Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Nonprofit Management Gap

I owe someone an apology. Last night, a nice woman that I’ve never met sent me an email relaying (not proposing) an idea that others had pitched. Colleagues of mine who serve in communications roles in the nonprofit sector were suggesting a talk on “Why CIOs/CTOs should be transitioned into Chief Digital and Data Officers”.  And, man, did that line get me going.

Now, I’m with them on a few points: Organizations that rely on public opinion and support to accomplish their mission, which includes the majority of nonprofits, need to hire marketers that get technology, particularly the web.  And those people need to be integrated into upper management, not reporting to the Development VP or COO.  It’s the exact same case I make for the lead technologist role.

Let’s look at a few of these acronyms and titles:

COO – Chief Operating Officer.  In most NPOs that have one, this role oversees operations while the CEO oversees strategy and advances the mission with the public.

CIO – Chief Information Officer.  CIOs are highly placed technologists whose core job is to align technology to mission-effectiveness.  In most cases, because we can’t afford large staffs, CIOs also manage the IT Department, but their main value lies in the business planning and collaboration that they foster in order to integrate technology.

Some companies hire CTOs: Chief Technology Officers.  This is in product-focused environments where, again, you need a highly placed technologist who can manage the communication and expectations between the product experts and the technical staff designing and developing the products for them.

IT Director – An IT Director is a middle manager who oversees technology planning, budgeting, staff and projects. In (rare) cases, they report to a CIO or CTO.  In the nonprofit world, they are often the lead technologists, but they report up to a COO or VP Admin, not the CEO.

CMO – Chief Marketing Officer.  This is a new role which, similar to CIO, elevates the person charged with constituent engagement to the executive level.

This is how many nonprofit CEOs think about technology:

Public Domain Image

Say you, at home, have a leaky faucet.  It’s wasting water and the drip is driving you crazy.  You can’t just tear out the sink — you need that.  So you hire a plumber.  Or, if you have the opportunity, you get your accidental te– I mean, acne-dented teenager to read up on it and fix the leak for you.  So now you have a plumber, and your sink is no longer dripping. Great!
Now you want to remodel your house.  You want to move the master bath downstairs and the kitchen to the east side.  That’s going to require planning. Risk assessment. Structural engineering. You could hire a contractor — someone with the knowledge and the skill to not only oversee plumbing changes, but project management, vendor coordination, and, most important, needs assessment. Someone who knows how to ask you what you want and then coordinate the effort so that that’s what you get.  So, what should you do?
Have the plumber do it.  He did a good job on the leak, right?
Every job that I’ve had since 1990 has, at the onset, been to fix the damage that a plumber did while they were charged with building a house.  Sometimes I’ve worked for people who got it, saw that they needed my communication skills as much or more than they needed my technical expertise.  At those jobs, I was on a peer level with the other department heads, not one lower.  Other times, they expected me to be just like the plumber that I replaced. They were surprised and annoyed when I tried to tell them that what they really needed was to work with me, not delegate to me.  At those jobs, I was mostly a highly-functional pain in the ass.

Some of those jobs got bad, but here’s how bad it can get when management just doesn’t get technology.

So, back to my rant, here’s my question: why would we increase the strategic role of marketing at the expense of strategic technology integration?  Is that a conscious desire to move just as far backward as we’re moving forward?  Is this suggestion out of a frustration that people who manage technology aren’t exclusively supporting communications in our resource-strapped environments? In any case, it’s a sad day for the sector if we’re going to pitch turf wars instead of overall competence.  There is no question: we need high level technologists looking after our infrastructure, data strategy, and constituent engagement. But we can’t address critical needs by crippling other areas.

TIG Takeaways: First Impressions Of The Legal Aid Tech Community

Last week I attended two events sponsored by my new employer, Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The first was a two day Technology Summit, where a group of 50 thought leaders gathered to develop a plan for addressing the demand for legal aid more dramatically by making strategic use of technology. That was followed by the three day Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) conference, where 220 or so Legal Aid staff came together to show off their projects, prep for LSC’s next round of technology funding, and discuss the future. For me, these two events were a crash course in who’s who and what’s what in the world of legal aid technology. I learned much more about LSC’s role in the sector (and my role, as well). And  I found it all inspiring and challenging (in a good way!)

The Tech Summit was part two of a process that began last June. We sought to address the following mission statement, developed at the prior meeting:

To use technology to provide some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.

Attending the session were 51 judges, American Bar Association leaders, state court strategists, fellow legal aid funders, key legal aid technologists, technology providers,  Executive Directors and staff of legal aid organizations, among others.  We prioritized five areas of service to focus on in a five year plan:

  • Document Assembly – the automation of form creation and the work to standardize the data they collect
  • Expert Systems – online querying to determine legal outcomes and the proper use of same (are these client or attorney tools?)
  • Remote Services Delivery – can each state have an online portal that eliminates much of the physical challenges in seeking representation?
  • Mobile Technologies – what assistance and services can be delivered on smartphones and tablets?
  • Triage – how can we further automate the complex processes of determining eligibility and matching clients to resources?

These were all worthy goals with some key inherent challenges. For instance, we want to standardize forms across all state courts, but that’s not necessarily a priority for the courts, and we don’t have much authority to set priorities for them.

Much of our work supports self representing litigants, but there’s still a bias against having people represent themselves. As LSC CEO Jim Sandman pointed out during his address to the TIG conference, most Americans don’t realize that the right to an attorney is only a given in criminal cases; it isn’t applied to most civil cases.  So you can have your house improperly seized by a bank or suffer from domestic abuse, but access to the justice system has an entry fee in the thousands of dollars if you can’t find a volunteer attorney or represent yourself.

As the Tech Summit and TIG conference went on, it became clear that another challenge lies in finding the resources to maintain and replicate the innovative technology projects that LSC funds.  TIG grants award innovative use of technology, but they’re basically startup funding.  We’ve seen remarkable projects funded, including flexible call centers and web sites that effectively automate triage; key integration of case management, phone and other systems; development of document assembly platforms that dramatically increase efficiency. Now we have to figure out how to increase the internal tech capacity and drum up additional funding in order to sustain and share these efforts across the sector.

I was not only impressed by the creativity and dedication of the legal aid tech community, but also by the role my organization plays in sponsoring these events and so thoroughly assisting with the grant process.  I don’t think that many foundations put this kind of effort in coaching and supporting their grantees through the application process.

Finally, I learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities ahead for me in my new job, as CIO at LSC (I love how that rolls off the tongue. I also laughed when my wife pointed out to me that her initials are “LSC”). Those boil down to the ways that I can use my position and my network to drum up resources for legal aid tech. Wherever possible, I want to work with our legal partners, such as the courts and technology vendors, to develop standards; where appropriate, I want to assist Legal Aid orgs in their efforts to collaborate and solve technology challenges; and I want to support the community in strategically using technology to overcome our functional and service-oriented barriers.

To that point, I think that the tech summit goals are worthy goals that I look forward to working on.  But the key to their success lies in the facility of using technology at the ground level.  We need to build that capacity, and much of that can be done if we can standardize our use across the sector and more easily share our successful efforts. At the conference, I spoke with one ED who was partnering his statewide org with a neighboring state to hire a shared CIO.  Another group of three legal aid orgs in the same state were planning to combine their technology.  These are efforts worth championing, and I hope to see more like them.

A few final, related notes: