Start with available IT support — and ask for more help if needed
Many IT tasks — such as configuring new software or creating a specialized database — can quickly strain the technology capacity of small nonprofits. If that happens, ask for help. Use the following strategies to get the support you need.
Access your available IT support
Begin by checking warranties and service contracts for the hardware and software that your organization owns. Find out if vendors offer technical support via phone, online contact or on-site visits. Also pose questions to tech-savvy staff members.
Technical volunteers are another option, especially for short-term projects with well-defined objectives. You might recruit volunteers through volunteer listing services, corporate volunteer programs, technical schools, colleges or universities.
Other sources of free IT support include:
- Frequently asked question pages, documentation and forums on vendor websites
- Search engine queries that include the name of your software, version number and the exact text of any error message you receive
- Online forums hosted by groups such as TechSoup or the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN)
- Funders that offer technical development to grantees, including technology and software companies and their foundations
- Groups such as U.K.-based Charity IT Association, which provides free services to help charities become more effective through technology
Look for signs that you need additional IT support
If your organization has more than 10 computers, you might benefit by hiring a part-time or even full-time system administrator. This person develops in-house expertise as your technology grows more sophisticated over time. And if you decide to contract for additional IT support in the future, your system administrator becomes your primary contact for outside vendors.
Or, you might reach a point where your heroic "accidental techie," volunteer or system administrator is deluged with more help requests than can be handled alone. Despite his or her best efforts, your website crashes. Printers don't print. Emails bounce back to you. Backups fail. These are all red flags.
Over time, such problems may devolve into a "break and fix" mode of operation. Worst case scenario, your technology must be fixed before you can complete mission-critical tasks. Contract for outside IT help well before your organization gets to this point.
Determine the kind of IT support you need
Answer the following questions:
- Are we looking for routine support? Examples include network administration, website maintenance, help desk support, database input and incremental software upgrades. Routine technical support is often the easiest to outsource to a managed IT service — outside companies that take over specific technology functions.
- Are we looking for strategic planning? You might be struggling with ways to deepen your technology infrastructure, fund it and align it with your mission. This is an ideal task for a technology consultant who contracts with you on an hourly or per-project basis.
- When does our support need to be available? Some nonprofits want support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Others prefer support only on demand.
- Can we get our support from a combination of sources? For example, you might work with technical volunteers for routine support and hire a consultant for short-term strategic planning.
- How much can we pay for IT support? Based on your answers to the previous questions, you might choose to budget for periodic consulting. Or, you might contract for managed IT support on a monthly basis. Fees for the latter are usually priced per seat, where one user plus one workstation equals one seat.
To get the most for your IT money, assess your situation carefully. Then pay for exactly the kind of support you need.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
MAP: Should you outsource your IT department? by Peter Campell (2014)
TechSoup: What to do when you outgrow your homegrown tech support by Jim Lynch (2016)
TechSoup: Working with technical volunteers: A manual for nonprofits (2009)