Technology Planning: Meeting the Challenge to Smaller Nonprofits

by Leticia M. Smith, Ph.D., President, Lemars Executive Consultants LLC

Nonprofits in general are challenged to develop a strategy to harness technology for both organizational growth and operating efficiency. For smaller nonprofits, the challenge can be more daunting than for the larger ones.

Usual suspects that impede optimal use of technology can be found in the highest levels of leadership, and among staff. Volunteers and customers are not exempt. Unwillingness to invest time in learning possibilities through technology and digital strategy, lack of in-house technological expertise, fear of new technology becoming obsolete quickly, low priority assigned to technology planning and funding, and resource limitations all contribute to slow organizational innovation. But, there is a way forward, and it starts with a technology plan.

Recent trends that pose challenges. Three related trends that have exacerbated the technology challenge to smaller nonprofits are the advances in wireless technology, the growth of cloud computing and the explosion of mobile usage. During the past decade, wireless technology has steadily improved computer networks with increasing speed and security for file sharing and project coordination. Cloud computing services have provided nonprofits with a means to use up-to-date software and offsite storage with lower costs than in-house acquisition and maintenance of software and storage devices. Most recently, mobile devices have rapidly displaced personal computers and landline telephones for most communication and transactions.

Any organization that has not assessed the possibilities offered by recent developments in wireless computer networking and by rapidly expanding cloud computing services, or has not developed a mobile strategy for interaction with its customers, donors and volunteers is losing opportunities to enhance its sustainability and growth.

Organizational goals as essential guide posts. It is relatively easy to think of what can be done through technology, but answering the question of why anything should be done at all must be front and center of planning technological changes. A self-aware organization, that is, one with a well-thought out vision of its role in the community, will have defined who it aims to serve, and will have formalized goals it aims to accomplish over at least a 2-year period. These are essential guide posts for starting technology planning. Without these elements, investments in technology will likely be a waste of resources, a waste that distracts the organization from that which it wants to accomplish and which it could possibly do well.

A digital strategy in the mix. A technology plan is expansive. It is a plan for developing human resources for implementation, monitoring, evaluation and feedback on organizational goal achievement. To be complete, it must cover organizational production and communication processes. It must identify hardware and software options and priorities, funds for achieving targets, timelines for goal achievement, and assignment of responsibility for each category of goal-oriented activities.

Digital strategy refers to an organization’s plan for developing, harvesting, analyzing and using data to communicate to funders, customers, staff and other stakeholders in order to achieve organizational goals. Where does the organization’s digital strategy fit in with the technology plan? Data can reveal areas of strength, weaknesses, and prospects. Data can suggest new approaches, changes in current practices, and program, demographic or geographic areas for service expansion or contraction. To be meaningful, the digital strategy needs to be mapped into the overall organizational vision, mission and strategic objectives. The digital strategy should help guide the choice of technology tools, the development of content loaded into those tools, and the strategy for extraction and analysis of output from those tools.

Organizing the effort. To organize the technology planning effort, the board must establish a committee to lead the process of linking technology with organizational goals. Reviewing board, staff and volunteer technology leadership capabilities is a way to start looking for the committee chair. A written description of the goals with observable results for the planning effort must be developed to guide the committee’s work. And of course, an important part of the plan is to how to raise the funds that will have to be allocated for hardware and software tools and training.

If some current responsibilities of committee members need to be offloaded, this will need to be funded. In considering workload consequences of committee participation, the organization can provide incentives to qualified staff, board members or committee volunteers who have concerns about having to shoulder an additional responsibility. Of course, when the organization does not find someone internally for the committee leadership position, it will have to invest in either hiring new staff or bringing in a temporary facilitator from the outside. In any case, board and staff must be active participants in both planning and implementation. Volunteers and organizational customers are also valuable sources of input and feedback to the committee. If an outside facilitator is brought in, part of the task of that facilitator could be to mentor someone on staff and from the board who would oversee the implementation of the technology plan.

With a plan facilitator in place, an assessment of how the organization is presently equipped technologically to deliver its stated goals can begin. Figuring out what appropriate technology is available to make achievement of these goals, and how much adoption of such technology will cost follows.

Elements of a technology plan. What are the essential elements of a technology plan?

1.  A mission statement for the technology plan that ties directly to the vision and mission of the organization.
2.  A set of goals that are linked to the operational, communication and programmatic goals of the organization
3.  Measurable objectives that cover programs, communication and operations
4.  An action plan for each objective and a timetable for achieving these objectives
5. A budget for the action plan that includes a) hardware, software and associated tools and office furniture purchases, b) costs of communicating the plan to board, staff and other key stakeholders, c) training of staff and other users, d) any required expert consultant services, and e) any needed facility changes

The bottom line. No nonprofit is too small for technology planning and developing a digital strategy. Both are essential for survival and for growth in the increasingly high pressure atmosphere for all nonprofit service and advocacy programs, The pressure comes from customers, funders, private business competition, and governmental regulation. Technology pushes all sorts of demands through these pressure sources, and nonprofits do not have a real choice in whether or not to work on meeting the challenge. Today is a good time to start.

Some sources of guidance:
Cherico, Courtney. The Future of the Nonprofit Workplace: Introducing the Mobile Office.
Harrison, Corbit. Trusting Technology to Overcome Management Challenges in Your Nonprofit
Sharma, Ritu. The Mobile Nonprofit.
Smith, Tierney. How to Make your Nonprofit Website Mobile-Friendly.

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Leticia M. Smith, Ph.D. is president of Lemars Executive Consultants LLC. She offers nonprofit organizations management consultation services such as strategic planning, merger and partnership facilitation, process improvement, organizational assessment and grant writing.


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