Start with what you have, and then consider what you need
To get the highest return on your next technology investment, remember that people come first. Before you buy, get buy-in from a variety of audiences — funders, board members, leadership and staff members.
During a career in technology consulting and marketing communication for nonprofits, author Tim Brost developed a model for meeting this challenge. He suggests moving through stages of influencing people:
"These stages come into play pre- and post-purchase, but in different ways," Brost says. "And, they are supported by different strategies."
Start with an audit of the technology you already have. Make a simple list of:
- Operating systems
Flesh out each item on your list by adding the version number and the date it was acquired.
Next, put each piece of technology in context. For example:
- Who uses it?
- Why do they use it?
- When do they use it?
- Is the task that the user completes with this piece of technology one step in a larger process?
The goal is to get an accurate and detailed picture of workflows — how your people and your technology currently interact.
"Systems are not confined to technology," Brost says. "They are just one aspect of achieving goals in support of your mission."
Next, become aware of what you want. When you started thinking about buying new technology, what was the problem you wanted to solve or the need you wanted to meet?
Perhaps you can get what you want with your current systems. For example, training your staff to use the advanced features of your existing software might solve the problem you identified, or perhaps tweaking the steps in your current workflows would do the trick.
Buy-in hinges on your ability to answer questions. If you're aware that current systems don't offer what you want, then you've already answered one possible objection to new technology. Here are some other questions to ask:
- Who else has faced the problem that we've identified — and what technology did they use to solve it? Talk to colleagues in other nonprofits similar to yours in size, mission and services. Based on these conversations, list specific hardware and software alternatives to meet your identified needs.
- Can we afford this technology? "One rule of thumb is to triple the cost of a new technology for the first three months of operation, at least," Brost says. "It often takes that amount of time to bring everyone up to speed."
- Will the new technology play nicely with our existing systems? Identify any compatibility issues and whether you may need to hire a specialist to help integrate systems.
- Who will use the new technology? Name specific staff members, and include them on the team to evaluate and recommend new technology.
- Do we need to update job descriptions with the new technology in mind? For instance, purchasing software for client relationship management might mean additional tasks for a particular staff member — entering new clients, modifying client records and creating reports.
- Can we actually implement this technology? Decide who'll install it, learn it and train other staff members to use it. Set aside time for these tasks and schedule implementation in gradual phases. For minimal disruption, replace only one major system at a time.
- Who will be the vendor? Find vendors who have a history of working with nonprofits.
"The most difficult part of technology adoption is knowing whether a given system can actually perform what is being asked of it," Brost says.
The solution is to try before you buy. Some technology vendors offer full-featured demo packages that can be used on a trial basis for up to 30 days. If this option isn't available, consider a vicarious trial. Reach out to peers who are already using the technology. Do several site visits. Watch what users do and ask questions.
At this stage, you've used awareness, knowledge and trial to acquire software, hardware or both. Next comes the task of spreading buy-in for the new technology from trial users to your entire staff.
To begin, shape the conversation. Create a one-sentence script to describe the core benefit of the new technology. For example: "This customer relationship management system allows us to track donations and segment people, based on their interests, for our communications."
Also enlist so-called power users. These are staff members who took part in the trial period, learned the new technology and became convinced of its benefits. Encourage these early adopters to train colleagues.
Finally, evaluate. After a few months of living with the new technology, document its advantages and disadvantages. The insights you gain will help you get buy-in for your next technology purchase.
LinkedIn: Tim Brost
Head Start: How technology is funded: The basics by Eugene Chan
TechSoup Asia: Six ways nonproﬁts can leverage technology investments by Eugene Chan
NTEN: Making smarter decisions when selecting technology by Jeff Forster (2014)