Career update! I’ve moved my CIO services and tech consulting practice to a new home. As of February 4th, 2019 I’m the CIO for Hire at Raffa, Marcum’s Social Sector and Nonprofit Group. This doesn’t change what I do for a living, it just gives me a team to work with and a steadier paycheck. As always, my focus is on helping nonprofits use technology to further their missions, not frustrate them, and I believe that one way to do that is to keep technology expertise at the table, even if you can’t afford to hire it in full-time. You can find me at Raffa, or here, as usual.
This article was originally published in NTEN Change Magazine in June of 2015.
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.
We’ve gotten far past the early internet days when registering a domain name usually meant choosing between .COM, .ORG, and .NET. The number of top level domains (TLD) has exploded, and you can now grab names ending in .BAND, .BEER, .BARGAINS, .BEST, .BLOG, .BOO, .BUZZ, and .WTF (really!), to name just a few. The full list of new additions is here.
Two new TLDs are of particular interest to nonprofits. Next week, you’ll have the option of registering a .NGO domain (Non Govermental Organization). Should you? I’d say that it depends on the scope of your nonprofit. Is it international? Do you work outside of the US? Non-Governmental Organization isn’t a meaningful distinction here in the states (where I work at what is casually called a quasi-governmental nonprofit), but it’s much more common everywhere else. If your org is focused on a local U.S. community, it probably makes no sense to pay for a domain name that your constituents might not even understand, much less expect. Otherwise, it seems really prudent to be accessible using the standard terminology in the countries that you work with. Just register it and point it to the same site as your .ORG.
Update: actually, there might be a few reasons to invest in .NGO, even if you don’t have an international presence. The article “Four Reasons Why Your Nonprofit Should Register .NGO and .ONG” was pretty enlightening. One key point is that, unlike with .ORG, .NGO/ONG registration requires proof of your nonprofit status, which will increase the trust level of potential donors. Another is that a large, potentially considered “definitive”, directory of nonprofits will be based on .NGO/ONG registration. Thanks to Chris Tuttle for this heads up!
The other up and coming TLD is the new .SUCKS extension. While .WTF is pretty funny, .SUCKS is a bit of a threat. Many of us register the .COM equivalent of our .ORG domain name to protect our brands from impostors or critics (if you don’t, and it’s available, you should). So who wants to see a .SUCKS variant of their domain name out there? None of us. So, should you grab this one as a stopgap too? I say, no way.
First, there’s already a complaint filed with ICANN against Vox Populi, the company offering .SUCKS registrations, rightly claiming that their policy of famous people and brands and offering them a $2500 (annually!) first shot at registering the .SUCKS variant of their name prior to chopping down the price to $10 for anyone else is equivalent to extortion.
But my case is that, extortion attempts aside, even $10 a year is too much to pay, because owning the .SUCKS equivalent of your brand won’t protect you from anything. Anyone can register a “yourorgsucks” domain with a .COM or .NET or .WTF extension. and nobody is going to think that a techcafeteria.sucks domain lobbing grammar critiques of my blog is something that I created or endorse…
So .NGO is go if you go beyond the borders, but .sucks sucks. Just say no!
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. Nonprofits 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?”
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?”
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:
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:
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.
— Jereme Bivins (@jcbivins) March 6, 2015
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?
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
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
Friday, 3/6, 10:30 AM: Crafting IT Policy to Improve Security and Manage BYOD
I’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!
Here 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?