Think ahead to unleash technology's strategic potential
When nonprofits try to operate without a technology plan, they risk a problem sometimes called "the tyranny of the urgent." Technology comes to mean dealing with breakdowns — fixing broken hardware, reloading buggy software and staffing a help desk that's deluged with angry users. The notion of technology as a tool for achieving the organization's mission and vision is lost.
The goal of planning is to prevent this situation. By thinking ahead, you can save money, keep your systems functional and unleash the strategic potential of technology.
The point of technology
To begin, consider technology as a means to larger ends. Hardware and software are only important because they help your organization do things such as:
- Share your story through your website
- Raise money through online donations
- Reach more people with online programs and services
- Keep track of interactions with donors and stay in touch with them
- Manage volunteers and keep them engaged
- Keep board members informed through useful reports
- Exchange information and build new relationships through online communities
Technology planning is about doing all these things in an intentional way, rather than delegating them to an "accidental techie."
Three levels of technology
The term "technology" has many meanings. To plan effectively, specify which level of technology you're talking about:
Communication is all about putting the word out. This includes a website that captures visitor attention, convinces people to volunteer and inspires them to donate — and the ability to reach your audience through tools such as email, social media, online courses and webinars. It also includes tools for internal communication, such as messaging apps or intranet sites.
Data management includes collecting information on your donors, volunteers, clients, program participants, finances, activities and outcomes. With effective technology at this level, you can answer questions such as: How many people came to our last workshop, and what was their feedback? How much grant money have we spent so far this year, and how much do we have left? How well are our new programs doing, and how can we make them better?
Infrastructure is the "housekeeping" level of technology. It includes stable computers, up-to-date software, antivirus protection and data backups — plus a secure and speedy internet connection.
Your technology team
With these distinctions in mind, you're ready to form a team for technology planning. Invite people with a variety of roles in your organization, such as:
- An executive sponsor — your executive director, chief executive or someone else with the authority to allocate time and money for technology projects
- Super users — a few staff members who are enthusiastic about technology and influence how their peers use it
- An office manager or other administrator with first-hand knowledge of your day-to-day workflows
- An in-house technology expert — your IT person or a member of your IT department
If you don't have anyone on staff with technical expertise, enlist someone from outside your organization. This could be a consultant or vendor. Some foundations offer free technology consulting as well.
Core technology questions
Your technology team's job is to raise three core questions:
- How well do we currently use technology for communication, data management and infrastructure?
- At which of these levels could we intervene over the next year to make the biggest positive difference for our organization?
- What are our goals at this level, and how much will spend to achieve them?
Your answers can turn technology into a tool for every staff member to use — and a strategy for engaging stakeholders at every level.
TechSoup: Introduction to technology planning for nonprofits (2016)
TechSoup: Tips and tools for technology planning (2010)
TechSoup: New year, new tech plan: Mission-driven technology planning (2015)
TechSoup Canada: Mission-driven technology planning by Tierney Smith (2011)TechSoup Canada: Technology planning for nonprofits: Getting started by Tierney Smith (2011)