Thinking It Through -- Technology Planning for the Not-for-Profit

2005-09-02
The Triangle Technical Journal

With the economy not as strong as it has been, the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is facing an ever changing business landscape that includes: a volatile economy, changing demographics, shifts in governmental and private funding priorities, swings in the political climate, and influential world events. As a result, NFPs are being called upon more and more to adapt to change. Although other sectors have been relatively quick to incorporate tools that enable them to adapt to the shifting landscapes, the NFP sector’s response has not been quite as successful. Clearly, one of the most important tools in this adaptation has been technology.

For the NFP, the goal of technology is to be a tool that helps the organization serve more constituents, market its services, inspire action, engage its community, and support its staff. Unfortunately, twenty years after the advent of the personal computer, and almost a decade after the internet boom, most NFPs still have not been able to effectively introduce technology into their organizations. And if I were a betting woman, I’d say that most probably do not have a technology plan – and if they do, it is most likely a simple wish list of hardware, software, and internet services they’d like to have.

So what is a technology plan you ask? Well, a technology plan is the single most important ingredient to the effective use of technology in an organization. At its very core, it is a strategy document – helping an organization think through its needs and how to satisfy them with the resources available. The technology planning process can help an organization minimize technology-related crises, use staff time efficiently, and avoid wasting money on equipment that makes life miserable. It can also help an organization think through its priorities in order to use technology in a way that directly furthers its mission. It guides NFPs in budgeting for technology and making cost-effective purchases. And the plan itself can be used as a key tool to advocate for technology funding.

Technology plans can take either a comprehensive or tactical approach to the planning process. Comprehensive plans normally look ahead 3 to 5 years and cover all aspects of the entire organization’s technology needs – including: infrastructure, communication, programs, and outreach. A comprehensive plan is centered on an organization’s mission, the foundation upon which all decisions are made. On the flipside, a tactical plan addresses one specific need or project, and focuses mostly on the operation of technology systems.

Now, that we know what a technology plan is – the next logical question seems to be what’s involved? TechSoup, a San Francisco-based NFP that provides technology advice and assistance to other NFPs, outlines the following components as being critical to a technology plan for NFPs.

  1. Establish leadership and support for your technology plan. By creating a technology team, and involving management and staff in establishing goals, you can unite the entire organization behind the technology plan.

    Strong leadership encourages enthusiasm about using technology to further an organization’s mission, contributes to staff buy-in, aides in credibility with potential funders, and can counter the negative responses of opposition within the organization.

    The technology team’s responsibilities include: assessing current technology, identifying technology needs and priorities, drafting a technology vision statement, preparing a budget and timeline, drafting the technology plan, monitoring the plan’s implementation, and ensuring stakeholder buy-in.

    Ideally, the technology team will include the executive director (or another manager), a project manager, administrative assistant, accountant, development director, system administrator or tech consultant, and a Board member.

  2. Inventory and assess your current resources. Analyze your existing technology system for how well it is working, what you can save, and what you can build on.

    But more importantly, also look at your infrastructure and human capital – what does your staff know, and who knows it? What procedures are in place? Think about your staffing patterns, and how they may need to change. Find out the constraints of your funding sources, contracts, and any other legal regulations. Think about public perceptions – ranging from your board and other constituencies to the public at large.

  3. Define your needs. At this stage, you should define the outcomes you expect. What needs are there? What functions would add real value? Set priorities. Clarify acceptable and non-acceptable tradeoffs. Clearly defining your needs will help you in developing an effective technology plan.

  4. Explore solutions. It is time to draft a technology vision statement. Start by reviewing your organization’s mission statement – then consider the following key questions:

    1. How will technology help your organization fulfill its mission?
    2. How will it improve organizational effectiveness?

    Now that you’ve defined your needs and created your technology vision statement, what are your technology options?

  5. Establish a budget. This step will definitely require some research. Create a realistic budget that takes into account the total cost of ownership. These costs include:

    1. Staff time to learn new software programs or attend training
    2. Additional technology support staff
    3. Backup hardware and software
    4. Creating and updating an operations manual
    5. Network connectivity costs
    6. Application service provider costs
    7. Ongoing maintenance and support costs
  6. Create a timeline for implementation. The final step before writing the technology plan is to establish a timeline for implementation. As you develop your timeline, ask and answer the following:

    1. What are the first things you will need to do?
    2. How long do you estimate it will take to complete those tasks?
    3. Once those tasks are completed, what are the next steps?
    4. How long will it take to complete those tasks?
    5. What are the next steps, etc.?

    Timelines should be flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen events, but rigid enough to maintain momentum. You will most likely want to segment your timeline into phases of three to six months. Be sure to include the time that you will need to secure funding if you’re going to apply for grants or undertake other fundraising activities to raise the money you’ve budgeted to implement your plan.

  7. Put your plan in writing. Your written plan should document your current resources, needs, solutions, and planned uses, as well as your budget. It should be a plan of action, concisely written and specifically tailored to your organization. The written plan should include at least these elements:

    1. An organizational profile
    2. A technology vision statement
    3. A description of the strategy for implementing the technology vision, which is where you identify your technology needs
    4. An inventory of current technology and/or staff skills
    5. A breakdown of benefits, tasks, and costs of implementation
    6. A timeline
    7. A budget
  8. Develop a funding strategy. Your technology plan will guide you in determining how much money you will need to raise, and perhaps how to raise it. Since there are few foundations that specifically provide grants for technology, your best option may be to approach funders and donors who are already supporting your mission, and use your plan to demonstrate how technology is necessary to carry out your mission.

It is important to remember that due to the constant evolution in information technology, it would be insufficient for an organization to take part in the technology planning process just once…in fact, if that were the case, we would be calling it the technology planning “project” instead of “process.” A technology plan and its outcomes must be periodically reviewed – with an annual review being most common. The review allows the technology vision to be viewed in light of both newly available technologies and recent developments within the organization – opening up an opportunity to adjust the vision and/or plan as needed. The review also serves as a forum for the technology committee to discuss mistakes made or knowledge gained during the process. This information exchange encourages the adoption of best practices and fosters greater efficiency in the future. It’s no secret that technology costs money – but proper technology planning allows you to create an organizational roadmap for getting from here to there without leading you to spend more than you should.