My first foray into better meeting the needs of nonprofits by utilizing personal computing technology came in 1984, when my organization Management Support Associates of Milwaukee used a dual-floppy IBM PC to provide the production services for a nationally distributed African American arts magazine called COLORLINES. Then in 1988, I led the effort to network computers in the offices of the Legal Aid Society, and to implement a multi-software configuration that could quickly cross reference 30,000 client names for possible conflicts of interest.
In the two decades-plus since, the world has changed, particularly in the field of nonprofit use of technology. But from the days of my old Radio Shack TRS-80 to web-enabled free phones letting us tweet indiscriminately today, some things haven’t changed. Among them are the fiscal constraints on nonprofits, the continually increasing need for more efficiency to serve more of those in need, the dizzying complexity of the regulatory and funding environment in which nonprofits operate, the importance of planning and training, and the likelihood that your organization does not have technology consultants on staff who have sufficient knowledge of the latest capacities of technology to help meet your mission.
When a nonprofit takes on a technology project, the seeds of success or failure are planted during the planning process. While nominal planning is usually done, an inadequate process might sometimes only be discovered when you are well into the implementation and have invested significant funds in less than optimal electronic solutions.
By engaging a nonprofit professional who knows technology, alone to to complement a technology professional who knows nonprofits, you can reduce error, save time and money, and improve your chances of a successful project. When you select a consultant, look for the ability to understand the communication needs of the organization (that’s right, the communications needs and not just the technology needs). Ask for samples of requirements documents and work plans that empower both you and your advisor. See if the consultant will tell you things up front that you may not want to hear. And check with the least technologically savvy person in your organization who knows the most about your service to do a reality check on the project.
Implementing new technologically driven solutions to your communications and operational needs is inherently a process of managing change. Knowing your organization, and having a broad grounding in various types of nonprofits will ensure that your consultant will provide maximum value to your project.
Whether it is me or another consultant, I urge you to consider this advice. We are living in perhaps the worst of times when it comes to shrinking resources for social service, but we are in the best of times when it comes to the availability of entirely new toolkits that will enable us to work smarter. A marriage of the social activism of the 60’s and 70’s with the youthful idealism, creativity and talent of today’s generation can help you achieve your goals, even in tough financial times.