This post was originally published on the MAP Techworks Blog in November of 2014.
For a nonprofit that’s reached a size of 25 or more staff, a key question revolves around how to support technology that has grown from a few laptops and PCs to a full-blown network, with all of the maintenance and troubleshooting that such a beast requires. Should you hire internal IT staff or outsource to a more affordable vendor for that support? I’d say that the key question isn’t should you — that’s more a matter of finances and personal preferences. But what you outsource and how you go about it are critical factors.
The IT departments that I’ve worked on provided a range of services, which I’ve always broken down into two broad categories. The first is the plumbing: computer maintenance, installation, database input, training, and tech support. These functions can, with a few caveats, be successfully outsourced. The caveats:
- You can’t just hire the outsourced IT firm and expect them to understand your needs after an initial meeting and walk-through. They should be micro-managed for the first month or two. Their inclination will be to offer a generic level of support that may or may not work for your application mix or your company culture. Orient them; set clear expectations and priorities; and check their work for a good while. If you don’t, your staff might immediately lose faith in them, setting up a situation where they don’t use the service you’re paying for and, when they do interact, do it begrudgingly. The outsourced staff should be on your team, and you need to invest in onboarding them.
- Everyone has to remember that it’s your network. Don’t give the outsourced service the keys to your kingdom. You should keep copies of all passwords and they should understand that changing a system password without your prior knowledge, consent, and an updated password list is a fire-able offense. And be ready to fire them — have a backup vendor lined up.
The other bucket is strategic tech planning. In-house infrastructure or cloud. Data management strategy. How tech integrates into a broader strategic plan and supports the mission. How tech plays into the strategies of our partners, our clients, and our communities. These components can benefit from the advice of a good consultant, but are too integral to the work and culture of an organization to be handed off to outsiders wholesale.
Outsourcing your tech strategy can be a dangerous gamble. If you have a great consultant who really cares about your mission, they can offer some good advice. But, in most cases, the consultants are more interested in pushing their tech strategy than developing one that works well with your organizational culture. I find that my tech strategy is heavily informed by my understanding of my co-workers, their needs, and their ability to cope with change. To get all that from outside of an organization requires exceptional insight.
Let me make that point another way — if you don’t have a tech strategist on your internal, executive team, you’re crippled from the start. These days, it’s as essential as having a development director and a finance person. Consultants can inform and vet your ideas, but you can’t outsource your tech strategy wholesale to them. It’s core to the functionality of any successful nonprofit.
The right outsourcer can be cost effective and meet needs. But be very thorough in your selection process and, again, do some serious onboarding, because your dissatisfaction will be tied completely to their lack of understanding of your business and your needs. There are a number of NP-specific vendors (Map for Nonprofits, former NPowers and others, like DC’s CommunityIT) that get us and are better choices, in general, than the commercial services.