Monthly Archives: March 2015

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?”

Highlights Of The 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference

I’m back and moderately recovered from the 2015 NTC in Austin, Texas, where, along with plenty of good Texas food and beer, I shared some wisdom and learned a lot.  Here’s a summary, with my favorite pics:

#NTCBeer is a proven formula. Take a decent bar, Nonprofit techies, and a room without blaring music, and everyone has a great time, whether they’re NTEN mavens like me, or first time attendees. We estimate that about 275 people came by this year. Here’s a great shot of the room by Jason Shim:

7th annual ntcbeer - room

 

On Wednesday morning I led my session on contract negotiation.  I’d been hoping for an even mix of nonprofit staff and vendors in the room, as these are the types of topics that we don”t spend enough time discussing together, but we were skewed heavily on the customer side.  All the same, it was a good Q&A. I learned some tricks to add to my arsenal, such as, when buying software from small vendors or developers, arranging for rights to the source code should the vendor go under. One vendor somewhat sheepishly asked if I thought that scoping out a fixed bid discovery phase to be completed before submitting a project bid was a bad thing, and I am with him all of the way. We need to stop asking vendors for fixed pricing when there’s no realistic basis for estimating the hours. My slides, below, are a good read for anyone who is responsible for negotiating contracts; and whomever took the collaborative notes just rocked it, capturing fully the wisdom of the crowd.

On Wednesday afternoon I attended Dar Veverka and Andrew Ruginis‘ session on Disaster Recovery and Backup. A solid session that covered every aspect of the topic, with practical advice for nonprofits that might have trouble budgeting time and funds to do this critical work well. Slides are here.

Thursday morning’s choice was Google Analytics session by Yesenia Sotelo. I was looking for a good overview on what Analytics can do and how to do it, and this fully met my needs. Great news: NTEN recorded this one and the video will be available from them by March 12th! Here’s Yesenia’s inspirational presentation style, captured by official NTEN photographer Trav Williams:

16086373604_c92375bab7_z

 

The afternoon session was a panel by four of my favorite people, Robert Weiner, Tracy Kronzak, Dahna Goldstein and Marc Baizman. What To Do When Technology Isn’t Your Problem focused on the user side of systems implementation, pulling heavy on the mantra of “People, Process, Technology”. The slides are here, and the collaborative notes on this one are pretty good. Even more fun: here’s the quiz they gave us that you can take to see how ready your org is to implement systems successfully.

 

Friday started with an ignite plenary that featured a moving presentation by Debra Askanase on how she overcame vision impairment and unsupportive teachers to beat math anxiety and ace Calculus. Then Johan Hammerstrom of CommunityIT and I did a rambling talk on IT security, policies and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). I was a little worried that we might have leaned too heavily on the talking head side, with the presentation weighing in at close to an hour.  But it was a crowd of our people (IT staff) and the feedback was positive. Slides are here; collaborative notes here; and, keep your eyes open, because I’ll have a URL for a video of the session later this week.

NTEN gave out a lot of awards. It was great to see Modern Courts, a New York org that advocates for adequate numbers of family law judges, win the DoGooder ImpactX video award. It was also great that friends mentioned in this post, Ken and Yesenia, won “NTENNys”, and very moving that they gave one to the late Michael Delong, a colleague with Techsoup who passed away suddenly, and far too young, last year. Lyndal cairns joined the NTEN Award club. And I was moved to tears when my friend David Krumlauf picked up NTEN’s lifetime achievement award. David’s generous, untiring work supporting the capacity of nonprofits has always been an inspiration.

There were also a couple of pleasant surprises: Ken Montenegro, IT Director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and a colleague of mine in the Legal Aid community is the newest member of the NTEN Board. And Karen Graham, recently of the sadly shut-down Map Techworks program has got a new gig: Executive Director at Idealware! Congrats all around.

The last session on Friday was a strong one on User Adoption, led by Tucker MacLean, Norman Reiss, Austin Buchan and Kevin Peralta. Pushing more on the people-process-tech theme, this session really engaged the crowd and offered solid advice on how to help users feel involved in technology rollouts. Bonus: their resource section included my post on Building NPTech Culture. Sadly, they have yet to share their slides. Update! They do have slides.

As usual, I had a blast at the conference, meeting new people and catching up with old friends. It was a little difficult to socialize as well as I have in the past, given that we were staying at a variety of hotels and the convention center was massive. With a little less than 2000 attending, I think we might have been better off in a hotel. But I still had a great time at Box.org’s offices Wednesday night (a party co-hosted by Box, Caravan Studios, Twillio and others); a small Access to Justice get-together with Michelle Nicolet, Jimmy Midyette, and the aforementioned Ken Montenegro on Thursday; a great party at Container Bar, hosted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy; the dinner below on Friday, followed up by Michelle Chaplin‘s karaoke party, where I scratched “singing Randy Newman’s Guilty (best known by the Bonnie Raitt cover) in public” off of my bucket list. What’s going to top that next year?

Iron Works BBQ Dinner