Tag Archives: budget

Does Your Request For Proposal (RFP) Ask The Right Questions?

This post was originally published on the Community IT Innovators Blog in November of 2014.

foler-29373_640Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are a controversial topic in the nonprofit sector. While governmental and corporate organizations use them regularly as a tool to evaluate products and services, their use in our sector is haphazard. I spoke recently about the RFP process and how it could work for us at the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference. My slides from that talk are here, along with this blog post outlining my key arguments in favor of RFPs. But a recent conversation on NTEN’s DC community list really summed up the topic.

A member posted an RFP for CRM consulting and asked why he was getting scant responses from the vendors. I looked over the RFP, and saw that it requested a fixed bid quote for work that was not well defined. I popped back into the forum with some comments:

“This five page RFP contains about a tenth of the information that a decent consultant would need in order to propose a meaningful bid for the work. If you’ve received any such bids already, I would advise you to throw them out, because those bids are wild guesses, and you will either be paying more than you need to, or setting yourself up for a combative relationship with a vendor who is angry that the project is taking far more hours than they guessed that it would. Decent consultants are passing on the RFP because it lacks so much specificity. There are two ways you could address this problem:

  1. Significantly beef up the RFP. If I were to go this route, I might hire a consultant to help me write the RFP, because they can better communicate the requirements than I could.
  2. Stop asking for a fixed bid. Query their expertise in the areas that need it, and request ample examples of work they’ve done. Also, ask for their hourly fees by role. The RFP can provide a fairly high-level overview of the project, as you won’t be asking them to generate a meaningful estimate. Instead, do reference checks and ask specific questions about their billing in order to vet that they are honest and sensitive to nonprofit budgets.

Many consultants would pop in here and say “forget the RFP – let us come talk with you and get a sense of the project and we can go from there.” As a customer, not a consultant, I wouldn’t go for that. A good RFP, sent before any face to face meetings, can tell you a lot about the professionalism, insight and care that a company will bring to your project.  Rapport and relationship are also critical, but assessing those elements is the second step. (And when it comes to that step, insist that you are meeting the people who you would almost certainly be working with). An RFP response can also be attached to the contract to make sure that the vendor is obliged to live up to their claims.

I do fixed-bid quotes for phone systems and virtualization projects, where I can tell them exactly what the project would entail. I don’t for websites and software development, because not only do I not know what the ultimate product will look like or require, I shouldn’t – a lot of learning takes place during the project that will shape the requirements further. Once I’ve hired a good consultant, we can do a defined discovery phase that will allow them to provide a fixed quote — or reasonable range — for the rest of the work.  It’s a much better way to set up the relationship than by basing it in unrealistic projections.”

Subsequently, a consultant posted a reply suggesting that RFPs are a pain, and they should really just hire a consultant they like and see if it works out, perhaps after doing a small Request for Information (RFI) to learn more about the consultants available. I replied:

I did say that consultants will often dis the RFP process and say, “just hire us and see if it works out.”  It certainly is easier on the consultant. As Clint Eastwood would say, the question is, “do you feel lucky?” Because if you feel lucky, then you can just find a suitable-looking consultant and hope that they are ethical, not over-booked (and therefore liable to under-prioritize your project), experienced with the technology that they’re deploying, etc, and do a discovery phase that will cost you x thousands of dollars, and then find out if they are the right consultant for you. Or you can do an RFP, throw out the responses that clearly don’t match your requirements, throw out the ones that don’t seem interested or well-resourced enough to respond fully, and interview the two to four consultants that look like good matches. It’s more work up front than hiring someone and hoping they’ll work out, true, but, here’s what it gets you:

  1. Focused. Just writing the RFP gets you more in touch with the goals and requirements for the project.
  2. Informed. The RFP review and interviews are a chance for the project team to explore the project possibilities with various experts.
  3. Confident. Without investing thousands of dollars into a “vendor test,” you will know who has the right experience and a compatible approach. For me, it’s often less about the skill and experience than the approach (e.g., we want a collaborative partner that would teach as they go, rather than experts to outsource the work to).
  4. Accountable. The RFP can be a contractual document, so if the vendor lied about what they can do, they can be held responsible for that lie. And, not all consultants lie, but some do. I’ve caught them at it.  😉
  5. Documented. In the future, after you’ve left the organization, your successors might wonder why you selected the partner that you did. The RFP process leaves a knowledge management trail for key organizational decision making.

And finally, RFI vs RFP is a question of scale.  For smaller projects, without much associated risk, RFI. The investment in doing a full RFP does have to be justified by the cost and complexity of the project. For big projects, doing an RFI in order to identify who you want to include in an RFP can be helpful.

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Community IT Innovators are a DC consulting and outsourcing firm located in Washington, DC.  Their blog is a great source of good tech advice, with similar themes (but more expert advice, less over-indulgent opinion) as mine.

It’s Time To Revamp The NTEN Staffing Survey

cover_techstaffingreport_2014_smallNTEN‘s annual Nonprofit IT Staffing survey is out, you can go here to download it.  It’s free! As with prior years, the report structures it’s findings around the self-reported technology adoption level of the participants, as follows:

  • Stuggling orgs have failing technology and no money to invest in getting it stabilized. They have little or no IT staff.
  • Functioning orgs have a network in place and running, but use tech simply as infrastructure, with little or no strategic input.
  • Operating nonprofits have tech and policies for it’s use in place, and they gather input from tech staff and consultants before making technology purchasing and planning decisions.
  • Leading NPOs integrate technology planning with general strategic planning and are innovative in their use of tech.

The key metrics discussed in the report are the IT staff to general staff ratio and the IT budget as percentage of total budget.  The IT->general staff metric is one to thirty, which matches all of the best information I have on this metric at nonprofits, which I’ve pulled from CIO4Good and NetHope surveys.

On budgets, an average of 3% of budget to IT is also normal for NPOs.  But what’s disturbing in the report is that the ratio was higher for smaller orgs and lower for larger, who averaged 1.6% or 1.7%. In small orgs, what that’s saying is that computers, as infrastructure, take up a high percentage of the slim budget.  But it says that larger orgs are under-funding tech.  Per Gartner, the cross-industry average is 3.3% of budget.  For professional services, healthcare and education — industries that  are somewhat analogous to nonprofits — it’s over 4%.  The reasons why we under-spend are well-known and better ranted about by Dan Palotta than myself, but it’s obvious that, in 2014, we are undermining our efforts if we are spending less than half of what a for profit would on technology.

What excites me most about this year’s report is what is not in it: a salary chart. All of the prior reports have averaged out the IT salary info reported and presented it in a chart, usually by region.  But the survey doesn’t collect sufficiently detailed or substantial salary info, so the charts have traditionally suffered from under-reporting and averaging that results in misleading numbers.  I was spitting mad last year when the report listed a Northeastern Sysadmin salary at $50k.  Market is $80, and the odds that a nonprofit will get somebody talented and committed for 63% of market are slim.  Here’s my full take on the cost of dramatically underpaying nonprofit staff. NTEN shouldn’t be publishing salary info that technophobic CEOs will use as evidence of market unless the data is truly representative.

I would love it if NTEN would take this survey a little deeper and try and use it to highlight the ramifications of our IT staffing and budgeting choices.  Using the stumble, crawl, walk, run scale that they’ve established, we could gleam some real insight by checking other statistics against those buckets. Here are some metrics I’d like to see:

  • Average days each year that key IT staff positions are vacant. This would speak to one of the key dangers in underpaying IT staff.
  • Percentage of IT budget for consulting. Do leading orgs spend more or less than trailing? How much bang do we get for that buck?
  • In-house IT Staff vs outsourced IT management.  It would be interesting to see where on the struggling to leading scale NPOs that outsource IT fall.
  • Percentage of credentialed vs “accidental” techs. I want some data to back up my claim that accidental techies are often better for NPOs than people with lots of IT experience.
  • Who does the lead IT Person report to? How many leading orgs have IT reporting to Finance versus the CEO?

What type of IT staffing metrics would help you make good decisions about how to run your nonprofit? What would help you make a good case for salaries, staffing or external resources to your boss? I want a report from NTEN that does more than just tells me the state of nonprofit IT — that’s old, sad news.  I want one that gives me data that I can use to improve it.

 

Career Reflections: My Biggest Data Fail

This article was published on the NTEN Blog in February of 2014.  It originally appeared in the eBook “Collected Voices: Data-informed Nonprofits“.

Peter Campbell of Legal Services Corporation shares his biggest data fail, and what he’d do differently now.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

Note: names and dates have been omitted to protect the innocent. 

Years ago, I was hired at an organization that had a major database that everyone hated. My research revealed a case study in itself: how not to roll out a data management system. Long story short, they had bought a system designed to support a different business model, and then paid integrators to customize it beyond recognition. The lofty goal was to have a system that would replace people talking to each other. And the project was championed by a department that would not have to do the data entry; the department identified to do all of the work clearly didn’t desire the system.

The system suffered from a number of problems. It was designed to be the kitchen sink, with case info, board updates, contact management, calendaring, web content management, and other functions. The backend was terrible: a SQL database with tables named after the tabs in the user interface. The application itself had miserable search functionality, no dupe checking, and little in the way of data quality control. Finally, there were no organizational standards for data entry. Some people regularly updated information; others only went near it when nagged before reporting deadlines. One person’s idea of an update was three to five paragraphs; another’s two words.

I set out to replace it with something better. I believed (and will always believe) that we needed to build a custom application, not buy a commercial one and tweak it. What we did was not the same thing that the commercial systems were designed to track. But I did think we’d do better building it with consultants on a high-level platform than doing it by ourselves from scratch, so I proposed that we build a solution on Salesforce. The system had over 150 users, so this would be relatively expensive.

Timing is everything: I made my pitch the same week that financial news indicated that we were diving into a recession. Budgets were cut. Spending was frozen.  And I was asked if I could build the system in Access, instead?  And this is when I…

…explained to my boss that we should table the project until we had the budget to support it.

Or so I wish. Instead, I dusted off my amateur programming skills and set out to build the system from scratch. I worked with a committee of people who knew the business needs, and I developed about 90% of a system that wasn’t attractive, but did what needed to be done reasonably well. The goals for the system were dramatically scaled back to simply what was required.

Then I requested time with the department managers to discuss data stewardship. I explained to the critical VP that my system, like the last one, would only be as good as the data put into it, so we needed to agree on the requirements for an update and the timeliness of the data entry. We needed buy-in that the system was needed, and that it would be properly maintained. Sadly, the VP didn’t believe that this was necessary, and refused to set aside time in any meeting to address it. Their take was that the new system would be better than the old one, so we should just start using it.

This was where I had failed. My next decision was probably a good one: I abandoned the project. While my system would have been easier to manage (due to the scaled back functionality, a simple, logical database structure and a UI that included auto-complete and dupe-checking), it was going to fail, too, because, as every techie knows, garbage in equals garbage out. I wanted my system to be a success.  We went on with the flawed original system, and eventually started talking about a new replacement project, and that might have happened, but I left the company.

Lessons learned:

  1. If I’m the IT Director, I can’t be the developer. There was a lot of fallout from my neglected duties.
  2. Get the organizational commitment to the project and data quality standards confirmed before you start development.
  3. Don’t compromise on a vision for expediency’s sake.  There are plenty of times when it’s okay to put in a quick fix for a problem, but major system development should be done right.  Timing is everything, and it wasn’t time to put in a data management system at this company.

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.

What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

This post was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2011.

Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk last month at TED on climate change. His overall point was dead on—we need big solutions for a big problem. And he’s a man who is willing to back what he speaks about financially. But, it was interesting to see him dismiss the small steps in a somewhat cynical fashion, characterizing home installations of solar panels as an ineffectual fad for the rich. Gates said:

The solutions that work in the rich world don’t even come close to solving the [energy] problem. If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.

There are numerous problems with this characterization of home solar customers and the impact they have on the climate. First, solar panels have dropped in costdramatically, to the point where middle-class families can lease them and, under the right conditions (roof design and placement) pay less per month for the lease and tiny energy bill than they would for their former electricity costs alone. We’ve hit a point where the economics are compelling, even if you aren’t on board with the carbon reduction goal. And, hey, my solar lease even came with a free iPad 2. There are plenty of incentives.

Secondly, the “cuteness” dig is pretty ironic, as the former president of IBM was rumored to have said of early graphical operating systems:

“Executives don’t want to click a ‘mouse,’ they want to issue commands!”

PC’s won out over the mainframes the same way that solar might ultimately win out over coal and nuclear: they were trendy at home, and the home users brought them to their businesses. Why wouldn’t the Microsoft model work for solar?

Of course, the climate crisis won’t be solved by homeowners alone. Businesses need to be on board and the energy providers have to transition from the legacy power sources. But that doesn’t mean that individual actions are worthless—far from it.

It’s not just that every little bit counts. It’s that winning the battle to embrace alternate power sources, like every battle, is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. And nobody should know that better than the man that took down the mainframes with his personal computers one house at a time.

Microsoft’s Secret Giveaway

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

Sometimes it feels like the bane of my existence is my office phone. It’s so bad that I rarely answer it, preferring to forward it to Google Voice where I can peruse the barely readable transcripts just well enough to filter out the 90% cold sales calls I receive. So what a pleasure it was to answer my desk phone on Thursday and have an illuminating conversation with my Microsoft Licensing representative. He called to tell me that I own some awesome benefits that come with my Software Assurance program. I’m betting that I’m not the only one who was clueless about these benefits.

Microsoft Licensing, as you know, is the little-known tenth circle of hell. It’s a conceptual labyrinth of terms and conditions that was likely conceived by a team of the writers of the original “Prisoner” series with the advice of contract attorneys that graduated from law school 30 years ago and have never since seen the light of day.

Software Assurance is the tax we pay on our MicroSoft purchases that allows us to upgrade to the newest versions without paying upgrade fees (as long as we’ve paid our software assurance fees, of course). I assume that this is of interest to Idealware readers because most of us pick up a lot of our MS software from Techsoup Stock, and the Techsoup Stock donations come with Software Assurance, not without.

But Microsoft isn’t evil; they’re just bureaucratic, and every now and then a few smart people step up out of the morass and do things that I appreciate. These Software Assurance benefits include:

The Microsoft Home Use Program provides staff with ridiculously steep discounts on MS Office. Register this benefit, and the allowed number of users (which I’m unclear as to how they calculate) at your company can purchase MS Office 2007 Ultimate Edition (or Office 2008 for Mac) for $9.95. That’s not a trial edition, and it’s the opposite of crippled — Ultimate is the “everything but the kitchen sink” edition and it comes with a license key.Microsoft ELearning is a series of online classes in standard MS products like Word and Excel, and Server products like MS SQL Server or Windows 2003. I did note that the list of available classes that my rep sent me looked a little behind the times; no 2008 or 2010 products covered, but many of us aren’t on the bleeding edge anyway.

Microsoft Technet gives you access to forums and experts, as well as evaluation copies of new technologies. For example, as I write this, I just learned that I can pick up Office 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 betas via my MSDN or Technet subscriptions to try.

And the Office Multi-Language Packs let you deploy office in additional languages.

This isn’t fluff. We’ve been paying full price for Office at home (more than we do at work) and I’ve purchased E-Training on MS products and an MSDN subscription (fairly equivalent to Technet) because I had no idea that I already owned them. It makes me feel much better about what seemed like a pre-emptive insurance program that makes me commit to the next version of MS products before I’m ready to make that commitment, at times.

Of course, this is smart business for Microsoft. With Google announcing that their Google Apps offering will be on a feature par with Office within a year, and OpenOffice under active development as a pretty comparable alternative, you don’t want your business customers to get too comfortable with those free alternatives at home. It’s just surprising to me that, for years, this was buried in the small print section of eOpen, and not broadcast widely. So I’m doing MS a favor and blowing the horn on this one.

To access these benefits, log onto eOpen (which I hope you’re using to manage MS licenses!) and once you’ve signed in and clicked “unhide licenses”, find your last Techsoup order (or a similar large purchase) and open it up. The very first link in the license detail should be “Start and Manage your Software Assurance Benefits”. Clicking on that will pop you to a paragraph that includes a link to the “Software Assurance Benefits Management Tool”. Click on that to get the benefits. The more MS software you’ve bought, the more tedious this will be: there are benefits associated with each Software Assurance purchase, so you’ll need to register this way for every relevant order. But it sure beats paying for these things at Best Buy!