Taproot Foundation is hosting an event on April 26 called Bridging the Technology Divide. It's about tech pro bono—pairing skilled volunteers with nonprofits on technology projects—and they invited me to kick off the day by sharing some thoughts on how technology can help nonprofits face today's challenges and opportunities.
To prepare, I went over a chat log from a recent webinar Idealware presented on tech pro bono, and while I was reviewing the comments, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to let nonprofit staff speak in their own words.
What sorts of challenges are you having with information technology?
Several of the responses were about data management:
- We have data analysts knocking down our door to do free analysis and find insights. But, we need systems that record and export the data appropriately first.
- We have data in so many different places and really need a way to make it all work together, but we don't really have the time or skills to find the best solution for that.
- We had an IT staff member create a customized database for us and then our organization got rid of all IT staff and outsourced for just help desk kind of support. Now our database isn't finished and is not completely working and we don't have any staff to help.
Some were about other specific technical challenges:
- Our website needs updates and we broke it trying to do it in house.
- We have archaic systems.
- Our grants now require us to make our reports and presentations compliant for people with disabilities. This will likely mean having to purchase new technology or get extra help to ensure we are making compliant materials, so we are looking for pro bono options.
- We have an odd programming language on website and we're unable to provide access to server for contractors.
- We struggle to understand our analytics and SEO platform.
Many lamented the lack of resources and knowledge in order to tap into the power of technology:
- We're not really sure what's available and how we can get technology to work for us.
- We lack the funding to upgrade and many staff members are fearful of change.
- We're afraid of getting taken advantage of by IT companies since we're running on such a slim staff.
- I am a small organization and I can not spend enough time to learn and decipher how to do this.
- We don't have anyone full time to upgrade/update our tech.
- Our staff are all also handling multiple projects at any given time, really working 110% every day, so the idea of adding new tasks can be really overwhelming.
- We lack expertise in assessing our tech infrastructure and identifying solutions.
- We need to learn how to overcome skeptics with very little tech expertise who don't believe that tech is worth investing in.
- We have so many ideas for ways to improve, but we don't have the time or money to make it happen.
In order to succeed with technology, nonprofit leaders need three things. First, they need knowledge about what is possible and what their options are. Second, they need skill and expertise in selecting, implementing, managing, and using technology tools. This expertise doesn't have to come from them or their own staff; it can come from outside services or skilled volunteers, but one way or another they need access to it. Third, they need resources--people, time, money--to make this happen. As the last comment suggests, it's not a lack of imagination or a lack of tools that is holding nonprofits back from fully leveraging technology (although there is still room for developing a more compelling vision and more powerful tools for social good). I'm hoping this event will stimulate the flow of resources and help more nonprofits discover where and how to find them.