Adopting a New Approach to Nonprofit Technology

It is generally understood that nonprofit technology is 5 years behind industry, but that gap is quickly diminishing.  Lack of sufficient funding prevented nonprofits from purchasing enterprise-level software in the past, but the lower costs of SaaS products and philanthropic efforts of major technology companies has lowered the barrier to entry for any sized organization. Though most technology platforms available to nonprofits perpetuate this concept that organizations should be doing online advocacy, there are also a number of new nonprofit technology vendors sprouting up that offer tools that allow for more than just creating online forms and sending emails. Most organizations now have access to the technology they need to support their programs and build integrated technology infrastructures that span their organization.

The gap between the sophistication of technology use within the corporate and social sectors is diminishing, but the gap still remains in the mindset that comes along with that. There is a big movement within corporations to adapt their business models to the digital times. More and more brands are building digital experiences that facilitate their interaction with consumers, from both an engagement and transactional standpoint. While fun Facebook apps are great ways to build your brand, apps that facilitate business functions are what build meaningful, lasting relationships with consumers. Apps like HBO GO and Domino’s Pizza mobile apps are perfect examples of how brands have grown their business by recognizing that today’s consumers are constantly plugged in and companies should be doing business with them where they are.

Nonprofits should take note of this growing trend and adapt the way their organizations operate to changing consumer behaviors. There are great examples of how organizations are building products and platforms for social change; tools that allow them to deliver services directly to their constituents or solve some aspect of the social issue(s) they are trying to address.

I am not advocating that all nonprofits jump into product development. I do think there is call for a shift in the way that the social sector think about and approaches technology. Technology is not just a mean to an ends, but an end in itself. It is an enabler that can greatly improve the way organizations operate and deliver services to constituents, not just support one aspect of an organization’s operations.

When we focus on technology as the end, as an actual solution to social issues and/or organizational challenges, we can then start to adopt the mindset and key approaches from industry in technology development:

  1. Technology development should be an iterative process, launching a minimal viable product or platform, and further developing features over time.
  2. The needs of your users, both internal and external, should drive future development of your technology solutions.
  3. Build technology to be disposable; if it isn’t working, throw it away and start all over.
  4. Buy-in from all areas of the organization that the technology touches is key to it’s success and adoption, both internally and externally.

l would love to hear your thoughts on this approach. Where do you think the nonprofit technology sector is headed?

  • I’ve come to believe the technology part of nonprofit technology has never really been an issue. Back in the days of Ebase (the first nonprofit technology solution I was involved with back in 1998), we followed 1, 2 & 4. That didn’t seem to be enough to generate sustainable, scalable, massive impacts on the social impact of organizations that used ebase.

    With CiviCRM, Salesforce, traditional commercial vendors and the nonprofit software development community, there has never been a better time from a technology perspective. But walking around your average nonprofit conference and talking to people about how they use technology, we don’t seem to be much better off than we were 10 years ago. Moving from anecdotal to data, the various NTEN , Lasa, etc. studies seem to suggest NPOs fall into the same proportion of technology leaders and laggards as has been historically the case.

    The thing that keeps the technology disconnected from an actual measurable increase in social impact in any given organization is the human element between the technology and the social impact. For profit firms use professional services, there are interesting things happening in skilled volunteering, the accidental techie still rules the roost. This is the real frontier of Nonprofit Technology, IMHO. This is the place where innovation will create social change on a massive scale.

    I am intrigued by the concept that technology is “disposable.” If that is the case, then every NPO has to have the capacity to drop and adopt technology on a whim … in my experience an impossible dream. OR we have a infrastructure of capacity available to non profits to empower them to drop and adopt technology.

    That infrastructure of capacity would be the real bridge between the potential for technology to accelerate social impact & technology actually accelerating social impact.

    As for where the nonprofit technology sector is headed, same place its been: vendor consolidation, massive technology innovation that reaches limited audiences, no effective capacity models since NPOs are unwilling to pay what it costs.

    • rczamor

      Hey David,

      I find it interesting that, in your experience, disposable technology for nonprofits is an impossible dream. We are in a time where it is quite possible. Obviously, with the use of open source software, and a modular approach to development, this is very much possible.

      When using proprietary vendors, the challenge comes down to infrastructure design and contracts. More and more vendors are taking a monthly subscription approach to their service agreements, allowing organizations to leave and take there data at any time, or with minimal notice.

      • My point is that the technology-side of disposable technology is totally there — in complete agreement with you. I’m saying that most NPOs don’t have the internal capacity to dispose of a solution that is working poorly and replace it with a solution that works better.

        The “take your data” thing is another irritant to me. I absolutely agree with the goal of allowing organizations to leave on system for another, but if I have 50,000 donors, 5 years of history on each in a SQL DB I have a $20K bill to get that into any type of usable form in a new technology environment.

        The starting point for solving this problem is a data standard. Look at the two dominate open systems — CiviCRM & NPSP/Salesforce and you’ll find open source databases, but no data standard to facilitate data moving back and forth.

        I’d love to see a published data standard that would allow automated moving of date between CiviCRM and NPSP. That would create enough market pressure to bring along the commercial world.

        • Good article, and great discussion. I tend to agree with you both.

          I heard a great talk by JP Ragaswami and John Hagel recently forecasting that successful businesses in the new era of social business will be shifting from scaling efficiency to scaling learning – those companies who can learn and adapt the quickest will be the strongest. I think they are correct, and it goes to your question about the future of NP Tech.

          They also pointed out the decrease in relative importance of the value of a unit of production compared to the cost of a unit of change. This really resonated with me, and speaks to the comments you both make on disposable technology.

          We used to aspire to effective and efficient work, but I think the paradigm is shifting (rightly) to results oriented frameworks. Much greater attention and foresight must be paid to the cost of change, and how to minimize it.

          Sadly, my experience backs up David’s, in that even when the software licenses cost nothing, the lack of investment in change management, the lack of appetite for risk, and overwhelming incentive to prove value to funders drive the perceived cost of change through the roof.

          The unfortunate irony is that for many of the examples I’ve seen, current methods are unsustainable and capacity (current and future) is the price being paid to meet short term goals.

          The optimist in me knows this is solvable. I just hope we can speed up the process because the real cost is being paid by the very missions we work so hard to advance.
          Thanks again for the thought provoking article!
          (Apologies for any mistakes, sleeping daughter w/a cold in my arms makes for poor proof reading )

  • Ann

    Riche, interesting post. I really like the emphasis on agility but in my humble opinion tools are tools. A hammer can build a architectural gem or a shack – the difference is the vision behind it. Tools/technology are simply the neutral enablers. My personal hope for the future of non-profit technology is more emphasis on strategy and less on tools/products. I think the sector throws a lot of money at technology without the return on investment because there wasn’t the patience or time to really think through the goals and approach. Your thoughts?

    • rczamor

      I completely agree that more strategy is needed. I don’t think “agile” is always the approach, but the one thing we can learn it is that flexibility and a “test and learn” approach is needed with technology. Many organizations don’t see an ROI in technology because too many assumptions are made up front about what is needed, and little thought is placed on how success will be measured.