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Technology Planning for Nonprofits: Getting Started

By: Tierney Smith

March 3, 2011

This article is Part 1 in our series on Technology Planning for nonprofits.

Why should I care about technology planning?

You have a mission. You work hard to make a difference for something you believe in. You also work hard to get others to believe in your work and support you.

The reason you should care about technology is because it can work with you in supporting your mission – and getting others to support you. Is it going to magically fix all your problems overnight? No. But there's a lot it can do – from helping your organization to work more effectively to helping you engage donors and funders. Technology is not something you can assign to an IT team/consultant/volunteer to deal with and forget about. Everyone in an organization has a role to play, including the ED, board, IT support and every staff and volunteer who experiences the benefits – or pain – of using your technology on a daily basis.

The Basics

If the very thought of one more thing to think about, factor in, pay for or potentially go wrong is making you want to run fast in the other direction, don't worry, you are not alone. You don't need to do everything at once. What you can do is start off right where you are right now and get your organization to a stable place. There are a few things you want to think about here:

Understand where you are

The first step to making change is understanding where you are right now. One way to do this quickly is to use our Technology Self-Assessment to help you think about different types of software you have and areas that may be gaps. The areas covered in the assessment are not a prescription for every organization since many choices will depend on your size and mission. For example, larger organizations are more likely to have their own server(s), and an organization doing advocacy work will be more likely to have tools for online advocacy. That being said, many things are common across the board so if you are at a "Chaotic" level in of the sections it's worth thinking about why that is.

Security – in other words: How much time would we lose if one of our systems got infected?

Every computer and server in your organization (which includes computers used to work offsite) should be protected against viruses and spyware. This means having one or more security programs that update their virus/spyware definitions automatically and scan your computer automatically on a regular basis. For more information on security options, see this article.

Backup – in other words: What would happen to our organization if some or all of our data was suddenly gone?

There should be at least one other copy of all your important data, and it should be in a different location from the original and accessible for when you need it. When thinking about what you consider “important,” think about how much work it would be to recreate it if it was gone. Your best bet is to back up all files (worry less about your operating system and programs since you can reinstall them). It's not worth being stingy – no one wants to think this will happen to them but you always need to be prepared. For more information on backups at small to medium nonprofits, see this article.

Update your Software

Having the latest version of your software might seem like a luxury you can't afford – but neither can you afford to run software that is completely outdated. If your software version is no longer supported (i.e. the company who made it is no longer providing patches and updates) then you are putting yourself at risk of security problems as well as possible compatibility issues. Another reason to upgrade is that new versions of software will have new features that can help you in your work, though be aware that this may introduce a learning curve. In short, you don't have to be cutting edge, but you do need to invest in upgrading on a regular basis.

Quick Wins

Once you have the basics covered, it's also worth spending some time thinking about the technology problems that are specific to your organization and what you can do about them. This isn't the time to do a major overhaul of your systems, but maybe there is something relatively simple you can do to address problems in the short term. Is it possible to change the way a system is configured? Will upgrading to a more recent version solve the problem? Is there a tool out there that will fill in a gap in your toolset? Would it help if your staff were trained (or retrained) in how to use your software? Would tweaking or rethinking a process address the issue? Taking some time to get feedback from your staff, do a bit of research and talk to your IT resources may help save time and reduce frustration on a daily basis.

In Part 2 of Technology Planning for nonprofits we will discuss how technology strategy can be integrated with your mission.