Tag Archives: NTEN

Peter Does Not Approve

Peter Does Not ApproveLast week, at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, I co-led a session on “Leading in Uncertain Times” with my friend Dahna Goldstein. At one point, while discussing layoffs, an attendee asked a question that I heard as “Aren’t layoffs a good opportunity to lose the organizational dead weight?” and before I had time to edit my reaction, I just blurted out “I don’t approve!”, getting quite a laugh from the room – a good feat when one is discussing layoffs. On Monday, my nptech doppelganger, Steve Heye, blogged about the conference and included the meme to your left, leaving me to conclude that there is no better excuse for a long overdue rant blog!

So here are some other things that I don’t approve of:

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law

  • Unequal pay. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, a day so named because if one were to take the 93 days of 2017 that to that date and add them to the 365 days of the full year, that would be the number of days that a woman has to work to earn as much as a man doing the same job, per the current wage gap. And, as Lily Ledbetter pointed out at the “Salesforce World Tour” event that I was at, lower pay means many things, including lower retirement earnings. Salesforce shows a lot of leadership here – they have now twice made salary adjustments to address this gap. One three years ago when they first acknowledged that they, like most companies, and particularly tech companies, engaged in this discrimination; then this week, after buying out 14 companies and inheriting their equal pay problems. Here’s hoping that other tech companies start following their lead!
  • The Internet of Things. If you gave 50 monkeys 10 years to write software designed to internet-enable appliances, automobiles, and consumer electronics, they would probably come up with a more ethical and secure product than we’re seeing from the current bunch of manufacturers. We’ve had the dolls that talk to the children and then broadcast all of their responses back to the manufacturer; the TVs that do the same thing. We’ve had the hundreds of thousands of cameras hard-coded with the same password, which were subsequently hacked so that the devices could be used to take down half of the internet. We’ve had the vibrators that sent their users moans and squeals back to the
    40492213_9650d24cf4_m

    Picture by Pete Toscano

    manufacturer. And this week we got a device that checks to see if your garage door is closed from a manufacturer who will brick the gadget if you give them a bad review on Amazon. It’s not just the complete disregard for security that allows bad actors to say, hack your car and steer it off a cliff – it’s the bad ethics of the former retailers/now service providers who can void your investment by simply unplugging their server – or deleting your account. This whole futuristic trend needs to be regulated and run by people who know what they’re doing, and aren’t completely inept and immoral.

  • The Walking Dead. My son and I watch this show religiously, and we’re beginning to wonder why. As one of my heroes, Joe Bob Briggs, used to say “There’s too much plot getting iThe Walking Deadn the way of the story!” I’ve read the comics (or, more accurately, the compendiums), that take me a bit past the Negan storyline, and they do things much, much better than the show by keeping the story moving without stretching out the violence to completely cringe-worthy extremes. Bad things happen, but they propel the story, as opposed to drowning it.
  • The White House Budget Proposal. I try and keep the politics subdued on this blog, but that’s hard to do when the proposed budget zeroes out funding for the Legal Services Corporation, where I work. It’s hard to see how our patriotic mission – pulled right from the constitution – isn’t worthy of the relatively small amount of federal funding that we receive. We insure, as best we can at our funding levels, that Americans have equal protection under the law. Because, in most jurisdictions, Legal services Corporation Logothe court only appoints an an attorney in criminal matters, not civil matters like foreclosures, family law, domestic abuse, and consumer fraud. Defunding LSC would unfairly deprive a vulnerable populace of the access to justice that our country was founded on. They’ll be at the mercy of unethical landlords, banks, and abusers who can afford attorneys. The courts are overwhelmed with defendants who are poorly prepared to defend themselves, but have no other choices if they can’t get legal aid. We’re optimistic that Congress, who sets the budget, will reject this recommendation and continue to fund us, but it’s shocking that the White House can’t see the core American principle that we seek to protect.

There are plenty more things that I disapprove of, like the overhead ratio, beer made with cherries, and don’t get me started on any recent Batman or Superman movie! What’s irking you these days?

My 17NTC Report

NTEN Conference

Photo: NTEN

I’m back from NTEN’s annual conference, the biggest one ever with 2300 attendees here in DC. NTEN’s signature NPTech event continues to pull off the hat trick of continual growth, consistent high quality content, and a level of intimacy that is surprising for an event this large. It’s a big, packed tech conference, but it’s also a few days with our welcoming, engaging community. Here’s my recap. 

I attended three quality sessions on Thursday:

  • I learned much about the challenges in offering shared IT services to nonprofits, with an in-depth look at the work of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, who offer discounted, centralized IT to legal aid programs. Their biggest lessons learned have been about the need to communicate broadly and bi-directionally. Shared services benefit the budget at the cost of personalization, and clients need to both understand and have a say in the compromises made. You can learn a lot more by reading the Collaborative Notes on this session.
  • Next, I learned how to move from a top-down, siloed organizational culture to a truly networked one (with great wisdom from Deborah Askanase and Allison Fine, among others). A great example was made by Andrea Berry, whose small foundation, Maine Initiatives, recently moved to crowdsourcing grant proposals, a move that is threatening to traditional funders, who want more locks on their purse-strings, but empowering to the community. Here are the notes.
  • Finally I attended a powerful session on managing your nonprofit technology career, with great presenters (and friends (Johanna Bates, Cindy Leonard, and Tracy Kronzak (who just landed a gig at Salesforce.org). They made great points about how imposter syndrome can hold people back – particularly the “accidental techies” that come to their technology career through nonprofits. Their advice: plow through it. You’ll question your competence, we all do, but the trick is to be confident anyway. I stayed after the session helping out with some of the tough questions from people who are trying very hard to move into tech positions without the degrees and focused expertise sought. At nonprofits, we tend to be generalists, because we’re expected to do everything. Notes are here.

Friday was the day for my two sessions. In the morning, I presented with Edima Elinewinga of the U.N. Foundation on Calculating Return on Investment (ROI), where we made a solid case for not spending money without thoroughly understanding the financial and non-financial returns that we can expect. The overall pitch is that an organizational culture that attempts to predict the benefits of their investments, and checks their work along the way, will get better at it. The toughest questions were about measuring hard to quantify benefits like improved morale, or advocacy/outreach, but we had some gurus in the room who knew how to do some of these, and an overall pitch that , while not everything can be translated to dollars, tracking the soft benefits is important. The soft ones might not justify the purchase, but they should be recognized as benefits all the same. Notes are here. And here are the slides:

My second session, with Dahna Goldstein, was a timely one: Leading in Uncertain Times. With the current political climate having potentially deep impacts on nonprofits (including my own), we weren’t certain how this one would go, but we set out to offer helpful advice and best practices for rolling with and surviving hard times. It ended up being, in many ways, a fun session, despite me having three slides on “how to do layoffs” alone. We also had a roomful of executives, which helped, and an enthusiastic conversation. Here are the notes, and here are the slides:

On Saturday, I had a blast attending Joshua Peskay and Mary O’Shaughnessy‘s session on IT Budgeting. After covering all of the nuts and bolts of putting together an IT budget that, in particular, identifies and eliminates wasteful spending, they broke the room up into groups  each putting together a quick tech budget. I was drafted (along with fellow senior techies David Krumlauf and Graham Reid) to act as the board charged with approving or denying their budgets, Project Runway-style. I now think that I’ve missed my calling and I’m looking for someone to produce this new reality TV show. Here are the notes.

Additional highlights:

  • #ntcbeer! was a bit smaller than usual this year, due largely to my not getting my act together until Jenn Johnson swept in to save it. Didn’t matter – it was still the fun, pre-conference warm-up that it always ends up being. Next year we”ll go big for the tenth annual #ntcbeer in new Orleans.
  • Dinner Thursday was a pleasant one with friends old and new from Idealware, TechImpactBayer Center for Nonprofits, and more, including my traditional NTC Roomie, Norman.
  • Friday morning started with an Idealware reunion breakfast at the posh AirBNB that the Idealware staff were staying at. Great to see friends there, as well.
  • Everywhere I turned, I ran into Steve Heye. Mind you, with 2300 people at the event, there were lots of friends that I never saw at all, but I couldn’t turn a corner without seeing this guy. What’s up with that? Anyway, here’s Steve, Dahna and I giving a  fax machine the whole Office Space treatment:
    Odffice Space Fax Machine Bashing

I’ll admit at the end here that I went into his NTC, my eleventh, wondering if it was getting old. It isn’t. As usual, the content was rich, and the company was excellent. Nobody throws a party like NTEN!

Where I’ll be at the 2017 NTC

17NTc BannerI’ve been doing these “where I’ll be at the NTC” posts for many years, but this year I’m lagging behind the pack. Steve Heye and Cindy Leonard have beat me to it! But I’m excited to be back at NTC after a rare skip year. This will be my 11th ride on the NTC train and it is always a great one.

First up on Wednesday will be #ntcbeer! This year we’re back at the Black Squirrel, the place we filled to capacity three years ago, but larger options weren’t really available. Booking the Squirrel was a bit last minute, and it supersedes a plan ntcbeerto just have groups self-organize, which wasn’t going to work too well. For those of you counting, this is the 9th annual #ntcbeer, so 2018 will mark a decade of social good-minded geeks raising pint glasses and chatting away in anticipation of the packed event dead ahead.

On Thursday, I plan to start my day early at breakfast – one key to a great NTC is taking every available opportunity for a quiet chat with an old or new friend. Then I’m attending “Shared IT Services in 2017—Nightmare or Dream Come True?“, so that smart people like Karen Graham and David Krumlauf can school me. This is assuming that David isn’t too hung over after #ntcbeer – I’m glad that my sessions are on Friday!

After that, I’m torn. I might go to “Yes, We Need a Technology Plan, but Where Do We Start?“, which has some smart presenters and is a topic close to my geeky heart. But maybe too close, so I’m also considering “Scale Change, Activate Support, and Invite Stakeholders Inside through Network Leadership“. That one’s headed up by Debra Askanase, and is bound to be good.

For the third session on Thursday, it’s an impossible choice. Should I go to Johanna Bates and Cindy Leonard‘s “From Accidental to Intentional: Taking Your NPtech Career to the Next Level“? or Steve Heye and Peggy Duvette‘s “The Role of Technology in Managing the Operations of a Nonprofit“? Help me out here. And, given that Cindy Leonard and Steve Heye are the two people to the right in the picture below, factor their appearance into your argument, please!

Friends at 15NTC

On Friday morning, assuming I’ve recovered from the progressive parties, I’ll be presenting with my friend Edima Elinewinga, VP of IT at the UN Foundation, on “The Fully-Informed Approach to Calculating Return on Investment” in room Maryland C. This session is an expanded talk based on my recent Techsoup article on Calculating ROI and Edima’s experiences. If you want to discuss strategies for assessing the value of strategic technology investments, as well as promoting an organizational culture that knows how to make smart decisions, this session is for you.

Following that, at 1:30 I’ll be presenting with Dahna Goldstein on “Leading in Uncertain Times” in the Coolidge room. Topical, given press reports that my place of employment might be defunded (we are confident that we have solid, bipartisan support on the hill that will keep this from actually occurring). But we all know that nonprofits are often at risk, from economic downturns, variances in funding sources, and political or social circumstances that impact our mission-focused strategies. We’ll discuss how an organization can be agile in times of uncertainty, with a focus on tech.

Do you work in Legal Aid? And are you going to NTC? Then definitely ping me – if there are enough of us, we should have dinner on Friday night.

On Saturday morning, “Nonprofit Execs Talk about Strategic Assessment” looks good to me, followed by Joshua Peskay‘s “The Dollars and Sense of Nonprofit Technology Budgeting“.

The big event is less than two weeks away as I type this. I hope to see you there!

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.

Highlights Of The 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference

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

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

7th annual ntcbeer - room

 

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

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

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

16086373604_c92375bab7_z

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Iron Works BBQ Dinner

Inking The Deal: What We’ll Discuss at the #15NTC Contract Negotiation Session

This post originally appeared on the NTEN Blog on January 20th, 2015.

For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

The 15NTC session, “Software and Service Contracts: How To Negotiate Reasonable Terms in the Cloud Era” is the third in my series of, “How wonky can we get?” information exchanges. At the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis, I spoke on Project Management; and last year, in DC, on Requests for Proposals. While these topics aren’t quite as trendy as data visualization and the mobile web, they are focused on the job skills that allow us to do all of the cool stuff. As a nonprofit technology executive, I’ve bought and deployed a lot of systems. Sharing what I’ve learned along the way is the least I can give back to a great Community like NTEN. What are the things that have to be in place in order to successfully roll out software and systems?

  1. Good project management: in particular, the right methodology for the job
  2. A thorough selection process, one that doesn’t let the desire for a low-fixed bid trump the priority of selecting the right system or partner
  3. A contract with that vendor that fairly establishes the remedies should things with the vendor go wrong

I try and bring a few things to these sessions to make them memorable. In this case, the move from server rooms to cloud-based server farms has changed the dynamic of our customer/vendor relationships. Software contracts need to reflect that. In the cloud, we have new issues to negotiate, such as:

  1. What happens to customer data when a vendor goes out of business?
  2. Do our negotiated terms apply to subcontractors, when, say, the vendor’s service uses Amazon as a storage platform?
  3. Who is responsible when something breaks?

Mostly, I want to impress upon everyone that terms can be negotiated. In these days of shrink wrap software licenses, many nonprofits forget that we can protect ourselves from nasty terms. Here are some quick thoughts:

  1. Vendors should tie termination fees to strong service level agreements, or waive them altogether in cloud contracts, where they should merit your monthly payments by providing a  solid service
  2. Who benefits from automatic renewals? Should you sign a contract that renews automatically at the original term if the original term is three years or more?
  3. The jurisdiction that governs the remedies should be your home state or, at worst, theirs.  Beware: some vendors are fine about choosing obscure courts that they know will protect their interests

And, finally, I’ll offer a few tips on the negotiating process. Some co-workers of mine have expressed concerns that bickering over contract details can hurt the vendor relationship. Done right, the contract negotiation establishes a tone in the relationship that will last throughout the engagement, and it’s one of mutual respect and a commitment to confront key issues, rather than to avoid them.

So don’t be afraid to get wonky! Join me at the 15NTC for a session that might not be the sexiest you attend, but will provide you with the tools you need to protect your technology investments.

About the author:

By day, Peter Campbell is the CIO at Legal Services Corporation, America’s Partner for Equal Justice. At other times, he can be found blogging and talking about all things nptech at Techcafeteria or on Twitter.

Image credit: “The Land of Contracts” by David Anthony Colarusso

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.

How Easy Is It For You To Manage, Analyze And Present Data?

apple-256262_640I ask because my articles are up, including my big piece from NTEN’s Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits on Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems. I’m happy to have this one available in a standalone, web-searchable format, because I think it’s a bit of a  signature work.  I consider data systems architecture to be my main talent; the most significant work that I’ve done in my career.

  • I integrated eleven databases at the law firm of Lillick & Charles in the late 90’s, using Outlook as a portal to Intranet, CRM, documents and voicemail. We had single-entry of all client and matter data that then, through SQL Server triggers, was pushed to the other databases that shared the data.  This is what I call the “holy grail” of data ,entered once by the person who cares most about it, distributed to the systems that use it, and then easily accessible by staff. No misspelled names or redundant data entry chores.
  • In the early 2000’s, at Goodwill, I developed a retail data management system on open source (MySQL and PHP, primarily) that put drill-down reporting in a web browser, updated by 6:00 am every morning with the latest sales and production data.  We were able to use this data in ways that were revolutionary for a budget-challenged Goodwill, and we saw impressive financial results.

The article lays out the approach I’m taking at Legal Services Corporation to integrate all of our grantee data into a “data portal”, built on Salesforce and Box. It’s written with the challenges that nonprofits face front and center: how to do this on a budget, and how to do it without a team of developers on staff.

At a time when, more and more, our funding depends on our ability to demonstrate our effectiveness, we need the data to be reliable, available and presentable.  This is my primer on how you get there from the IT viewpoint.

I also put up four articles from Idealware.  These are all older (2007 to 2009), they’re all still pretty relevant, although some of you might debate me on the RSS article:

This leaves only one significant piece of my nptech writing missing on the blog, and that’s my chapter in NTEN’s “Managing Technology To Meet Your Mission” book about Strategic Planning. Sorry, you gotta buy that one. However, a Powerpoint that I based on my chapter is here.

Techcafeteria’s Week Of Added Content

pile-154710_640As promised, I added about 40 of my guest posts here from the NTEN, Idealware, Earthjustice and LSC blogs. I also completely redid my categories and retagged every item, which is something I’d never done properly, so that, if you visit the blog, you can use the new sidebar category and tag cloud displays to find content by topic.

Included is my “Recommended Posts” category, which includes the posts that I think are among the best and the most valuable of what I’ve written. These are mostly nptech-related, with a few of the personal posts thrown in, along with some humor.

The newly-added content that is also in recommended posts includes:

Everything has been published by it’s original date, though, so if you’re really curious, you can find all the new stuff at these links:

I’m not finished — NTEN and Idealware have both given me permission to publish the longer articles that I’ve  written to the site.  So I will do that on a new “Articles” page.  These will include write-ups on document management, major software purchasing, data integration standards, RSS and system architecture.  Look for them this week.

Incoming Content – Apologies In Advance!

wave-357926_1280 RSS subscribers to this blog should take note that I’m apt to flood your feeds this weekend. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gathered 35 to 40 posts that  I’ve written for other blogs  that I’m adding here.  These are primarily posts that I wrote for the NTEN, Idealware, Earthjustice and Legal Services  Corporation blogs, but neglected to cross-post here at the  time. The publish dates run from mid 2006 to a few months ago. I’m also seeking  permission to republish some of my larger articles that are out there, so you’ll be seeing, at  least, my guide on “Architecting Systems to Support  Outcomes Management”, which has only been available as part of NTEN’s ebook “Collected Voices: Data-Informed  Nonprofits“.

Another part of this project is to rewrite my tags from scratch and re-categorize everything on the blog in a more useful fashion. With about 260 blog  posts, this is a size-able  book now,  It just lacks a good table of contents and index.

I’ll follow the flood with a post outlining what’s most worthwhile in the batch.  Look, too, for upcoming posts on the Map for Nonprofits and  Community IT Innovators blogs on Outsourcing IT and RFPs, respectively, which I’ll also cross-post here. Plans for upcoming Techcafeteria posts include the promised one on gender bias in nptech.  I’m also considering doing a personal series on the writers and artists that have most influenced me. Thoughts?