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:

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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.

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