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.
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.
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”.
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.