Category Archives: Technology

Posts of a geekier nature

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.

Maybe.

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

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.

TechSavvy

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 Lynda.com, 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 Salesforce.com, 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.

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.

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?”

Where I’ll Be At 15NTC

15ntc (1)The 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference starts on March 3rd and marks my tenth year attending (out of the last eleven). Based on my prior experience, I’m looking forward to highly enriching and rewarding social event, hanging out with about 2500 of the nicest people I could ever hope to know, this year at the Austin (Texas) Convention center.

Huh! So we’re Convention Center-sized now. The challenge — which NTEN pulled off with over 2000 attendees last year — is to host that many people and still maintain an atmosphere of community. Last year, during the Ignite plenary, Susan Reed told a story that was breathtakingly personal and inspirational, displaying an impressive level of trust in the community. I wonder what we’ll see this year, just as I wonder if the sheer size of the facility might daunt us. But what I do know is that the NTEN staff set a tone that is remarkably open and welcoming, and they craft the event in ways that make it more difficult to avoiding meeting a ton of new people than it is to make the new friends. I will literally know hundreds of the people attending, but I fully expect to have at least 25 new friends by the time the Geek Games have subsided and we all head home.

So, where will I be?

Tuesday, 3/3, 7:00 pm: #NTCBeer

This seventh annual pre-conference social event that combines great people with good beer (and other beverages) will be held at The Cedar Door.  In addition to a good beer selection, we’ll have a private room with full bar and plenty of options for good food to eat.

We’ll see if we top the approximately 300 people that showed up in DC last year (with more turned away as the bar hit capacity). Note that, while #ntcbeer is a conference event, we don’t turn away friendly nptechies who just happen to be in town.

Thanks to NTEN for finding the location this year! If you plan on attending, please let us know on the #ntcbeer Facebook event page.

Wednesday, 3/4, 10:30 am: Software and Service Contracts – How to Negotiate Reasonable Terms in the Cloud Era

campbellpeter.img1_Rounding out my wonky trio of tech management topics (Project Management at 13NTC; Requests for Proposals at 14NTC), we’ll talk about the key things to challenge vendors on and the best tone to set in negotiations, with some new thinking on what needs to be addressed for hosted (cloud) systems. I blogged on the NTEN Blog about this session in greater detail, and you can register for it on the Sched page, assuming that you’ve signed up for MyNTC.

Thursday, 3/5, 6:00 pm: Access To Justice Get-together

gavel-145568_640Do you work in legal aid? Join us at an informal drinks and, possibly, dinner meetup at Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden. You can RSVP on NTEN’s social events calendar (Thursday tab, row 8)

 

Friday, 3/6, 10:30 AM: Crafting IT Policy to Improve Security and Manage BYOD

 invisible-man-154567_1280I’ll be joining Johan Hammerstrom, CEO of Community IT Innovators, in a session that discusses the latest security threats and offers tools and a framework for defending our orgs from them. We’ll start with a talk about securing information when it no longer lives behind a firewall, then move to new ideas about dealing with security breaches, then on to standard IT policies, including Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), assuming that’s still a topic of great interest. You can register for this session here.

 

Other than that, I’ll be all over the place and on Twitter. If you want to meet up, ping me there!

How I Spent My 2015 Technology Initiative Grants Conference

I’m back from our (Legal Services Corporation) 15th annual technology conference, which ran from January 14th through the 16th  in San Antonio, Texas.  It was a good one this year, with a great location, good food, great people – nearly 300 of them, which is quite a record for us. There were plenty of amazing sessions, kicked off by a fascinating keynote on international access to justice web app partnerships. Slides and videos will be up soon on LSC’s website. But I did want to share the slides from my sessions, which all seemed to go very well.  I did three:

Are You Agile

I kicked off the first morning doing a session on agile project management with Gwen Daniels of Illinois Legal Aid Online. My slides provided a basic overview of project management concepts, then Gwen did a live demo of how ILAO uses Jira and a SCRUM methodology to develop websites and applications. Having studied agile more than actually practicing it, I learned a lot from her.  The combined slides will be up on LSC’s site. I pulled my intro from this broader presentation that I did at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in 2013:

Shop Smart: How A Formal Procurement Process Can Safeguard Your Investments

On Thursday, I summarized everything I know about software and vendor selection, writing proposals, and negotiating contracts into this dense presentation on how to purchase major software systems.

Security Basics

And on Friday, usual suspect Steve Heye and I led a session on security, factoring all of the things that we think orgs should know in an era of frequent, major breaches and distributed data.

I’ll hit some of these same themes in March at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I’ll be speaking on contract negotiations (cloud and otherwise) and information policies (with Johan Hammerstrom of CommunityIT. See you there?

13 Lessons On Building Your Nonprofit Technology Culture

This article originally appeared on the Exponent Partners blog on December 19th, 2014. It was written by Kerry Vineburg, based on a phone interview with me.

EXPONENT PARTNERS SERIES: SMART PRACTICES

Is your nonprofit thinking about implementing a large database project like Salesforce? Nonprofit and technology veteran Peter Campbell, CIO at Legal Services Corporation, recently shared his valuable insights on how to prepare your team and culture for long-term success. His organization, the top funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the country, is developing Salesforce as a data warehouse for their grantee information and document management. 

We asked Peter to tell us more about what practices he uses to help ensure a successful technology implementation. As you’ll see, it’s just as much about working with people! 

Embarking On Your Project

1. When beginning a technology project, agree on the problem you’re solving, that all staff can relate to. Organizational readiness is critical. I’ve worked at organizations that didn’t recognize that their casual approach to data management was a problem, and they weren’t looking for a solution. If your staff don’t understand why they need an application, then you’re in danger of installing something that won’t be utilized. When starting a new organizational project, I identify 2-3 core bullet points that will explain the goals of the project, and repeat them often. For example: “The new system will provide one-step access to all information and documents related to a grantee.” That’s the high-level goal. It should be something where the product users all agree, “Yes, I need that!”
2. When planning technology upgrades and projects, schedule the changes. Plan for gradual change. Early in my career, I had to deal with the Y2K bug and replace every system at a mid-sized law firm in a short period. It led me to this philosophy: replace only one major system each year. It’s a myth that people hate change — people hate disruption. Change is good, but needs to be managed at steady level. If you’re doing regular implementations every year, people can get used to that pace. If you do nothing for 3 years, then switch out everything: 1) you’re putting too much of a burden on your implementers to achieve everything at once and 2) you’re making too big of an imposition on staff. Suddenly, everything they know is gone and replaced.

Getting Buy-In

3. Gain full executive sponsorship. There’s a common misconception that a new system will just work for you once it’s installed. To fully realize the benefits of a CRM requires cultural change. Every level of the organization needs to buy into the project. You’ll need to harness a lot of attention and energy from your team to develop requirements, manage the project, learn the new system and adapt processes. Otherwise, you’ll invest in a big database implementation and only one or two people will use it.
The importance of a major system upgrade should be set by the executive director and/or board. Everyone should know that the system is a priority. At nonprofits, our executive directors are often better at fundraising than managing a business, and many are somewhat technophobic. They don’t need to be technology gurus, but they do need to understand what the technology should be doing for them, and to take ownership of those goals. The last thing that I want to hear from my boss is, “Here’s a budget — go do what you think is best.” Without their interest in my projects, I’m bound to fail.
4. If one buy-in approach needs help, try a combo. If you can’t convince your executive director or other leadership to be regular active participants, power users can sometimes help convince your team. I’m not recommending an either/or approach, there should be some of both, but power users can engage staff in cases where management isn’t setting clear expectations. For any project that impacts staff, I will invite key users to be on our evaluation team, help with product selection, and potentially be on our advisory committee during the project. For example, we have a grants department liaison, who is charged with getting the right people in the room when we need input from the staff that know much better than we do what the system should ultimately do for them.
5. Incorporate perspectives from around the table. In addition to power users, I also want feedback from “standard” users. Maybe they don’t love technology so much, and maybe they wouldn’t volunteer for this. But they have an important perspective: you need to understand their reactions and what they’re going to find difficult. As the IT director and CIO, I know important things about managing a project. The users know important things that I don’t. If we don’t have views from multiple sides of the table, the project will fail.

Working With Good People

6. Look for partners (vendors and consultants) who understand your mission, not just the technology. In the ideal situation, you want people who not only get database and programming work, but also really understand your mission and business priorities. I’m blessed to have developers on my team who not only understand grants management but are also sympathetic to what the people coming to them are trying to accomplish. When they get a request, they can prioritize with a good understanding of our organization’s requirements. They’re able to answer, “How can I make the most out of what this person needs with my available time?” while being skilled enough to capably choose between the technical options. Getting people that have a broader mindset than just technology is really important.
7. Vary your team and role strategy with your size. At nonprofits, we don’t usually have big internal teams. Someone becomes our accidental techie/database guru. Even large nonprofits are hurting for staff. It’s always been less “here’s the best practice and ideal way to staff this,” and more “let’s see what budget and people I have, and make it work as well as I can.” Not many nonprofits have developers on staff. Hiring can be challenging. It’s a popular skillset, and won’t be cheap. If you’re tiny, you probably won’t hire full-time, you’ll outsource to consultants. But if you have 30 people or more using the CRM, you might benefit from in-house expertise, even if it’s a half-time role.
If you already have developers on staff, that’s great. If they don’t have experience with, say, Salesforce, but they do know database design and a programming language or two, it’s not hard to pick up the concepts. You’re modeling a database, designing it, and then scripting on top of it in a similar language. They can probably adapt.
8. Practice good compensation and retention strategies for your technically savvy (and/or newly trained) staff. I’ve seen a trend over the past 10 years. A nonprofit decides to use a solution like Salesforce and they charge their accidental techie with the task of implementing. The accidental techie gets the implementation done, becomes a guru on it, trains all the users, and then because the organization is paying them an entry-level salary, they leave and go get a much higher paying job as a consultant! It’s a valuable skillset, so don’t be short-sighted about compensating them for what they do for you. You need to be careful and invest properly. Give them raises along with the skillset, to make sure they are fully motivated to stick with you.

Project Management

9. Avoid surprises with good communication. My rule of IT management now is: “No one should ever be surprised by anything I do.” From experience with good mentors, I learned important lessons about communication: if you’re going to make a change, communication is critical. Say it 3 times in 3 different mediums (in email, on the internet, on flyers on the wall on every floor!). Be sure staff know how the technology contributes to the well-being of the organization, rather than being a time-waster, so they are motivated to keep working with it. Communicate well.
10. If possible, hold out for the right team. I put off projects to have the right people in place, rather than hold tight to a project deadline with the wrong people in place. See above for how to find and keep the right people.

Training and Baking The Technology Into Your Culture

11. Don’t reinvent the wheel; take advantage of the ecosystem. It can be really common for staff not to reach out for help. They may feel like their job is to learn the technology on their own. They should know there are many resources available to them! For example, with Salesforce, I recommend making use of peer support in the community, the Power of Us Hub, and local user groups. When they do seasonal updates, they do a lot of webinars and are good about providing information about how the app is growing. Salesforce also offers training (the Salesforce Foundation discounts by half) and every consultant I’ve spoken with is capable of doing some customized training. I know that other technologies offer resources like this also. It also behooves anybody on staff to know the specific implementation that you’ve done.
12. Allocate a training budget. I always push to have a staff training budget. For my organization, we even hired for a role of training and implementation specialist. We wanted to have a person on staff whose full-time job was training and strategizing how users use software and how to involve them in the implementation process. This should be part of your budget. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have people in your organization who know how to train on your applications.
13. Engage staff and help them understand the big picture of the technology. It’s good to get your team working with the database early on in the process, learning what it’s capable of and what it looks like. Engage your users: get people involved in every step of the process, from selecting products to implementation to training and rollout. Make the product demos big group activities, so that everyone can envision how similar systems work and what they might do with the product beyond what they’re doing today. Beta-test your implementations, giving staff lots of opportunities to provide input. Take an Agile approach of regularly showing what you’re developing to the people who will be using it, and adjusting your development per their feedback.
With a committed team that understands your mission, great communication, well-allocated resources, and gradual change, your organization can lay the foundations for a successful solution that will actually be adopted!
Thanks to Peter Campbell for these great insights. Peter also blogs at techcafeteria.com
For even more strategies on ensuring that your culture is ready for your system, check out our free report Nonprofit Technology Adoption: Why It Matters and How to Be Successful.

– See more at: http://www.exponentpartners.com/building-your-nonprofit-technology-culture#sthash.QPFll78h.dpuf

Why I’m Intrigued By Google’s Inbox

Google Inbox logoHere we go again! Another communication/info management Google product that is likely doomed to extinction (much like recent social networks I’ve been blogging about), and I can’t help but find it significant and important, just as I did Google Wave, Google Buzz, and the much-loved Google Reader. I snagged an early invite to Google’s new “Inbox” front-end to GMail, and I’ve been agonizing over it for a few weeks now.  This app really appeals to me, but I’m totally on the fence about actually using it, for a few reasons:

  • This is either a product that will disappear in six months, or it’s what Gmail’s standard interface will evolve into.  It is absolutely an evolved version of recent trends, notably the auto-sorting tabs they added about a year ago.
  • The proposition is simple: if you let Google sort your mail for you, you will no longer have to organize your mail.

I’ve blogged before about how expensive an application email is to maintain, time-wise. We get tons of email (I average over a hundred messages a day between work and home), and every message needs to be managed (deleted, archived, labeled, dragged to a folder, etc.), unlike texts and social media, which you can glance at and either reply or ignore. The average email inbox is flooded with a wide assortment of information, some useless and offensive (“Meet Beautiful Russian Women”), some downright urgent (“Your Aunt is in the Hospital!”), and a range of stuff in-between. If you get 21 messages while you’re at an hour-long meeting, and the first of the 21 is time-sensitive and critical, it’s not likely the first one that you are going to read, as it has scrolled below the visible part of your screen. The handful of needles in the crowded haystack can be easily lost forever.

Here’s how Inbox tries to make your digital life easier and less accident-prone:

  • Inbox assumes (incorrectly) that every email has three basic responses: You want to deal with it soon (keep it in the inbox); you want to deal with it later (“snooze” it with a defined time to return to the inbox); or you want to archive it. They left out delete it, currently buried under a pop-up menu, which annoys me, because I believe that permanently deleting the 25% of my email that can be glanced at (or not even opened) and deleted is a cornerstone of my inbox management strategy. But, that nit aside, I really agree with this premise.
  • Messages fall in categories, and you can keep a lot of the incoming mail a click away from view, leaving the prime inbox real estate to the important messages. Inbox accomplishes this with “Bundles“. which are the equivalent to the presorted tabs in Classic GMail.  Your “Promotions”, Updates” and “Social” bundles (among other pre-defineds) group messages, as opposed to putting each incoming message on it’s own inbox line. I find the in-list behavior more intuitive than the tabs. You can create your own bundles and teach them to auto-sort — I immediately created one for Family, and added in the primary email addresses for my immediate loved ones.  We’ll see what it learns.
  • Mail doesn’t need to be labeled (you can still label messages, but it’s not nearly as simple a task as it is in GMail classic). This is the thing I’m wrestling with most — I use my labels.  I have tons of filters defined that pre-label messages as they come in, and my mailbox cleanup process labels what’s missed. I go to the labels often to narrow searches. I totally get that this might not be necessary — Google’s search might be good enough that my labeling efforts are actually more work than just searching the entire inbox each time. But I’m heavily invested in my process.
  • Highlights” act a bit like Google Now, popping up useful info like flight details and package tracking.

One important note: Inbox does nothing to alter or replace your Gmail application.  It’s an alternative interface. When you archive, delete or label a message in Inbox, it gets archived, deleted or labeled in GMail as well, but Gmail knows nothing about bundles and, therefore, doesn’t reflect them, and not one iota of GMail functionality changes when you start using Inbox.  You do start getting double notifications, and Inbox offered to turn off GMail notifications for me if I wanted to fix that. I turned Inbox down and I’m waiting for GMail to make a similar offer.  😉

So what Inbox boils down to is a streamlined, Get Things Done (GTD) frontend for GMail that removes email clutter, eases email management, and highlights the things that Google thinks are important. If you think Google can do that for you reasonably well, then it might make your email communication experience much saner. You might want to switch to it.  Worse that can happen is it goes away, in which case Gmail will still be there.

I have invites.  Leave a comment or ping me directly if you’d like one.

If you’re using Inbox already, tell me, has it largely replaced GMail’s frontend for you?  If so, why? If not, why not?