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Making a Case for Technology Transformation in the Non-Profit Space

Matthew Parks, Senior Director of Information Technology, Pace Center for Girls
Matthew Parks, Senior Director of Information Technology, Pace Center for Girls

Matthew Parks, Senior Director of Information Technology, Pace Center for Girls

Non-profits have long struggled with the questions of how and when to implement technology into the operations. Technology can be a very costly, continuing expense. Technology not only has a fiscal impact but can take time to see a return on the investment. Technology is also robust, requiring a great deal of knowledge and expertise. But I make the argument that technology is equally as integral and essential to the modern non-profit space. Non-profits must invest in their technology teams and infrastructure to better support their missions.

Unlike profit organizations, non-profits do not typically earn money by selling goods and services. In large part, we make money by asking people and other organizations for money via donation, grants, sponsorships, and in-kind services. Non-profits face increased pressure of having to account to our donors, sponsors, partners, and communities about how we spend our monies. The increased scrutiny of compliance, fiduciary responsibility to donors, perception of appropriate spending on the stated mission, and public reputation are all significant considerations. However, a well-considered technology implementation can provide the means to manage and mitigate these. There are also many reasons why non-profits should invest in technology transformation. Technology, when applied through your organization lens, can be a force multiplier. Non-Profits collect vast amounts of data that sit idle. Technology can help you activate that data and gather insights into the mission work you are doing. You can quantify the mission work for your stakeholders, so they can better visualize their investment return. You can better justify that ask for more money from potential donors and grantors, to improve and expand the mission. Technology enhances communication, internally and externally, allows you to be more productive and present the proper image and messaging. In a market of competitors that may service your same community, share your same mission, and most importantly, are asking for your same dollars, technology makes you nimbler and more competitive. This efficiency and productivity manifest in better delivery of services and execution toward your product, which is your organizational mission.

  My philosophy is with the hyper speed of innovation and disruption in the technology section, extended tech plans can become obsolete early in the deployment process  

The process of leveling up your non-profit via technological innovation should not be about making a splash with the technology for technology’s sake. Order a bunch of iPads and give them to the staff and send them out into the wilderness. But this a dog chasing a car proposition, if you have not worked out the details of best practice execution and best fit for your organization’s goals. A proper technology deployment that will shift your organization beyond the whiz-bang, instant gratification moment, and onto sustained growth and technological innovation is going to take work. This work is going to take lots of time, planning, struggle, patience, attention to detail, and execution. And even if you have all those ingredients, it means nothing if you do not have the most critical ingredient of all. The Will. The Will from the leadership. The Will from the staff. And the Will from the stakeholders, be it your donors or your board members. Developing The Will requires a concerted effort into preparing, informing, educating, and training for what you are planning, why it is necessary, and your expected outcomes. Without the Will, all your dreams of technological transformation are dead on arrival.

When I arrived at Pace Center for Girls January of 2013, we did not have yet have the Will. We did not understand the promise of technology, nor believe we had the resources to implement it. Pace had not invested in technology. There was a technology plan, in various stages of execution, but there was also a great deal of resistance. Most of our equipment, desktop, servers, and infrastructure were donated and just above the minimum requirement for the landfill. We were a sprawling collection of different buildings around the State of Florida with a shared mission, but with vastly diverse ways to achieve it. Many of the locations had their unique technology implementations. Some successful, some not so much. None of our sites had interconnected networks. We were calling long distance to one another. There were different email domains; some were using personal email like Yahoo and Gmail because frankly, they were more reliable than our in-house email service. Saying that our IT (information technology)staff was very shorthanded is an understatement. We had accepted inferior technology, lagging network, constant interruption, and lost productivity as a normal part of the non-profit experience. We took suffering through these challenges as part of the struggle for the mission.

All this changed in the summer of 2013 when a cacophony of system failures pushed us to the precipice. There was a fluke power surge in our building, on the hottest day of the summer. The power surge blew out the HVAC inside of our data center, causing our three main servers, which were already on their last legs, to “eat themselves.” I term this day, “The Server-apocalypse.” We were effectively out of business. This day was when our Leadership Team developed the Will to embrace technology fully. They realized patches, bandages, scotch tape, and bubble gum could no longer be the solution. We, as an organization, decided to commit to and invest in the technology plan fully and never looked back.

Since that moment, Pace started the journey toward becoming a leader in the application of technology in the Non-Profit space. We committed to a new standard of normal. We improved, migrated, and upgrade all our technology, including all of our computers, servers, networking, and infrastructure. We migrated all our systems into a single, unified network with VoIP (Voice over IP), direct inward dial, and video conferencing between locations. We got rid of all the consumer-grade wireless routers and added seamless, enterprise-grade wireless networking. We then added a dedicated, qualified internal support staff, focused on the customer in service of our mission. We achieved this in just eight months. It was painful and stressful, but we also learned and created. But if you ask any of those folks that were with us, there is one sentiment that they will share. “We ain’t going back.”Once making the technology transformation, we have applied the model of continuous improvement. My philosophy is with the hyper speed of innovation and disruption in the technology section, extended tech plans can become obsolete early in the deployment process. We continue to look for new advancements that are an organizational fit, will improve our processes, better use our dollars, and will advance the mission to find the great in every girl.

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