration of technology literacy into organizational culture requires much more than that. Here are some key enabling steps:

Technology Planning: If you have a technology plan, it might not do more than identify the key software and hardware projects planned. Technology planning is about much more than what you want to do. A thorough plan addresses the “who,” the “why,” and the “how” you’re going to do things:

  • A mission statement for the technology plan that ties directly to your organizational mission. For a workforce development agency, the tech mission might be to “deploy technology that streamlines the processes involved in training, tracking, and placing clients while strategically supporting administration, development, and communications”.
  • A RACI matrix outlining who supports what technology. This isn’t just a list of IT staff duties, but a roadmap of where expertise lies throughout the organization and how staff are expected to share it.
  • A “Where we are” assessment that points out the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities in your current technology environment.
  • A “Where we need to go” section that outlines your three to five year technology vision. This section should be focused on what the technology is intended to accomplish, as opposed to which particular applications you plan to buy. For example, moving to internal social media for intra-organization communication and knowledge management” is more informational than “purchase Yammer.
  • Finally, a more technical outline of what you plan to deploy and when, with a big disclaimer saying that this plan will change as needs are reassessed and opportunities arise.

Training: Training staff is critical to recouping your investments in technology. If you do a big implementation of a CRM or ERP system, then you want your staff to make full use of that technology. If you’re large enough to warrant it (50+ staff), hire an in-house trainer, who also plays a key role in implementing new systems. This investment will offset significant productivity losses.

Smaller orgs can make use of online resources like Khan Academy and, as well as the consultants and vendors who install new systems. And technology training should be part of the onboarding process for new hires, even if the trainers are just knowledgeable staff.

In resource-strapped environments, training can be a hard sell. Everybody likes the idea, but nobody wants to prioritize it. It’s up to the CEO and management to lead by policy and example – promote the training, show up at the training, and set the expectation that training is a valued use of staff time.

Organizational Buy-in: Don’t make critical technology decisions in a vacuum. When evaluating new software, invite everyone to the demos and include staff in every step of the decision-making process, from surveying them on their needs before you start defining your requirements to including staff who will be using the systems in the evaluation group. When staff have input into the decision, they are naturally more open to, and accountable for, healthy use of the system.

Executive Sponsorship: With technology clearly prioritized and planned for, the last barrier is technophobia, and that’s more widespread than the common cold in nonprofits. Truly changing the culture means changing deep-rooted attitudes. This type of change has to start at the top and be modeled by the executives.

True story: At, every new employee is shown the “Chatter” messaging tool and told to set up a profile. If a new user neglects to upload a photo, they will shortly find a comment in their Chatter feed fromMarc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, saying, simply, “Nice Photo”. That’s the CEO’s way of letting new staff know that use of Chatter is expected, and the CEO uses it, too.

Play! One more thing will contribute to a tech-savvy culture: permission to play. We want to let staff try out new web tools and applications that will assist them. The ones that are useful can be reviewed and formally adopted. But locking users down and tightly controlling resources – a common default for techies, who can trend toward the control-freakish side – will do nothing to help establish an open-minded, tech-friendly atmosphere.

Overcoming Tech Aversion: We all know, now, that technology is not an optional investment. It’s infrastructure, supplementing and/or taking the place of fax machines, printers, photocopiers, telephones, and in more and more cases, physical offices. In the case of most nonprofits, there isn’t an employee in the company that doesn’t use office technology.

But there are still many nonprofits that operate with a pointed aversion to technology. Many executives aren’t comfortable with tech. They don’t trust it, and they don’t trust the people who know what to do with it. A whole lot depends on getting tech right, so enabling the office technologist – be it the IT Director or the accidental techie – is kind of like giving your teenager the keys to the car. You know that you have to trust them, but you can’t predict what they’re going to do.

Building that trust is simply a matter of getting more comfortable with technology. It doesn’t mean that management and staff all have to become hardcore techies. They just have to understand what technology is supposed to do for them and embrace its use. How do you build that comfort?

  • Have a trusted consulting firm do a technology audit.
  • Visit tech-savvy peers and see how they use technology.
  • Go to a NTEN conference.
  • Buy an iPad!

Building a tech-savvy culture is about making everyone more engaged, accountable, and comfortable with the tools that we use to accomplish our missions. Don’t let your organization be hamstrung by a resistance to the things that can propel you forward.

Happy 10th Anniversary!

Cyber-cafeJust a quick post to commemorate ten years of blogging here at Techcafeteria.  That’s 268 entries, averaging to 22 posts per year, or damn close to two posts a month, which is not too shabby for a guy with a family and a demanding day job. The most popular stuff all now lives in my Recommended Posts section.

The goal here has never been much more than to share what I hope is useful and insightful knowledge on how nonprofits can make good use of technology, peppered with the occasional political commentary or rant, but I try to restrain myself from posting too many of those. After my recent reformat, I think I’ve made it much easier for visitors to find the content that interests them, so if you’re one of my many RSS subscribers, and you haven’t actually visited the site for some time, you should take a look.

I’m ever thankful to Idealware, NTEN, Techsoup, CommunityIT, and many others in the nptech community for giving me the opportunity to write for their blogs and republish here (about two thirds of the content, I suspect). And I’m happy to be part of this global, giving community.

Here’s to the next ten years!

A Tale Of Two Domain Extensions


Graphic by Felixart05

icann_new_top_level_domains_tld_gtld_sign2_by_felixart05-d6iedi6 We’ve gotten far past the early internet days when registering a domain name usually meant choosing between .COM, .ORG, and .NET. The number of top level domains (TLD) has exploded, and you can now grab names ending in .BAND, .BEER, .BARGAINS, .BEST, .BLOG, .BOO, .BUZZ, and .WTF (really!), to name just a few. The full list of new additions is here.

Two new TLDs are of particular interest to nonprofits.  Next week, you’ll have the option of registering a .NGO domain (Non Govermental Organization).  Should you? I’d say that it depends on the scope of your nonprofit.  Is it international?  Do you work outside of the US? Non-Governmental Organization isn’t a meaningful distinction here in the states (where I work at what is casually called a quasi-governmental nonprofit), but it’s much more common everywhere else.  If your org is focused on a local U.S. community, it probably makes no sense to pay for a domain name that your constituents might not even understand, much less expect. Otherwise, it seems really prudent to be accessible using the standard terminology in the countries that you work with. Just register it and point it to the same site as your .ORG.

Update: actually, there might be a few reasons to invest in .NGO, even if you don’t have an international presence. The article “Four Reasons Why Your Nonprofit Should Register .NGO and .ONG” was pretty enlightening. One key point is that, unlike with .ORG, .NGO/ONG registration requires proof of your nonprofit status, which will increase the trust level of potential donors. Another is that a large, potentially considered “definitive”, directory of nonprofits will be based on .NGO/ONG registration.  Thanks to Chris Tuttle for this heads up!

The other up and coming TLD is the new .SUCKS extension. While .WTF is pretty funny, .SUCKS is a bit of a threat. Many of us register the .COM equivalent of our .ORG domain name to protect our brands from impostors or critics (if you don’t, and it’s available, you should). So who wants to see a .SUCKS variant of their domain name out there?  None of us.  So, should you grab this one as a stopgap too? I say, no way.

First, there’s already a complaint filed with ICANN against Vox Populi, the company offering .SUCKS registrations, rightly claiming that their policy of famous people and brands and offering them a $2500 (annually!) first shot at registering the .SUCKS variant of their name prior to chopping down the price to $10 for anyone else is equivalent to extortion.

But my case is that, extortion attempts aside, even $10 a year is too much to pay, because owning the .SUCKS equivalent of your brand won’t protect you from anything. Anyone can register a “yourorgsucks” domain with a .COM or .NET or .WTF extension. and nobody is going to think that a domain lobbing grammar critiques of my blog is something that I created or endorse…

…because misteaks.

So .NGO is go if you go beyond the borders, but .sucks sucks. Just say no!

What Is Nonprofit Technology – The Director’s Cut

This article was originally published on the NTEN Blog on March 10th, 2015, where it was edited for length. As with any director’s cut, their version might be better than this one! But this is how it was originally composed. Click here for more context.

For the past 14 years, I’ve been working for 501(c)(3) corporations, commonly referred to as nonprofits.  I’ve also become active in what we call the “nptech” community — “nptech” being shorthand for “nonprofit technology”.  But nonprofits, which comprise about 10% of all US businesses, have wildly diverse business models.  To suggest that there is a particular type of technology for nonprofits is akin to saying that all of the businesses in downtown Manhattan have similar technology needs. So what is nonprofit technology?  Less of a platform and more of a philosophy.

Snowflakes? No flakes.

It’s often said that each nonprofit is unique, like a snowflake, with specific needs and modes of operation.  Let’s just remember that, as unique as a snowflake is, if you lay about a million of them next to each other on a  field, you can not tell them apart.

Nonprofits do not use any technology that is 100% unique to the nonprofit sector.  Fundraising systems operate exactly like sales systems, with leads, opportunities, campaigns and sales/donations. Similarly, advocacy applications are akin to marketing software. What nonprofits call Constituent Relationship Management Systems are called Customer Relationship Management systems everywhere else.  I want to make it clear that the technology used by nonprofits is analogous enough to what for-profits use to be nearly indistinguishable.

Also, small businesses, big businesses, most businesses operate under tight margins.  They keep overhead to a minimum.  They make decisions based on a scarcity of funding.   Nonprofits are not unique in their lack of sizable technology budgets.

No Margin for Investment.

The most significant difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit, from a business perspective, is this:

A for-profit holds to tight budgets in order to maximize profit. A nonprofit holds to tight budgets in order to remain funded.

Of course, for-profits can go under by getting their overhead ratio wrong.  But where they have room to move, and, say, invest 30% in overhead one year in order to boot up a long-term, profitable strategy, they can.  They can make the case to their board. Their customers will likely not even know how much they spent on technology, marketing, or extra staff.

If a nonprofit decides to boost the overhead rate by 30% for a year in order to boot up a long-term, mission-effective strategy, then Guidestar, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau and their own website will, basically, tell their donors that they’re a bad investment, and the drop in donations might well sink them.  501(c)(3)’s are required to publish their financial statements for public review annually, and this is the data that they are primarily assessed on.  The effectiveness of their strategies are harder for nonprofits to qualify than it is for a retailer or manufacturer.

Customers don’t care how a Target and WalMart run their businesses; they care that they can buy anti-bacterial wipes at competitive prices. Constituents care deeply about how much of their donation is going to the people or cause that a nonprofit serves, as opposed to the operating expense of the nonprofit.

All businesses want to minimize expenses and increase profitability (even nonprofits!). But nonprofits must minimize those expenses; they have no strategic breathing room when it comes to funding operations.

Management is not the priority, fundraising is.

So, for a nonprofit, a CEO’s primary job is to maintain the funding.  In many cases, this means that the qualifications of a nonprofit CEO have a lot to do with their networking and fundraising skills.  Many nonprofits are run by people who don’t have extensive training or experience in business management.

Nonprofit IT Staff aren’t your typical techies

Nonprofits have lower IT budget and staff ratios than a typical for-profit. The average nonprofit IT budget is 1% to 2% of the entire budget, per NTEN Staffing Survey; average for-profit is 2% to 3%, per Gartner). IT Salaries are consistently below the market rate, and they vary wildly, with some nonprofits paying far below market, others at market. A common scenario at a nonprofit is for the technical staff to include, if not be totally made up of, “accidental techies“.  People who were hired for clerical or administrative work, had a knack for tech, and became the defacto tech person, sometimes also getting a title that reflects that. This is more common in smaller organizations, but it can happen anywhere that the administrative staffing is a small percentage of the overall staff and/or the CEO doesn’t know to hire IT professionals.

Is that a bad thing? Yes and no.  Accidental techies are often the people who had good, strategic notions about how technology could be applied to achieve objectives.  They tend to be smart, autonomous, good learners and teachers.  But they are more likely to be reactive and opportunistic in their approach to their work. IT also benefits from planning and consistency.  Truthfully, you need both styles on a healthy IT team.

So what is “Nonprofit Technology”?

It’s both a class of software and an approach to technology deployment.

Nonprofit technology includes fundraising, advocacy, grants management and other applications that support the primary technology needs, such as donor management and promotion of causes. In some cases, the same systems that salespeople and marketers use can suffice, as evidenced by the popularity of Salesforce in the nonprofit space. But the nonprofit sector has it’s own terminology around revenue processes, so, if commercial software is used, it’s modified to address that.  In the Salesforce case, a nonprofit will either use the Nonprofit Starter Pack, which “skins” Salesforce to feel more like a fundraising system, or purchase an actual fundraising application developed for the platform, such as Roundcause or Blackbaud’s Luminate.  Idealware, a nonprofit dedicated to helping nonprofits make good software choices publishes a booklet listing the types of software that nonprofits use.

Outside of those specialty applications, nonprofits use fairly standard stuff from Microsoft, Adobe, Google and other big companies. Many of these companies offer charity pricing, and further discounts are available to 501(c)(3)’s through Techsoup, a company that provides a transaction layer to vendors who want to donate software to charities. A seasoned IT staffer knows how to cut through the front line salespeople and find the person at a company that might make a donation or discount software or hardware.

But purchasing software is actually the easiest part.  Deploying it is the challenge, with little IT staff and less time to focus on how systems should be implemented, technology rollouts are often done on the fly.  Where a for profit might invest significant time up front analyzing the business processes that the system will address; evaluating products, and training staff, these steps are a hard sell in an understaffed environment where people always have at least five other things to prioritize.

Taking the NPTech Challenge

So if you are thinking of working at a nonprofit as an IT implementer (System Manager, IT Director, CIO), take heart: the work is rewarding, because the motivations are broader than just bringing home a paycheck.  The people are nice, and most nonprofits recognize that, if they’re going to pay poorly, they should let people have their lives nights and weekends. There are opportunities to learn and be creative. The constrained environment rewards inventive solutions. If you’re a tech strategist, you can try things that a more risk-averse for profit wouldn’t, as long as you the risk you’re taking isn’t too costly. For example, I built a retail reporting data warehouse at a Goodwill in 2003, saving us about a $100,000 on what it would have cost to buy a good reporting system.  I also pitched a business plan and started up ecommerce there, and I don’t have a college degree. If money isn’t your motivation, but accomplishing things that make a difference in people’s lives does excite you, this is a fertile environment.

That said, if you don’t like to talk to people, and you don’t think that marketing should be part of your job, think twice.  Successful technology implementations at nonprofits are done by people who know how to communicate. The soft skills matter even more than the tech skills, because you will likely be reporting to people who don’t understand what tech does.  If you can”t justify your projects in terms that they’ll understand, they won’t consider funding them.

You should be as good at the big picture as you are at the small ones.  NPTech is all about fixing the broken routers while you configure the CRM and interpret the Google analytics. You have to be good at juggling a lot of diverse tasks and projects, and conversant in multiple technologies.

Creativity trumps discipline. If you strictly follow the best ITIL policies and governance, be afraid. Strict adherence to for profit standards requires staffing and budget that you aren’t likely to have.  Good technology governance at nonprofits is a matter of setting priorities and making strategic compromises.

Collaboration and delegation are key. Nonprofits have a lot of cross-department functionality.  If you are all about IT controlling the systems, you’re going to have more work on your plate than you can handle and a frustrated user-base to work with.  Letting those who can do tech do tech — whether or not they have the credentials or report to you — is a key strategy towards getting it done.

NPTech is not just a job, it’s a community.

If some of what I’ve described above sounds discouraging, then know that the challenges are shared by a  committed group of tech practitioners that is welcoming and relatively free of ego.  Nobody has to take on the battle of improving nonprofit technology alone.  Search the #nptech hashtag on Google or Twitter and you’ll find groups, blogs and individuals who see this challenge as a shared one for our sector.  Make the time to check out an NTEN 501 Tech club meeting in your city or, better yet, attend their annual conference. Read all of the articles at Idealware.  Join the forums at Techsoup.  If this work is for you, then you are one of many who support each other, and each other’s organization’s missions, and we’ll help you along the way.

Pre-Post On What Is Nonprofit Technology

Early next week, I’m going to publish the “director’s cut” of my recent NTEN.ORG article, “What Is Nonprofit Technology“. But I wanted to talk about it a little first.

The story behind this article is that, late in 2014, I was approached by some online tech e-mag to write an article for them.  I thought, why not tell all of the for-profit techies what it’s really like working in our sector?  And I wrote a solid first draft.  Then I started researching the magazine, and couldn’t find much.  There was little in the way of a FAQ, so I couldn’t ascertain things like, “who owns the content submitted”? I decided against publishing there. I sent it on to Amy at NTEN, and she came back with the suggestion that they publish it in March, shortly after the NTEN conference, as the March theme is Nonprofit Management. And we did that.

The article has gone over really well with the nonprofit community, and is still being actively shared and liked across social media platforms nine days in.  I’m really flattered.  I think the strengths of the article are that it, first, distills a lot of my thinking over the last ten years or so about what we, as nonprofit technologists, do, and what our challenges are. I’ve been drafting this article in my head for a long, long time. But I think it also benefits from the fact that I wrote it for a different audience — one that doesn’t know our sector and our challenges well. And I both think and hope that this is a large part of why the article is resonating so well with the community. This is something that you can share with people outside of the sector that explains a lot about us.

That’s my goal, at least — I hope it’s true.  And I hope that it’s useful for you, particularly if you have friends that you’re trying to recruit into the side that promotes social good.

The “director’s cut” story is simple. Steph at NTEN admitted that her edits were primarily focused on shortening the article in order to fit NTEN’s max post length.  She did a great job — there is no point that I wanted to make missing from the NTEN version. But there are a few areas where the grammar got a little confused. My rendering is more spacious, with a few more examples.  So I decided to print it as originally written and let you decide which one you prefer.

RFPs GOOD. Fixed Bids BAD.

It occurs to me that my signature rant these days is not clearly posted on my own blog. Let’s fix that!

As I’ve mentioned before. Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) are controversial in the nonprofit sector. Vendors hate them. dollar-163473_640Nonprofits struggle with developing them. I’ve been on a multi-year mission to educate and encourage the community to rethink RFPs, as opposed to throwing them out. In particular, nonprofits need to break away from fixed bid requests when hiring web developers, programmers, and people who implement CRMs. Here’s why:

Done correctly, RFP’s are an excellent practice. A good RFP informs potential vendors about the organization, their current condition, and their project goals. A questionnaire can focus on vetting the expertise of the consultant, examples of prior work, stability of the company, etc. All good things to know before investing serious time in the relationship. The RFP can also request billing rates and the like, but, in my experience, the cheaper rates don’t always correlate with ultimate project cost. Some higher hourly consultants do the work in half the time of some moderately priced ones.

The problem is that many nonprofits want to get that fixed bid and then hire the lowest bidder. But, for a web design or CRM project, the odds that the nonprofit knows how many hours the project is going to take are practically nil and, what’s more, they absolutely shouldn’t know. With a good consultant, you’re going to learn a lot in the process about what you should be doing. With a wild guess-based fixed bid, you are likely to suffer from one of two problems:

  • The project will be seriously underbid (very likely) and the vendor relationship will get worse and worse as they keep expending more hours without being compensated;
  • Or the vendor will finish up in half or two thirds of the hours and there you’ll be, donating to their charity.

You can vet the fiscal competence of a consultant.  Check their references and ask good questions like:

  • “Did the project come in at or under budget?”
  • “Was the vendor able to scale the project to your budget?”
  • “Can you tell me about a time that you had a billing disagreement with them, and how well it was resolved?”

Also, check their reputation in the nonprofit sector, because we have lots of mailing lists and forums where you can do that.

I hire consultants based on their expertise, reputation, and compatibility with my organization’s goals and work style. I stress that vendor interviews should be with the staff that I will most likely be working with. I’ll often break a project into two phases, one for discovery and then another for implementation. With the great consultants that I work with, this does not result in over-budget implementation bids. Instead, it helps us define what we can do and stay within budget. Because this is all about taking away the guess work.

So, RFPs are good things, as long as they are making realistic requests of the vendors. The crisis with them in our sector is based simply on the fact that most of our RFPs ask questions that can not, and should not, be answered, such as “how much will you charge me to do this undetermined amount of work?”