Tag Archives: NTEN

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.

 

The Future Of Technology

Jean_Dodal_Tarot_trump_01…is the name of the track that I am co-facilitating at NTEN’s Leading Change Summit. I’m a late addition, there to support Tracy Kronzak and Tanya Tarr. Unlike the popular Nonprofit Technology Conference, LCS (not to be confused with LSC, as the company I work for is commonly called, or LSC, my wife’s initials) is a smaller, more focused affair with three tracks: Impact Leadership, Digital Strategy, and The Future of Technology. The expectation is that attendees will pick a track and stick with it.  Nine hours of interactive sessions on each topic will be followed by a day spent at the Idea Accelerator, a workshop designed to jump-start each attendee’s work in their areas. I’m flattered that they asked me to help out, and excited about what we can do to help resource and energize emerging nptech leaders at this event.

The future of technology is also something that I think about often (hey, I’m paid to!) Both in terms of what’s coming, and how we (LSC and the nonprofit sector) are going to adapt to it. Here are some of the ideas that I’m bringing to LCS this fall:

  • At a tactical level, no surprise, the future is in the cloud; it’s mobile; it’s software as a service and apps, not server rooms and applications.
  • The current gap between enterprise and personal software is going to go away, and “bring your own app” is going to be the computing norm.
  • Software evaluation will look more at interoperability, mobile, and user interface than advanced functionality.  In a world where staff are more independent in their software use, with less standardization, usability will trump sophistication.  We’ll expect less of our software, but we’ll expect to use it without any training.
  • We’ll expect the same access to information and ability to work with it from every location and every device. There will still be desktop computers, and they’ll have more sophisticated software, but there will be less people using them.
  • A big step will be coming within a year or two, when mobile manufacturers solve the input problem. Today, it’s difficult to do serious content creation on mobile devices, due primarily to the clumsiness of the keyboards and, also, the small screens. They will come up with something creative to address this.
  • IT staffing requirements will change.  And they’ll change dramatically.  But here’s what won’t happen: the percentage of technology labor won’t be reduced.  The type of work will change, and the distribution of tech responsibility will be spread out, but there will still be a high demand for technology expertise.
  • The lines between individual networks will fade. We’ll do business on shared platforms like Salesforce, Box, and {insert your favorite social media platform here}.  Sharing content with external partners and constituents will be far simpler. One network, pervasive computing, no more firewalls (well, not literally — security is still a huge thing that needs to be managed).

This all sounds good! Less IT controlling what you can and can’t do. Consumerization demystifying technology and making it more usable.  No more need to toss around acronyms like “VPN.”

Of course, long after this future arrives, many nonprofits will still be doing things the old-fashioned ways.  Adapting to and adopting these new technologies will require some changes in our organizational cultures.  If technology is going to become less of a specialty and more of a commodity, then technical competency and comfort using new tools need to be common attributes of every employee. Here are the stereotypes that must go away today:

  1. The technophobic executive. It is no longer allowable to say you are qualified to lead an organization or a department if you aren’t comfortable thinking about how technology supports your work.  It disqualifies you.
  2. The control freak techie.  They will fight the adoption of consumer technology with tooth and claw, and use the potential security risks to justify their approach. Well, yes, security is a real concern.  But the risk of data breaches has to be balanced against the lost business opportunities we face when we restrict all technology innovation. I blogged about that here.
  3. The paper-pushing staffer. All staff should have basic data management skills; enough to use a spreadsheet to analyze information and understand when the spreadsheet won’t work as well as a database would.
  4. Silos, big and small. The key benefit of our tech future is the ability to collaborate, both inside our company walls and out. So data needs to be public by default; secured only when necessary.  Policy and planning has to cross department lines.
  5. The “technology as savior” trope. Technology can’t solve your problems.  You can solve your problems, and technology can facilitate your solution. It needs to be understood that big technology implementations have to be preceded by business process analysis.  Otherwise, you’re simply automating bad or outdated processes.

I’m looking forward to the future, and I can’t wait to dive into these ideas and more about how we use tech to enhance our operations, collaborate with our community and constituents, and change the world for the better.   Does this all sound right to you? What have I got wrong, and what have I missed?

NTC Summary 2014 Edition

Me and a friend at the Science FairI’m back from the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference.  This one had some real high points for me, and a few things that made me a little sad, but I think I might have learned more than I do most years and I had a simply great time with old and new friends.

Here’s a  summary of highs, lows, and links:

This was my longest conference (of the nine I’ve attended): I met up for breakfast with some good friends at 8:00 am  on Wednesday, and I was one of the last people at the hotel at 6:00 pm on Saturday.

The IT Leader’s Roundtable that I led with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz started out a bit rocky when Katie’s plane was delayed, but Richard and I facilitated a healthy conversation with the 20 or so attendees.

#NTCBeer was wild and woolly. There’s no way of knowing how many people showed, but we were turning people away from the 225 capacity bar from 9:00 to 10:00, so about 250  is a safe assumption, with 50 or more turned away. The beer was great (80 on tap!), as was the company. This is my last year as the main organizer of #NTCBeer, but NTEN will keep it going and I’ll always be ready to show up.  In NTEN’s hands, we should be able to secure larger locations.

On Thursday, I found myself roped into performing at Steve Heye’s Plenary Ignite session called “Bringing Techie Back“. Steve had Dahna Goldstein and I join him, on guitar and backup vocals respectively, on his rewrite of the Justin Timberlake hit.  I’ve seen the video (about 55% of the way through this plenary recording. MyNTC login required), and all I’ll say is that people are kind regarding my performance.  But Steve and Dahna rocked it with a rousing call for loving the tech that supports our missions.

Midday I joined the panel on “Marriage Therapy for Communications and IT Staff“. These have been dubbed “Franken Panels“, because the session was a mashup of proposals by me, Caring Bridge and Picnet, but I think we really pulled ours off.  The Nonprofit Times posted a recap of it, and here are the slides.

I had a great dinner Thursday night.

nten14foodie
Friday’s plenary put me off a bit. Titled “Where Does Tech Belong And Who’s In Charge?“, I had high hopes that this would address some of the chronic problems that technologists at nonprofits face when management thinks of tech solely as a cost center. I had reasons to be optimistic, as one of the panelists is a strong CTO at a large nonprofit.  But the other two panelists — who are bright, nice people — came from tiny NPOs (one a one person operation!) and had little perspective to offer on this topic.  It ended up being a very feel good session that left the issues that we really struggle with unmentioned.  I’m not sure who put this panel together, but they really let me down, particularly when one panelist suggested that we take the word “tech” out of everyone’s title, because we all use technology, but still said nothing about the damage done when technologists are shut out of the key decisions and have no parity with other company directors.  I get the point that he was making, but I can see a thousand techno-phobic CEOs taking that advice while still under-staffing, under-budgeting and under-thinking about their technology needs. Way to undermine nptech from the NTEN stage, guys.

I lunched with many of my LSC colleagues and special conference guests Richard Zorza and Katherine Alteneder.  Richard is handing the leadership of the Self Represented Litigant’s Network over to Katherine, and they came to the NTEN conference both to introduce her to the community, and celebrate Richard’s role in founding NTEN.  Richard was an early member of the Circuit Rider’s Network, which eventually morphed and merged it’s way into the Nonprofit Technology Network. At their second national get-together, in 1998, just before NTEN was proposed, Richard said “We must all act with non-territoriality, and actively share and pool our collective knowledge. If we act as competitors, we won’t get anywhere.”

I presented solo on Making Requests For Proposals (RFPs) That Even Your Vendor Will Love. This session went really well, with a robust discussion that I learned a lot from. Slides are here. Thorough collaborative notes are here.

On Saturday, I attended great sessions on Funder/Grantee collaboration and strategic tech planning (the latter featuring high-level advice and astoundingly silly visuals by Steve Heye, Lindsay Bealko and Andrea Berry). Then I ended the conference hanging out near the karaoke stage (but not on it!) at the Geek Games. Check out the T-Shirt I got (or a reasonable facsimile on Farra).

Farra Joleen Bingo

 

Congratulations to Jason Shim for winning the NTEN award! This is well-deserved for one of my Communities of Impact partners who is generally the smartest person in any given room.  You can see some of his work in the free NTEN ebook, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits.

Next year, we’re in Austin.  Who’s going?

Where I’ll Be At The 2014 NTC

NTEN‘s annual, awesome Nonprofit Technology Conference is (obviously) my favorite annual event.  No failure on the part of other cool annual events, like LSC‘s Technology Innovation Grants conference, Halloween and my birthday; they’re great events as well, but they don’t have over 2000 attendees; four days of jam-packed networking, collaboration and education; and the inspired antics of Steve Heye. If you read this blog regularly, there’s a good possibly that you’re already booked for the event, and I look forward to seeing you there. Here’s where you’ll be able to find me:

Wednesday, 3/12: From 1:00 to 4:00 I’ll be leading the IT Leaders Roundtable with my colleagues Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz. Here’s a description:

Fill in the blank: “the toughest job an IT person can do is ______________.”  You might guess “program a Cisco router” or “design a SQL database”. But let’s face it — the hardest thing is gaining the trust and camaraderie of the non-technical staff who depend on our competence and, often, have little understanding of what the tech department (or person) does. Join us to share our challenges, tips and success stories about integrating IT into the organization.  Making it work. If you manage technology (as an accidental techie, a CIO, or anything in-between) or you depend on it (as a CEO, data entry clerk, or anything in-between), we’ll use this time to share our best ideas about how technology and staff successfully integrate to support an organization’s mission.

Then, at 7:00 pm, you know it: #NTCBEER. The event so iconic it’s name is it’s hashtag. The 6th annual #ntcbeer is shaping up to be the biggest – as of this writing, two weeks before the event, we have over 180 people pre-registered and the numbers go up progressively every day, as people start setting their MyNTC schedules.  We will likely fill the 225 person capacity of the Black Squirrel and spill out to DC Libertine, their sister bar, four doors down.

Thursday, 3/13: I’ll be part of a very therapeutic panel, Marriage Counseling for Comm and IT Staff, with Melissa Bear, Brad Grochowski and Andrew Kandels. This one grew out of concerns that there was animosity between the technical and marketing staff brewing at 13NTC, and seeks to not only smooth those relationships, but dispense good advice and examples of IT and Communications departments that successfully partner and collaborate.

Thursday evening is NTC party time, and I’ll be stopping by the NPO Engagement party hosted by Idealist Consulting, but probably looking for something more intimate to escape to after a while. My evenings aren’t as sewn up as usual this year, so they’re good times to have dinner and connect. Most years, I put together a dinner for the legal aid attendees, but this year we don’t seem to have as many of our colleagues showing up, although there are a few, like Brian Rowe and Ken Montenegro. There are a whopping seven of us coming from LSC, I think our biggest showing ever.

Friday, 3/14: If you want to get down and get wonky, I’m presenting solo on Requests For Proposals: making RFPs work for Nonprofits And Vendors.  I blogged about this: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The RFP for NTEN, where I said

At the RFP session, we’ll dive into the types of questions that can make your RFP a useful tool for establishing a healthy relationship with a vendor. We’ll learn about the RFPs that consultants and software vendors love to respond to.  We’ll make the case for building a critical relationship in a proactive and organized fashion.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all leave the session with a newfound appreciation for the much-maligned Request for Proposal.

So, how’s your second week of April shaping up? Want to connect?  The best way to reach me is Twitter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in two weeks!

Notes From Here And There

IMAG0236_1
Long time no blog, but I have good excuses.  Moving cross-country, even with a modest family of three, is no picnic, and we are now, over 13 months since I was offered the job in DC, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since summer, I’ve been frantically house hunting and, since December, busy relocating (for the third time) to our new, tree-laden home in Reston.

This, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing or totally neglecting my nptech duties. So here are some things to look forward to:

#ntcbeer. First and foremost. The annual Nonproft Technology Conference runs here in DC from March 13th to 15th, and the 6th Annual #ntcbeer will take place, as always, the night prior (Wednesday, 3/12, 7pm).  This year we’re at the Black Squirrel, a bar that’s a 15 minute stroll from the hotel (in the trendy Adams Morgan district) with three stories and 80 craft beers, which one would hope will meet the requirements. But I’m willing to bet (seriously!  Who wants to get in the pool?) that we will top their max standing room of about 200 people.  Here’s my logic: we averaged about 175 people last year in Minneapolis and the year prior in SF.  Minneapolis likely would have been bigger but a lot of planes were delayed by weather.  This year, we’re in DC, and that means two things: first, this is the largest center for NPOs in the world.  A lot more of the attendees live here. Second, it’s a very social place.  So I think that it’s not only likely that we’ll top 200; I don’t think 300 is out of range. We’ll have the Facebook page up in a week or two and we can hammer it all out there.

Also, #ntcbeer has sponsors this year.  We’ve been bought out by Blackbaud. (kidding!). Blackbaud and CommunityIT will be on hand with snacks and possible giveaways.  We’re figuring all of that out. Sponsorship is good, because this year we did manage to find a bar that doesn’t require a financial commitment up front, but I don’t think that will be possible in SF next year, given what a hard time we had finding a location in 2012.

Related, details to come, is that, prior to #ntcbeer on the 12th, I’ll be hosting a pre-conference workshop on IT Leadership with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz.

As to that writing, keep your eyes open this week and next for NTEN’s release of “Collected Voices: Data-Driven Nonprofits. I spent 2013 participating in NTEN and Microsofts’ Communities of Impact program, where I joined 17 other nonprofit staff in diving into the challenges of managing, maximizing and sharing data in our sector.  We had two in person, two day meetings; numerous calls with bright presenters; active and professional facilitation by Julia Smith, NTEN’s Program Director; and this is the final product.  In addition to a few case studies and short pieces, I contributed an article on “Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems”. As this is really the focus of my career, whether it was unifying the database backend and building a portal to all client data at a law firm in the 90’s, or developing an open source retail data warehouse at Goodwill, or migrating/connecting all of LSC’s grantee data and documents to a Salesforce instance at my current job, this is the work that I think I do best, and I have a lot of best practices to share.  So I’m somewhat proud and happy to be publishing this article. it will be a free download for NTEN members.

Speaking of LSC, I’ve been busy there as well. We held our 14th annual technology conference two weeks ago, with record attendance. Among the crowd were frequent collaborators of mine like Laura Quinn of Idealware and Matt Eshleman of CommunityIT. It was a great time, with a lot of valuable sessions and discussions on data, internet security, and business process mapping.  We held a “Meet the Developer” session where our grantees, for the first time, got to speak directly with the guy that programs our online applications and give him some direct feedback. I attended in order to both facilitate and act as a human shield.  😉

The conference followed the release of our report on the two year technology summit that we hosted.  This consisted of two gatherings of leaders in the access to justice community from legal aid law firms, the courts, the ABA, the State Department, and the NLADA, along with key application developers and strategic thinkers.  We worked on a goal:

“to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.”

Currently, the research shows that only 20% of those that qualify for and need the legal assistance that our funding provides are being served by the limited pool of attorneys and resources dedicated to this work. The report makes the case that 100% can receive some level of assistance, even if that isn’t actual legal representation, by innovative use of technology.  But we are working on the assertion that some help is better than no help, which is what 80% of those who need help get today.

The key strategies include:

  • using statewide portals effectively to connect people to the available resources
  • maximizing the use of document assembly to assist individuals in preparing court forms (a goal that lives or dies by the standardization of such forms, which is currently a big challenge)
  • Expanded use of mobile and SMS (many of the people who need assistance lack computers and smartphones, but can text)
  • Business Process Analysis, to insure that we are efficiently delivering any and all services, and
  • Expert Systems and intelligent Checklists, in order to resource individuals and attorneys to navigate the legal system.

As I mention here often, the right to an attorney only applies to criminal cases, not civil, but the peril for low income families and individuals from civil lawsuits is apparent.  You could lose your house, your children, your job, or your health if you can’t properly defend yourself against a wealthier accuser.  Equal justice is a cornerstone of American ethics. Take a look at the best thinking on how technology can help to restore it.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The RFP

This article was originally posted on the NTEN Blog in January of 2014.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) seem like they belong in the world of bureaucratic paperwork instead of a lean, tech-savvy nonprofit. There’s a lot that can be said for an RFP when both sides understand how useful a tool an RFP can be – even to tech-savvy nonprofits.

Here’s a safe bet: preparing and/or receiving Requests for Proposals (RFPs) is not exactly your favorite thing. Too many RFPs seem like the type of anachronistic, bureaucratic paperwork more worthy of the company in Office Space than a lean, tech-savvy nonprofit. So you may wonder why I would pitch a 90 minute session on the topic for this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. I’d like to make the case for you to attend my session: Requests for Proposals: Making RFPs Work for Nonprofits and Vendors.

The problems with RFPs are numerous, and many of you have tales from the trenches that could fill a few horror anthologies regarding them. I’ll be the first to agree that they often end up doing more harm than good for a project.  But I believe that this is due to a poor understanding of the purpose of the RFP, and a lack of expertise and creativity in designing them. What a successful RFP does is to help a client assess the suitability of a product or service to their needs long before they invest more serious resources into the project. That’s very useful.

The mission of the RFP is two-fold: a well written RFP will clearly describe the goals and needs of the organization/client and, at the same time, ask the proper questions that will allow the organization to vet the product or consultant’s ability to address those needs. Too often, we think that means that the RFP has to ask every question that will need to be asked and result in a detailed proposal with a project timeline and fixed price. But the situations where we know exactly, at the onset, what the new website, donor database, phone system or technology assessment will look like and should look like before the project has begun are pretty rare.

For a consultant, receiving an RFP for a web site project that specifies the number of pages, color scheme, section headings and font choices is a sign of serious trouble. Because they know, from experience, that those choices will change. Pitching a  fixed price for such a project can be dangerous, because as the web site is built, the client might find that they missed key components, or the choices that they made were wrong. It does neither party any good to agree to terms that are based on unrealistic projections, and project priorities often change, particularly with tech projects that include a significant amount of customization.

So you might be nodding your head right now and saying, “Yeah, Campbell, that’s why we all hate those RFPs. Why use ’em?” To which I say, “Why write them in such a way that they’re bound to fail?”

The secret to successful RFP development is in knowing which questions you can ask that will help you identify the proper vendor or product. You don’t ask how often you’ll be seeing each other next spring on the first date. Why ask a vendor how many hours they project it will take them to design each custom object in your as yet un-designed Salesforce installation? Some information will be more relevant — and easier to quantify — as the relationship progresses.

At the RFP session, we’ll dive into the types of questions that can make your RFP a useful tool for establishing a healthy relationship with a vendor. We’ll learn about the RFPs that consultants and software vendors love to respond to.  We’ll make the case for building a critical relationship in a proactive and organized fashion.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all leave the session with a newfound appreciation for the much-maligned Request for Proposal.

Don’t miss Peter’s session at the 14NTC on Friday, March 14, 3:30pm -5:00pm.

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.

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.

The Palotta Problem

uncharitableIf I have a good sense of who reads my blog, you’re likely familiar with Dan Palotta, notable in the nonprofit world for having raised significant amounts of money running the Aids Rides and Breast Cancer walks.  More recently, he’s become a outspoken and controversial crusader for reform in the sector.  He did a much-viewed Ted talk, and he’s written a few books outlining his case that “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. And he keynoted the recent NTEN conference in Minneapolis.

Palotta’s claim is that nonprofits, in general, are their own worst enemies. By operating from a puritanical, self-sacrificing ethic that says that we can’t pay ourselves as well as for profit companies do, and we can’t invest heavily in marketing and infrastructure, instead prioritizing that every penny go to our program work, we are dramatically ineffective. He is advocating for a revolution against our own operating assumptions and the Charity Navigators, tax codes and foundations that are set up to enforce this status quo.

His message resonates. I watched his Ted talk, and then his NTEN plenary, and tears welled in my eyes on both occasions   They were tears of frustration, with an undercurrent of outrage.  I doubt very seriously that my reaction was very different from that of the other 1500 people in the room.  We are all tired of the constant struggle to do more with much less, while we watch entertainers, athletes and corporate CEOs pocket millions. Or billions.  And this is not about our salaries.  It’s about the dramatic needs of the populations we serve; people who are ransacked by poverty and/or disease. Should reality TV stars be pocketing more than most NPOs put annually toward eradicating colortectal cancer or providing legal assistance to the poor?

But, as I said, Palotta is a controversial figure, and the reactions to him are extreme to the point of visceral.  Even among his most ardent supporters, there’s a bit of criticism.  The key critical threads I heard from my NTEN peers were distrust of the implied argument that the corporate model is good, and frustration that a person who did well financially running charities is up there being so critical of our self-sacrifices.  In fact, since his nonprofit went under amid a storm of criticism about his overhead ratio.  Reports are that it was as much as 57% (depending on how much the reporter dislikes Palotta, apparently). That’s between 17% and 42% more than what nonprofits are told to shoot for, and are assessed against. But the amount of money he raised for his causes was ten times that of any similar efforts, and it does dramatically illustrate his point. How much opportunity to raise money is lost by our requirement that we operate with so little staff and resources?

I’m sold on a lot of Dan Palotta’s arguments. I don’t think that NPO’s have to emulate corporations, but they should have equal opportunity to avail themselves of the business tactics, and be measured by how effective they are, not how stingy. But I still can’t rally behind Dan Palotta as the leader for this cause.  It’s one thing to acknowledge that the nature of the “do-gooder” is one of austerity and self-sacrifice. It’s another to criticize it. Because, while most of us can recognize the disadvantages that our nature tends towards, we’re proud of that nature. It’s not as much a bad business orientation as it is a core ethical life view. The firm belief that relieving the suffering of others is of greater personal satisfaction and value than any financial reward pretty much fuels our sector. So standing on a stage and chastising us for not being more competitive, more greedy, and more self-serving, no matter how correct the hypothesis, primarily offends the audience.

By putting this criticism front and center, rather than acknowledging the good intentions and working with us to balance them with a more aggressive business approach, Palotta is undermining his own efforts. The leader who is going to break these institutional assumptions is one who will appreciate the heart of the charity worker, not one who – despite their good intentions – denigrates us. I applaud Palotta for raising a lot of awareness. But I’m still waiting to meet the people who will represent us in this battle. Palotta has raised the flag, but I’m not convinced that he’s our bannerman.

Notes From All Over

Did you know that Techcafeteria isn’t the only place I blog?  You can find me posting on topics related to legal aid, technology, and my work at Legal Services Corporation at the LSC Technology Blog.  My latest there is about my favorite free task management tool, Trello.

I also do the occasional post on NTEN‘s blog, and they published my article on the history of Circuit Riders, the nonprofit-focused techies that got many an org automated in the 90’s, and my pitch for their new mission.  Related: I’ll be doing a webinar for NTEN this fall; an encore of the Project Management session that I did at the recent NTC. Look for that around September.

Next up here? I finally sorted out what bugs me about Dan Palotta, renowned fundraiser, rabble-rouser and keynoter at the NTEN conference last April. I should have that up in a day or two.

In non-blog related news, this is the month that my family finally joins me in DC.  We’ve rented an apartment in Arlington (within walking distance of LSC’s Georgetown offices) to hole up in while we look for a house to buy.  I’m flying to SF to load up the moving truck and say one last goodbye to the best beer on earth (Pliny the Elder, by Russian River Brewing Co.) (What? You thought I was speaking more generally?)

 

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.