Tag Archives: strategic planning

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.

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.

Trello: A Swiss Army Knife For Tasks, Prioritizing And Project Planning

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer.

One of the great services available to the legal aid tech community (lstech) is LSNTAP’s series of webinars on tech tools.  I’ve somehow managed to miss every one of these webinars, but I’m a big fan of sharing the tools and strategies that allow us to more effectively get things done. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about my new favorite free online tool, Trello.

Trello is an online Kanban board.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you are still likely familiar with the concept: most TV cop shows have a board in the squad room with columns for new, open and closed cases.  Kanban is the name for these To Do/Doing/Done boards, and they are a powerful, visual tool for keeping track of projects.

You don’t need Trello — you can do it with a whiteboard and a marker.  But Trello’s online version can become very useful very fast.  Like the best apps, the basic functionality is readily usable, but  advanced functionality lurks under the hood.  With no training, you can create a todo list that monitors what’s coming up, what you’re working on and what you’ve finished.  Explore a little bit, and you learn that each task can have a description, a due date, a file attached to it, it’s own task list and one or more people assigned to it. Because Trello is just as good as a one-person productivity tool as it is as a team coordination tool.

I can report that the IT team at LSC has dived into it.  Here are a few of the things we’re using it for:

  • Our project big board.  We keep all of our upcoming projects, with due dates and leads, in a Trello board.
  • Individual task lists.  The developers track their major deliverable dates, the rest of us the small things we’re working on.
  • Strategic Planning – anyone who has ever done a session involving slapping post-its on the wall will appreciate this simple, online version of that exercise.  SWOT analyses work particularly well.

At this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I first learned about Trello, it was successfully being used as a help desk ticket system.  I’d recommend this only for small programs.  A more powerful free ticket system like Spiceworks, or a commercial product will be able to handle the volume at a 50 person + company better than Trello can.

But here’s the real case for a tool like Trello: it goes from zero to compellingly useful in seconds.  While I won’t knock enterprise project management systems, I lean toward the ones that give me great functionality without taking up a lot of my time.  I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where the immense workload begged for a such tools, but implementing one was too big a project to add to the list.  I bet that you’ve been there, too. Trello lacks the sophistication of a waterfall system like MS Project or an agile one, such as Jira. But it can get you organized in minutes.  And, in our case, it doesn’t replace those more sophisticated systems. It supplements them at the high level.  We do both traditional projects (deploy servers, install phone systems) and agile ones (build web sites, program our grants management system).  We can use the proper tools for those project plans, but keep the team coordinated with Trello.

Here’s our 2013 project board:

 

Note that we only assign the project leads, and the main use of this board is in the project review that kicks off our weekly staff meetings. But it’s helping us stay on task, and that is always the challenge.

What are your favorite tools for team coordination and project management?  Let us know in the comments.

Get Your IT In Order — I Can Help

While I look for that new job (see below), I’m available for IT consulting gigs.

Not every NPO has a full-time IT Director, and outsourced services can provide some guidance, but many of them aren’t focused on the particular needs of nonprofits.  I’ve had considerable experience running IT Departments, consulting and advising NPOs, and developing strategies for maximizing the impact of technology in resource-constrained environments. This gives me a unique skill set for providing mission-focused guidance on these types of questions:

  • What should IT look like in my organization? In-house or outsourced, or a mix? Where should It report in? How much staff and budget is required in order to get the desired outcomes?
  • What type of technology do we need? In-house or cloud-based? How well does what we have serve our mission, and how would we replace it?
  • We’re embarking on a new systems or database project (fundraising/CRM, HR/finance, e-commerce, outcomes measurement/ client tracking, virtualization, VOIP phones – you name it). How can we insure that the project will be technologically sound and sustainable, while meeting our strategic needs?

The services and deliverables that I can offer include:

  • Assessments
  • Strategic plans
  • Staffing plans
  • Immediate consulting and/or project management on current projects
  • Acting CIO/Director status to help put things in order

If you want some tactical guidance in these areas, please get in touch.

 

Accidental Technology

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2011.

There’s been a ton of talk over at the NTEN Blog this month about Accidental Techies.  I had a few thoughts on the phenomenon.

If you don’t know, Accidental Techie is an endearing and/or self effacing term for someone who signed up for a clerical, administrative or other general purpose position and wound up doing technical work.  Many full-blown techies start their careers accidentally like this.

The NTEN discussion has wonderfully run the gamut.  Robert Weiner, a well-known NPTech consultant, started things rolling with “Going From Accidental Techie To Technology Leader“, a piece that wonderfully explores the gaps between those who do the tech because nobody else is and those who have the seat at the planning table, providing good advice on how you get to that table.

David Geilhufe then jumped in from an entirely different perspective with “Professionalism in Nonprofit Technology: Should My Techies be Accidental?” — that of a software grant provider who has seen how difficult it is to deal with organizations that don’t have seasoned technology practitioners in place. While his piece wasn’t a screed against accidental techies (ATs), it threw a bit of cold water on any org that thinks that technology can be successful without professional input and planning.

Fellow Idealware blogger and nptech consultant Johanna Bates posted “A Rant About Accidental Techies“. Her post, based in part on her own AT origins,  is full of insight on how the ‘accidental” appellation can be a crutch, She also shines light on the sexual politics of accidental techieism (reflected, unsurprisingly, in NTEN’s bloggers, two of whom are male, non-ATs, and two are female former ATs).

And Judi Sohn wrote “An Ode To The Accidental Techie“, reflecting on her experience as one (as well as VP of her org!) and reflecting on the attributes that make Accidental Techies great.

I am not, and never was an Accidental Techie, although my career path was very similar.  I started doing tech work in a small law firm where my title was “Mailroom Supervisor” and my duties included everything from database maintenance to filing to reception. We had a part-time tech who had installed a five node, token-ring IBM LAN that the legal secretaries, one attorney and I shared. When he quit, I was offered the Network Admin promotion and  a hefty pay raise.  The difference here is that, like a lot of ATs, I was in a clerical position and I had an aptitude for technology.  But, unlike an AT — and this is my big point — I worked for people that anticipated the needs for technology management and support.

There is nothing wrong with Accidental Techies; quite the contrary: they tend to be people who are sharp, versatille, sensitive both to organizational needs and the opportunities to create organizational efficiencies.  Most of all, they’re generous with their knowledge and time. But there’s something wrong if the technical work they do is unheralded and unpaid.  It’s wrong if it isn’t in their title and job descriptions.  The circumstances that create accidental techies, instead of promoting people with those traits to tech positions, are routinely those where management doesn’t have a clue as to how dependent on technology they actually are, or what resources they need to support it.

And you can bet that, in a business environment that creates the conditions for Accidental Techies to flourish, there’s no technology plan.  There’s no CIO, IT Director, or person who sits on the planning  and budget committee whose job is to properly fund and deploy computer and software systems. They’re winging it with infrastructure that can make or break an organization.  And they’re extremely lucky to have proactive people on staff who do see the gap and are breaking their backs to fill it.

So the NTEN blog quartet is required reading for anyone who even suspects that they might be an Accidental Techie. Read Johanna’s first, because she cuts to some core assessments about who you are and why you might be in this role.  Read David’s next, because it’s harsh but true, and it illustrates well the dangers that your org is facing if they don’t have proper IT oversight baked into their system.  Read Judy’s third, because she’ll remind you that, despite the last two reads, it’s still cool — and you’re cool for being someone with heart and talent.  And read Robert’s last, because he’ll tell you how to get from where you are to where you and your organization should be.

My Full NPTech Dance Card

Congress can take a vote and change the time that the sun goes down.  So why can’t they give me the 10 additional hours in each day that I keep lobbying for?

In addition to my fulfilling work at Earthjustice and the quality time at home with my lovely wife and Lego-obsessed 10 year old, here are some of the things that are keeping me busy that might interest you as well:

  • Blogging weekly at Idealware, as usual. This is one of those rare entries that shows up here at Techcafeteria, but not there.  And I’m joined at Idealware by a great group of fellow bloggers, so, if you only read me here, you might get more out of reading me there.
  • I recently joined the GreenIT Consortium, a group of nonprofit professionals committed to spreading environmental technology practices throughout our sector.  I blog about this topic at Earthjustice.  Planned (but no dates set) is a webinar on Server Virtualization; technology that can reduce electrical use dramatically while making networks more manageable.  This will be similar to the session I did at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in April, and I’ll be joined again by Matt Eshleman of CITIDC. I’m also helping Ann Yoders, a consultant at Informatics Studio, with an article on green technology for Idealware.
  • On September 9th, I’ll be recording another episode of Blackbaud‘s Baudcast with other friends, including Holly Ross of NTEN. The topic this time is technology management, a subject I don’t ever shut up about.
  • Saving the big ones for last, NTEN’s first Online Conference is themed around the book, Managing Technology To Meet Your Mission. This one takes place September 16th and 17th, and I’ll be leading the discussion on my chapter: How to Decide: Planning and Prioritizing.
  • In early 2010, Aspiration will bring my pitch to life when we hold a two day conference that is truly on nonprofit technology, geared towards those of us who manage and support it. I’ve been known to rant about the fact that the big nptech shindigs — NTEN’s NTC and Techsoup’s Netsquared — focus heavily on social media and web technologies, with few sessions geared toward the day to day work that most nptechs are immersed in.  The goal of the event is to not only share knowledge, but also to build the community.  With so many nptech staff bred in the “accidental” vein, we think that fostering mentoring and community for this crowd is a no-brainer.
  • Further out, at the 2010 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I’ll be putting together a similar tech-focused sub-track.  Since the Aspiration event will be local (in the SF Bay), this will be a chance to take what we learn and make it global.
  • My nptech friends will forgive me for declaring my extra-curricular dance card otherwise closed — this is enough work to drop on top of my full-time commitments!

Technology and Risk: Are you Gathering Dust?

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in April of 2009.

Last week I had the thrill of visiting a normally closed-to-the-public Science Building at UC Berkeley, and getting a tour of the lab where they examine interstellar space dust collected from the far side of Mars. NASA spent five or six years, using some of the best minds on the planet and $300,000,000, to develop the probe that went out past Mars to zip (at 400 miles a second) through comet tails and whatever else is out there, gathering dust. The most likely result of the project was that the probe would crash into an asteroid and drift out there until it wasted away. But it didn’t, and the scientists that I met on Saturday are now using these samples to learn things about our universe that are only speculative fiction today.

So, what does NASA know that we don’t about the benefits of taking risks?

In my world of technology management, it seems to be primarily about minimizing risk. We do multiple backups of critical data to different media; we lock down the internet traffic that can go in and out of our network; we build redundancy into all of our servers and systems, and we treat technology as something that will surely fail if we aren’t vigilant in our efforts to secure it. Most of our favorite adages are about avoiding risk: “It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” and “Nobody was ever fired for buying IB.. er, MicroSoft.”

On Monday, I’ll be presenting on my chapter of NTEN‘s Book “Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission” at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco. My session, and chapter, is about mission-focused technology planning and the art of providing business-class systems on a nonprofit budget. That’s certainly about finding sustainable and dependable options, but my case is that nonprofits, in particular, need to identify the areas where they can send out those probes and gamble a bit. For many nonprofits, technology planning is a matter of figuring out which systems desperately need upgrading and living with a lot of systems and applications that are old and semi-functional. My case is that there’s a different approach: we should spend like a regular business on the critical systems, but be creative and take risks where we can afford to fail a bit, on the chance that we’ll get far more for less money than we would playing it “safe” with inadequate technology. It’s a tough sell, yes, but I frame it in my belief that, when your business is changing the world, your business plan has to be bold and creative. As I mention often, the web is, right now, a platform rife with opportunity. We will miss out on great chances to significantly advance our missions if we just treat it like another threat to our stability.

We need stable systems, and we often struggle with inadequate funding and the technical resources simply to maintain our computer systems. I say that, as hard as that is, we need to invest in exploration. It’s about maximizing potential at the same time as you minimize risk. And its all about the type of dust that you want to gather.

NTENsity

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It’s T minus 67 days and counting to the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference, which has risen to THE social and professional peak event in any given year for me. The conference runs from Sunday, April 26th through Tuesday, the 28th this year, and it’s at the Hilton in downtown SF, quite convenient to Bay Area based Techcafeteria. Let me tell you how excited I am, then share a couple of recommendations on how you can have a great time and support the work that NTEN does.

This will be my fifth year attending, and, working my way up to the conference, I co-hosted a pre-conference event at Techsoup last week; I’m doing two NTEN Webinars on Personal and Server virtualiation next month; I’m celebrating the release of my first chapter in a book next month, when NTEN’s Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission comes out; and I’m hosting another pre-conference meetup the night before at a great brewpub in Berkeley. If you’re going, be prepared to meet a lot of really interesting people and to soak up a lot of challenging and helpful thinking about nonprofits and the web, all at one of the best-run tech conferences that you could hope to attend. If NTEN’s CEO and perennial party planner Holly Ross knows one thing (and she knows a lot of things, including how to play the trombone!), it’s how to plan a conference.

Those two things: First, if you’re going, do what you can to participate in the Day of Service. What’s that? I put together a slide show to tell you:

You can sign up and choose a Bay Area charity to advise or help out at NTEN’s site. This is what it’s all about – not just talking, sharing and socializing with peers, but practicing what we preach while we’re at it. I can’t recommend this enough.

Second, if you are or aren’t going, but you recognize, as I do, the value that the most web-savvy group of socially minded techies can bring to nonprofits who are struggling to keep up in this economy, support the NTEN Scholarship fund. Holly is going as far as one foolis–er, brave woman can to inspire us to help her raise $10,000 by the end of the month. Convio will match what we give and send 57 people who can’t otherwise afford it to the event. Give right here!

Let me know if you plan to attend, and/or you want to party with us beforehand. I hope to see you there!

Managing by Maxim

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

I’m a big fan of maxims, adages, anything that sums up an important, and possibly complex point in a sentence that can convey, if not the whole point, at least a conversation starter. The main challenge for a technology manager is communication, particularly with those who are uninterested and/or threatened by technological terms. I live and breathe this stuff, but I understand that I’m in the ten percent, the ten percent of people who like and are completely comfortable with technology. The rest of the world ranges from averse to highly competent, but not gaga over it all, like I am. Remembering that, and approaching each project and decision with that in mind, has helped me accomplish significant things for people who aren’t necessarily bought in to all of my ideas on first listen.

My current favorite maxim is Users own functionality, techies own platforms. This encompasses a couple of key concepts. First, technology isn’t owned by IT or the people they serve; it’s owned by both those who install it and those who use it. Therefore, technology can’t be evaluated and planned for solely by one group or another. But I’ve seen lots of cases of both – IT rolling out a fundraising database or point of sale system with no input from the people who will base their revenue goals on the systems’ capabilities; and staff rolling out equally complex systems with little or no IT guidance. Both situations are likely to be a big waste of funds and effort. Second, the breakdown is clear – IT might be wowed by the cool, Ajaxy interface on that web app, but if it doesn’t have the reporting capabilities that the users need, they might be better served by something less flashy. That’s for the users to decide. But IT will have a better read on how sound a database structure is for querying and reporting, or what will integrate successfully with other key systems. So IT should have sway over the technologies used, to a large extent.

If you build it, they won’t come is another favorite. Unlike some cinematic baseball greats, techies can’t build huge systems in anticipation of user’s needs and expect them to be adopted, no matter how great the systems are. Clearly identified needs and ample amounts of input and involvement are required for home-grown system development. At my job, I am pushing agile development, which includes user testing and input from early on in development. This means that I’m teaching my staff how to let go a bit, and be more open to feedback, as I’m teaching the non-techie staff how to evaluate functionality in unfinished, and possibly somewhat ugly systems. It’s not as much training as it is imploring all parties to have some faith in each other.

In business communications, you haven’t said anything until you’ve said it three times in three different mediums. This one was taught to me by one of my greatest mentors, an ED at a commercial law firm that I worked at in the 90’s. It boils down to the terser rule of thumb: Assume that they haven’t read your email. The biggest mistake that we all make is thinking that we’ve made our intentions and priorities clear by sending a memo or an all staff email. The truly important initiatives that you’re pushing through should be reiterated and the message diversified, to reach people who may not respond to your favorite medium. And, as Paul has well-pointed out, at least one of those mediums should be verbal, and hopefully in the same room.

What are the maxims that you manage and survive by? Leave your best ones in the comments.