Guest Post, Karen Graham, Director, Technology & Innovation, MAP
Imagine for a moment you’re the executive director of a small nonprofit anti-poverty organization. You’re expected to be an expert on poverty, management, accounting, law, human resources, facilities, HIPAA, the intricacies of county funding…and let’s not forget technology. You won’t have the resources most businesses take for granted. Unrestricted funding for technology planning, staff skill development, and hardware and software investments will be tough to find.
A volunteer can make a huge difference in this situation, by providing technical knowledge and skills, and increasing the organization’s capacity to do great work. But how do you determine the best sort of help to ask for?
Now imagine you’re the technology volunteer. What should you expect, walking into a nonprofit organization for the first time? How can you be successful, and really make a difference?
As someone who works with small (under $5 million/year) nonprofits day in and day out, I’d like to share four situations I’ve encountered, which typify the challenges small organizations have related to technology. Nonprofits might use this to help them create appropriate volunteer assignments and give the volunteers helpful background information. Volunteers might use these scenarios to assess the situation, then choose an appropriate approach to volunteering.
Great tools, no strategy
This organization has all the latest and greatest: a brand new server, a Drupal web site with interactive graphics, a fleet of iPads, and the best donor database money can buy. They got a grant to make these investments, and a board member who worked for [insert high tech company here] helped them set everything up. Now the board member’s term is up, the grant money is spent, and no one remembers the password to update the web site. The iPads are sitting in their boxes, because no one has had time to unpack them yet.
What does this organization need? They need to put someone in charge of technology, allow that person enough time to do the work, and allocate a budget for ongoing maintenance and service. Better yet, they need a technology plan that is aligned with their strategic goals, and includes appropriate investments. As a skilled IT volunteer, you can help them to research tools and devise a strategic technology plan. Make sure you are considering their ability to use and maintain technology based on their skill level, not yours, unless you are very committed to volunteering in the long term. You can also be their expert witness, when they seek funding for technology as an operating expense.
Picture a crowded office, books and papers pile to the ceiling, and nestled among them are mismatched, elderly computers. A few laptops are piled in a corner, covered with dust – gifts from a corporate patron. Those laptops aren’t usable, because they have old operating system that won’t run their database software. There’s a spare printer too; it just showed up on the doorstep one day, probably donated by some well-meaning soul. It might work if they can special-order the right ink cartridge.
What does this organization need? To put it bluntly, they need decent equipment, not cast-off junk. Every minute spent waiting for a machine to boot up is a minute not spent on more productive activities. As a volunteer, you can empower them to evaluate which gifts to accept and which to graciously decline, by setting office-wide standards on software versions, replacement schedules, and warranty and service plans. When they do receive useful donated equipment, help them set everything up (connect to networks, local printers, etc.) and get it running smoothly.
This organization is small and new, operating out of the founders’ home or a tiny office. Needless to say, there is no IT staff. Every spare penny of the small budget goes into the program, with nothing left for staff training and development. The founders and volunteers may be uninformed and inexperienced with technology, and therefore making a lot of bad decisions.
What does this organization need from its IT volunteer? Provide mentoring on basic skills, and a sounding board for technology decisions. Connect the organization with free resources, including practical guides, and urge them to adopt best practices.
Accidental Techie Hard at Work
This organization is small, with no formal IT staff members. But they have a creative and resourceful “accidental techie” who finds free tools and keeps them humming along.
What does this organization need from its IT volunteer? Offer mentoring and encouragement for the accidental techie, as well as advocacy for the training and support they need to succeed. Make sure the accidental techie is connected with great resources, like MAP’s TechWorks learning and networking program. And feed that culture of innovation. Some of the most innovative applications of technology we’ve seen are coming out of small nonprofits with a propensity for experimentation and rapid iteration.
Or, None of the Above
Don’t be surprised if you discover an organization where none of these scenarios apply. Lots of small nonprofits have a well-informed, strategic approach to technology.
What does this organization need from its IT volunteer? If you’re fortunate enough to find one of these organizations, you’ll probably be able to identify specific areas where you can bring added value. While you’re there, give them a pat on the back for a job well done!