Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Brief History of Nonprofit Technology Leadership, And a Call to Action for New Circuit Riders

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in June of 2013.

When someone asked me, “What is the role of circuit riders today?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. But the question stuck with me, and I have an idea that I want to share, appropriately, with the NTEN community.

A month or two ago, a friend of mine asked me a great question: “What is the role of circuit riders today?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. But the question stuck with me, and I have an idea that I want to share, appropriately, with the NTEN community.

We speak a lot here about nonprofit technology, more affectionately known as “nptech.” The origins of nptech lie in the tradition of circuit riding. The circuit riders that founded NTEN were a loosely affiliated group of people who saw the need for technology at nonprofits before the nonprofits did. As with the Lutheran ministers from whom they borrowed the “circuit rider” name, these people weren’t motivated by money, but by missions, those being the missions of the numerous nonprofits that they served.

The typical services that a circuit rider would provide included setting up basic PC networks, installing phone systems, and designing Access or Filemaker databases to replace paper donation records. While NPOs still need some help getting their basic technical plumbing in order, that work is now simpler and help is easier to find than it was in the 90’s. And anyone designing an Access database for an NPO today should be spanked!

In the early 90’s, we were hitting that turning point where PCs went from specialized systems to commodity equipment. Prior to that, a telephone was on every desk, but there wasn’t necessarily a computer. And, even if there was one there, it wasn’t turned on every day. Today you don’t even need a phone if you have a computer, a VOIP service, and a headset. So we hire people trained in setting up specific systems, or we pay a professional company, rather than relying on volunteers, because it’s more critical to get it right.

So what is the role of the circuit rider in a world where we hand the networking to tech integrators and subcontract database design to specialized Blackbaud and Salesforce consultants? By nature, the role of the New Circuit Rider should be short-term engagements that offer high value. It should capitalize on a technical skill set that isn’t readily available, and it should be informed by a thorough understanding of nonprofit needs.

It’s a type of technology leadership – maybe even a stewardship of technology leadership. I say that it starts with technology assessments. What small to mid-sized nonprofits need most importantly is some good advice about what to prioritize, what to budget for, how to staff IT, and how to support technology. The modern circuit riders’ legacy should be a track record of leaving their clients with a solid understanding of how to integrate technology staff, systems, and strategy into their work. There’s a great need for it.

Just this month I’ve heard stories of NPO leaders who have no idea how to title, compensate, or describe the duties of the IT leader that they know they need to hire; I’ve met newly promoted accidental techies charged with huge integration projects with no strategic plan in place; and I’ve seen a $15 million social services org scraping by with two full time IT staff supporting their five-office enterprise. These organizations need some guidance and advice.

So I’m opening the floor for strategies as to how we build a New Circuit Rider Network to fill this immediate need, and I’m proposing we start helping nonprofits do more than invest in technology, that we help them plan for it and resource it proactively.

Peter Campbell is a nonprofit technology professional, currently serving as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to legal aid programs throughout the United States. Peter blogs and speaks regularly about technology tools and strategies that support the nonprofit community.

The Palotta Problem

uncharitableIf I have a good sense of who reads my blog, you’re likely familiar with Dan Palotta, notable in the nonprofit world for having raised significant amounts of money running the Aids Rides and Breast Cancer walks.  More recently, he’s become a outspoken and controversial crusader for reform in the sector.  He did a much-viewed Ted talk, and he’s written a few books outlining his case that “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. And he keynoted the recent NTEN conference in Minneapolis.

Palotta’s claim is that nonprofits, in general, are their own worst enemies. By operating from a puritanical, self-sacrificing ethic that says that we can’t pay ourselves as well as for profit companies do, and we can’t invest heavily in marketing and infrastructure, instead prioritizing that every penny go to our program work, we are dramatically ineffective. He is advocating for a revolution against our own operating assumptions and the Charity Navigators, tax codes and foundations that are set up to enforce this status quo.

His message resonates. I watched his Ted talk, and then his NTEN plenary, and tears welled in my eyes on both occasions   They were tears of frustration, with an undercurrent of outrage.  I doubt very seriously that my reaction was very different from that of the other 1500 people in the room.  We are all tired of the constant struggle to do more with much less, while we watch entertainers, athletes and corporate CEOs pocket millions. Or billions.  And this is not about our salaries.  It’s about the dramatic needs of the populations we serve; people who are ransacked by poverty and/or disease. Should reality TV stars be pocketing more than most NPOs put annually toward eradicating colortectal cancer or providing legal assistance to the poor?

But, as I said, Palotta is a controversial figure, and the reactions to him are extreme to the point of visceral.  Even among his most ardent supporters, there’s a bit of criticism.  The key critical threads I heard from my NTEN peers were distrust of the implied argument that the corporate model is good, and frustration that a person who did well financially running charities is up there being so critical of our self-sacrifices.  In fact, since his nonprofit went under amid a storm of criticism about his overhead ratio.  Reports are that it was as much as 57% (depending on how much the reporter dislikes Palotta, apparently). That’s between 17% and 42% more than what nonprofits are told to shoot for, and are assessed against. But the amount of money he raised for his causes was ten times that of any similar efforts, and it does dramatically illustrate his point. How much opportunity to raise money is lost by our requirement that we operate with so little staff and resources?

I’m sold on a lot of Dan Palotta’s arguments. I don’t think that NPO’s have to emulate corporations, but they should have equal opportunity to avail themselves of the business tactics, and be measured by how effective they are, not how stingy. But I still can’t rally behind Dan Palotta as the leader for this cause.  It’s one thing to acknowledge that the nature of the “do-gooder” is one of austerity and self-sacrifice. It’s another to criticize it. Because, while most of us can recognize the disadvantages that our nature tends towards, we’re proud of that nature. It’s not as much a bad business orientation as it is a core ethical life view. The firm belief that relieving the suffering of others is of greater personal satisfaction and value than any financial reward pretty much fuels our sector. So standing on a stage and chastising us for not being more competitive, more greedy, and more self-serving, no matter how correct the hypothesis, primarily offends the audience.

By putting this criticism front and center, rather than acknowledging the good intentions and working with us to balance them with a more aggressive business approach, Palotta is undermining his own efforts. The leader who is going to break these institutional assumptions is one who will appreciate the heart of the charity worker, not one who – despite their good intentions – denigrates us. I applaud Palotta for raising a lot of awareness. But I’m still waiting to meet the people who will represent us in this battle. Palotta has raised the flag, but I’m not convinced that he’s our bannerman.

Notes From All Over

Did you know that Techcafeteria isn’t the only place I blog?  You can find me posting on topics related to legal aid, technology, and my work at Legal Services Corporation at the LSC Technology Blog.  My latest there is about my favorite free task management tool, Trello.

I also do the occasional post on NTEN‘s blog, and they published my article on the history of Circuit Riders, the nonprofit-focused techies that got many an org automated in the 90’s, and my pitch for their new mission.  Related: I’ll be doing a webinar for NTEN this fall; an encore of the Project Management session that I did at the recent NTC. Look for that around September.

Next up here? I finally sorted out what bugs me about Dan Palotta, renowned fundraiser, rabble-rouser and keynoter at the NTEN conference last April. I should have that up in a day or two.

In non-blog related news, this is the month that my family finally joins me in DC.  We’ve rented an apartment in Arlington (within walking distance of LSC’s Georgetown offices) to hole up in while we look for a house to buy.  I’m flying to SF to load up the moving truck and say one last goodbye to the best beer on earth (Pliny the Elder, by Russian River Brewing Co.) (What? You thought I was speaking more generally?)