eCRM, Nonprofit 2.0, Strategy

Build a Nonprofit’s Technology Assets from the Ground Up, Part 1 of 4

maslow for nonprofits.png

UPDATE: This is now a four-part series instead of two. The next installment will appear on 2/18/2009.

Hat tip to Sonny Cloward for suggesting that nonprofits should have a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it came to implementing nonprofit technology. It was in response to Tweets I made last month stating that social media has been oversold to nonprofits and that they really needed to concentrate on their Web site first.  I’m going to circle back to my thinking on social media in the second part of this article.  However, it’s high time that a Maslovian hierarchy of nonprofit technology is written for  someone who is looking to improve their small (under $5 million in revenue) nonprofit.

Think of this as a hierarchy of things your nonprofit should probably have in place before you can get to doing social media. There’s no doubt that each level represents a moving part that may require a nonprofit’s focus from time to time. That’s the nature of how nonprofits work. However, for the small nonprofit still spinning up their operations, it’s best to approach this pyramid from the bottom up as you really cannot move towards social media without everything else working. 

Mission

You know your mission statement? Remember that ratty old thing written on your first grant application but then promptly forgotten after it was submitted? You really need to have that pasted next to your monitor when you do your IT initiatives. It will allow you and your staff to ask:   “Are my efforts helping the mission? And by how much?” A focus on metrics-driven management is essential for getting your nonprofit’s technology to work right. Basically, if you have a great mission statement and follow through with measuring your progress towards it,  it should reduce the need to keep re-aligning your IT assets to your nonprofit.

This means you have to have goals and metrics in place. If you find it difficult to have a goal in place, at the very least start to measure your results somehow. Frankly, a good mission statement that has realizable and measurable goals is probably more important than every other layer in this pyramid. Not picking a goal will just have your nonprofit steering aimlessly through the sometimes murky waters of technology. You may not even know how unrealistic your goal is until you start getting feedback about your efforts. However, that’s OK. Failure IS an option. Steering blindly? Not so much.

People

Nothing works without people. This means hiring savvy computer using staff and getting people on your board who know things about technology. Be aware that “computer people” come in all different stripes and it may be difficult to judge a person’s value from the outset. Generally speaking, I just look at previous projects they worked on. That seems to be the best predictor for understanding whether a person will work towards your mission statement and be a good fit with your nonprofit’s culture. 

Your very first IT hire will be by necessity a jack of all trades. Unfortunately, “jack of all trades” is NOT a job title in the IT field. I suggest that the most bang for your buck will be hiring someone whose main expertise is programming. Programming requires some computer science background and you can be somewhat assured that that person can adequately morph their knowledge base to whatever IT task is at hand. That is, it’s harder for a network admin to become a good programmer than vice versa. Don’t get me wrong — I respect network admins a lot but when discussing a $5 million nonprofit, many of the issues will not be whether or not some huge router needs to be configured but whether or not the website is up and running and fully configured to take advantage of whatever fundraising and ecommerce APIs are out there. That’s right, making money for a nonprofit is mostly a programmer’s job, NOT a system administrator’s. A good programmer will, almost by default, be able to help you with online fundraising because they will understand how your fundraising program can work and customize reports for your development staff. A system administrator will not be able to do that without a lot of ad-hoc learning.

By the way, for all you techies out there, I predict nonprofit data centers will shrink in size as more cloud computing initiatives and SaaS software get built. This means that nonprofits will hire less system administrators and more programmers in an attempt to make IT less of a cost center and more of a revenue generator.

Beware: Many people pass themselves off as technical but are actually people who have managed technical people or only worked with technical people. Look through their resumes and see if they ever held a front-line position as a programmer or a database administrator. If they’ve moved up, that’s even better (proof they’re not totally socially incompetent) but make sure they’ve done front-line work.

If you’re a small nonprofit, managerial types or “analysts” are NOT going to help you as much as having people who can actually program software or administer a network. Higher-level management may be useful later if you have or plan to have substantial IT programs and assets but if you’re small and your nonprofit doesn’t have a specific IT component to its mission, it’s better to have people who actually can do the work since you won’t have the money to carry out the highfalutin’ concepts of your IT “manager”. 

Network

Please see my article on building networks for small nonprofits. Basically, make sure you build an IT network that takes advantage of very low desktop and laptop prices, good support contracts, and redundant Internet connections. A lightweight network will give you more flexibility in the long run as no one (definitely not me) can really predict what will come down the pike. Don’t build something that paints you into a corner in terms of technology. This generally means using stuff that works on a well-known industry standard. It also means not heavily relying on any one vendor to take care of you.

Diversify your IT investments whenever possible. Keep trying out new vendors until you find ones that have the service levels and skill sets that you need. At least in NYC, there are some incredibly good consultants and firms out there but you’ll never know if you don’t seek to improve the service levels you get from your current vendors.

This network will form the basis of all your IT efforts afterwards. Unlike your Web site, CRM or social media efforts, this is where you’ll have to be the most effective with your dollars. Network uptime, security and backups are absolutely key in this part of the pyramid. The network, because of all the documents and other media in it, represents the sum total of the intellectual property of your nonprofit. It’s the vault that contains all your work. Treat it as such.

I’ll post the second part of this article fairly soon. I still have to get my thoughts together on social media but suffice it to say, ROI and metrics will be considered when discussing social media.

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36 Comments

  • On 02.04.09 Ivan Boothe said:

    Love it. Yes.

    One of the things I always mention about the Genocide Intervention Network and why we were such an "early adopter" of social networking as a successful advocacy/online organizing tool is that our mission (empowering individuals with tools to stop genocide) formed the foundation for what we were doing. Social networking and social media were just following through on that mission.

  • On 02.04.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Ivan, thanks for your comments and the Tweet you just sent out! I see social media as an outgrowth of a good strategy but many nonprofits are not very good yet at Web 1.0. I'm hoping this article will help sober people about the prospects of social media and instead have them pay attention to the assets that they already have.

  • On 02.05.09 What we’re reading, week of 2/2 « i On Nonprofits said:

    [...] Non-Profit Tech Blog… Build a Nonprofit’s Technology Assets from the Ground Up, Part 1 of 2 Allan Benamer begins a series of posts examining the website-before-social-media discussion, and [...]

  • On 02.06.09 Laura’s Notebook | Technology for Non-profit Organisations, Social Media and Accessible Website Design » Blog Archive » The Dog’s Trust shares it’s successes with using social media said:

    [...] work. Earlier in the week, I read and mentioned Allan Benamers’ thought inspiring post on Build a Nonprofit’s Technology Assets from the Ground Up which starts at the baseline of your organisations mission and climbing up the pyramid of [...]

  • On 02.06.09 Bill said:

    Nice post Allan (love the pyramid). I don't really agree with the first hire being a programmer though. That, like network admin is becoming a commodity and any place that has an in-house programmer will tend to create lots of custom pieces — that need to be fed and cared for into the future — when a buy vs. build mentality, particularly in the technical world we are living in today, might suit a small non-profit better.

  • On 02.06.09 crossmage said:

    What a great article and something all technologists should remember – tech selection is not where the thinking should start. I volunteer at the local Net2 events in getting my fellow technogeeks to help out nonprofits, and see in here a great tool for both camps. I would like to use this in an upcoming presentation on how we volunteer technogeeks and better meet the needs of the nonprofits that need our help in changing the world.

    Will you address the blog-as-website approach for meeting the foundational level above networking with an architecture that can extend to the top – or are you separating the blog/basecamp from the outposts like flickr and twitter at the top? (Such loose definitions of social media, you know)

  • On 02.06.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Bill, I would normally be on the buy side of build vs. buy too but a lot of software packages that nonprofits use still require people to at least do basic ETL just to get the data in the right places. This is particularly true when you start to integrate accounting and payroll software with fundraising software in the nonprofit world. At that point, you're definitely needing a programmer to come in and make it work. As I see it, there's nothing to buy that will do the integration without the intervention of a programmer. Half the time, this programmer wouldn't even be programming. He or she would just end up making reports from .csv file exported from multiple packages just to get something approximating a monthly report together. And let's not even start with case management systems, they're the least open systems that a nonprofit can buy right now.

    What I'm sure both of us don't want to see is custom code squirreled away on some server in XYZscript. Getting programmers to document their code is difficult but it can be done if it's part of how they're evaluated by their managers.

  • On 02.06.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks very much crossmage, I'm leaning towards treating blogging as social media just to keep my definition in sync with everyone else's. That said, a lot of blogging platforms can be converted into a standard CMS for nonprofits. The difference,I guess, is the workload required to maintain a website vs. that of a social network campaign on Twitter or Facebook. And I think you've got a good sense of where I'll be heading in my next post on this issue.

  • On 02.06.09 Bill said:

    all true, i am just not really sure who the "manager" is at the small non-profit, that would be able to do that evaluation correctly (let alone understand the various technical elements of your comment for instance) — that is a very technical non-technical non-profit manager, no?

  • On 02.06.09 Allan Benamer said:

    You know what's interesting is that the level of nonprofit managerial skill at IT is increasing. I'm seeing NYU Wagner graduates who are pretty proficient at using Salesforce.com and know how to structure data correctly so that reports come out. It's not impossible these days to find nonprofit managers who know how to at least structure flat tables in a spreadsheet these days or know how to create Excel charts.

    That said, in the case where you simply can't buy another software package without making sense of the ones you've already got, it's clear that a programmer is a better bet. I don't believe they'll ever be commodities in the same way sys admins will be simply because there ARE cases when custom development will make sense over buying a software package. Oddly, the proliferation of open APIs will make programmers more valuable as the opportunities to interconnect software packages increase.

  • On 02.07.09 Bill said:

    I am sure there is a new generation of graduates and non-profit managers that are quite computer literate, I am not sure that is the norm yet though. Also I am not making the case for system admins vs. a programmers — i just find a disconnect between the idea that a programmer fits the "jack of all trades" profile that you say is a necessity. I find most programmers to be the most 'focused' peole I know in IT. Often, too focused to do the generalist work that might be needed or to bring their eyes up to the 20,000 foot level that might be needed to direct IT initiatives.

    It really depends on the aptitude of the non-profit managers above the IT person and the organization, which means that there may not be a one size fits all recommnedation on what your first IT hire should be.

  • On 02.09.09 Laura Quinn said:

    Love it! This is great. I do miss, though, more focus on communications – email especially. I don't have a great suggestion as to where it would go (maybe as part of the CRM piece?), but I think proactive communications is something that nonprofit technologists spend a lot of time on.

  • On 02.09.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks, Laura. Yes, I was hoping to add on the direct mail piece in the CRM section. Direct mail is important to techies. It's part of how the IT cost center becomes a revenue generator.

  • On 02.09.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Well, I am assuming that nonprofit managers will more intuitively understand the need for integrated data among all their software assets than they will have the ability to understand how to hire an IT generalist. I think hiring an IT person is difficult for small nonprofits and I'm trying to give them a rubric as to how to proceed. Nonprofits this tiny need people who can actually do work. Given the vast number of actions that a nonprofit will ask of this person, I believe that it's easier to make a generalist out of a programmer than the other way around. That is, as the complexity of the tasks rise in terms of computer science skills needed to complete the task, a programmer can handle most if not all of them. Anybody else would require training. My experience suggests that there are no in-house trainers for IT and very little training budget at a small nonprofit.

    Bill, you might want to post about how it's possible to find an IT generalist. I remain open to being convinced but I'm guessing that it's actually harder to set out with a goal of finding such a person.

  • On 02.09.09 Why your website matters more than social media « Betsy Stone’s The Philanthrophile said:

    [...] website is home base, the platform for your marketing and communications efforts.   Here’s another blog post worth checking out from the Non-profit Tech Blog that puts websites into a “….  Note that Customer Relationship Management (e.g. database/campaign management) and social media [...]

  • On 02.09.09 Roger Farnsworth said:

    Great post. I think it's important to keep things in perspective at all levels of engagement, and this summary helps clarify the big picture.

  • On 02.09.09 btazzi said:

    Allan, I think you have convinced me more than I have convinced you and you state your case very well. My experience has tended to be with larger organizations, so your point about them not being able to hire in expertise and having to do the work inhouse is a good one; and gives me something to think about. As well, there may be a semantics element to it also — as hiring someone with the skills to integrate data may not necessarily be a programmer, as I would think of a programmer. Good post!

  • On 02.09.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks btazzi. I'm glad I was able to move you in my direction. I think someone with the skills of data integration may not be a programmer as well. You're right though it's really a semantics issue regarding programmers and getting IT done. However, when push comes to shove in tiny nonprofit world, they have an even more difficult time sussing that out from someone's resume. Any other readers are more than welcome to jump in here. I'm thinking we should dedicate a post to "Hiring a nerd".

  • On 02.09.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks btazzi. I'm glad I was able to move you in my direction. I think someone with the skills of data integration may not be a programmer as well. You're right though it's really a semantics issue regarding programmers and getting IT done. However, when push comes to shove in tiny nonprofit world, they have an even more difficult time sussing that out from someone's resume. Any other readers are more than welcome to jump in here. I'm thinking we should dedicate a post to "Hiring a nerd" or "Your first nerd: care and feeding".

  • On 02.11.09 Noah Flower said:

    Allan, thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post. I think you make a very good point about nonprofits needing to remember not to put the cart before the horse! I was wondering if you might respond in more detail to Ivan Boothe's comment up at the top about how social media was a natural outgrowth of the Genocide Intervention Network. It strikes me that there must be a class of such nonprofits whose mission aligns neatly with social media — and for whom, as a result, social media ought to be one of the first things they do rather than the last. Would you agree? And if so, what do you think is the key distinction? I'll be writing up a post on the topic shortly over at Working Wikily (http://www.workingwikily.net).

  • On 02.12.09 Doug Yeager said:

    The pyramid does a nice job reminding nonprofits to focus on business needs.

    A big problem is that nonprofits tend to consider expenses related to technology as "extraordinary", something to be done when you can afford it – which turns out to be when you get a grant or at the end of the fiscal year. This is not good. Steady investments over time trump wild speculation,

    A better approach is to make a decision on the resources an organization will devote to technology, and build this into the budget just as you would payroll. We can talk further about the revenue offset, but what is important developmentally is that now the staff can sit down and decide the highest and best use for these resources.

    That means a two-staged IT expenditure process: budget allocation (what is the right percentage of budget long term?), then the evaluation of individual projects (which projects give us the best bang for the buck).

    First: this strategic allocation is where a board can be a strong partner (and it keeps them out of micromanaging IT purchases)

    Second: When IT decisions are considered extraordinary, they focus on the wrong things from a business perspective. Instead of thinking about how a resource will be used, it focuses on acquisition and justification.

    The department head will fight an IT extraordinary expense because it eats into what are considered discretionary resources. That pits the department heads against the person carrying the IT ball, and sets up an us/them relationship that will carry into implementation.

    But if the pot is fixed ahead of time, the department heads get to compete with one another to champion projects in their interest. The winners here perceive the IT relationship as a partnership.

    sorry this is so long winded, doug

  • On 02.12.09 links for 2009-02-12 « CauseWired Communications said:

    [...] Climbing the Pyramid Of Nonprofit Technology Needs, Part 1 of 2 | Non-Profit Tech Blog Allan Benamer: "Think of this as a hierarchy of things your nonprofit should probably have in place before you can get to doing social media. There’s no doubt that each level represents a moving part that may require a nonprofit’s focus from time to time. That’s the nature of how nonprofits work. However, for the small nonprofit still spinning up their operations, it’s best to approach this pyramid from the bottom up as you really cannot move towards social media without everything else working." (tags: socialmedia blog) [...]

  • On 02.16.09 Mark Peacock said:

    Great reminder that it all starts with the mission. Having done 3 IT strategies for non-profit/mission-based organizations, I've surprised all of my clients by explicitly linking IT strategy recommendations to business/mission drivers. It seemed a novel concept to the management and program executives — that they should require any IT project to explicitly support their mission.

    Like others, I also have to disagree with your recommendation to make the first IT hire a programmer rather than a "management type". The needs of a non-profit/mission-based organization will significantly change as it grows. I have been brought into too many organizations that are in dire IT straits because they continue to follow the IT direction set by their first technical employees — programmers and sys admins.

    I think the right first IT hire _is_ a manager type — someone conversant in technology, but not invested in one particular approach/vendor/architecture. It's much easier for a technical manager to link IT investments back to the mission than it is for a programmer who invested many hours building an application.

  • On 02.16.09 Nonprofit Bridge » Blog Archive » Staying Positive Despite Bad News All Around Us said:

    [...] so constrained, is social media still worth the investment?  Social Velocity thinks so but this Non-Profit Tech Blog post seems to indicate that other priorities must come [...]

  • On 02.16.09 links for 2009-02-16 « Using technology in the voluntary and community sector said:

    [...] Climbing the Pyramid Of Nonprofit Technology Needs The technology needs of voluntary and community organisations (tags: technology strategy socialmedia) [...]

  • On 02.17.09 Allan Benamer said:

    Thanks, Mark, for your comments. I actually think we're in agreement here. We both want generalists who aren't invested in any particular technology working with nonprofits. The problem then is how do nonprofits hire people who are generalists. There is no "generalist" job title in the techie field. This is why I decided to introduce the rubric of hiring programmers as they would have the core knowledge necessary to take on any computer-related task. If a nonprofit should hire an IT manager, I say this:

    Look through their resumes and see if they ever held a front-line position as a programmer or a database administrator.

    That's really critical for nonprofits that are tiny. For nonprofits below $5 million in revenues, there are still too many front-line IT tasks that need to be performed. The hectic nature of small nonprofits won't support the more leisurely pace of a non-technical IT manager. You need someone who is hands-on and very technically capable. I've seen IT managers with MBAs (not that I don't like MBAs but people seem to give them an awful lot more latitude than they deserve in the IT field) who can't even set up a table in Microsoft Access or write a simple HTML page. So what I'm talking about here isn't whether or not nonprofits shouldn't hire IT managers but, given their scant resources and lack of experience hiring IT staff, what rubric nonprofits should rely on that will achieve a minimal level of success.

  • On 02.26.09 What I Learn at Conferences (when I’m Presenting) | Digital Likeness said:

    [...] to it when I came across a very interesting article on the Nonprofit Tech Blog, entitled “Climbing the Pyramid Of Nonprofit Technology Needs. The article repurposes the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs relative to a Nonprofit’s technology [...]

  • On 03.02.09 Climbing the Pyramid Of Nonprofit Technology Needs, Part 1 of 2 | Non-Profit Tech Blog « Virtual Accountability (VA) said:

    [...] Climbing the Pyramid Of Nonprofit Technology Needs, Part 1 of 2 | Non-Profit Tech Blog. [...]

  • On 03.12.09 Social Media Einsatz im Kunst- und Kulturbereich: was der Bauer nicht kennt…? « Das Kulturmanagement Blog said:

    [...] wird, denn die letzten beiden Teile stehenen noch aus), formuliert er im ersten Teil “Build a Nonprofit’s Technology Assets from the Ground Up” so: “Think of this as a hierarchy of things your nonprofit should probably have in [...]

  • On 04.27.09 Non-profit technology hierarchy of needs - zumio said:

    [...] little while back I came across a post by Allen Benamer that outlines a hierarchy of technology needs for [...]

  • On 06.19.09 Ernie DeVries said:

    So whatever happened to parts 3 and 4 of this series?

  • On 06.19.09 Allan Benamer said:

    I hate writing about things that I don't have good metrics for so I might skip the CRM piece and move on to the social media article. Far and away, blogs return the most bang for the buck for nonprofits, then Facebook. Twitter isn't ready yet for a full court press.

    I'm also writing another series of posts about Drupal, SEO and information architecture that I think will be chock-full of actionable tips and testable conclusions. It's basically a call for nonprofits to rethink their online strategy regarding their websites. I think I've found a recipe that will consistently grow site traffic for even very small nonprofits. It doesn't rely on having a social media star or even consistently great content. It does take a lot of work though.

  • On 04.15.10 What We’re Reading, Week of 4/12 « i On Nonprofits said:

    [...] Tech Blog… Build a Non-profit’s Technology Assets from the Ground Up Sonny Cloward suggests that every non-profit should have a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when it [...]

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  • On 11.18.14 MT4 News Robot said:

    I totally agree with that hierarchy pyramid, you were explaining well every single domain. Good post!

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