Key Attributes of a Tech-Enabled Nonprofit

 In Change Management

At Build Consulting, we work with many different types of nonprofits on many different types of projects. But one common profile of our clients is an organization that has amassed significant technical debt. They’ve amassed this debt by not investing in their technology platforms, and they haven’t had the benefit of an experienced technology leader. These organizations are often experiencing (or have gone through) significant growth and are now finding that technology needs to be more front-and-center of their overall strategy. That’s when they bring us in, often as a vCIO (Virtual CIO).  

In my experience with these kinds of organizations, they often don’t understand what “good” is. What are they shooting for in terms of the role of technology? Maybe they know they’ve underspent on technology, but they’re also afraid of overspending. How do they right-size this critical function?

Key Attributes of a Tech-Enabled Nonprofit

With the above in mind, I socialize something called “key attributes of a tech-enabled nonprofit.” These attributes are not meant to be exhaustive – hence the term “key attributes.” Rather, it’s meant to give the leadership team a better understanding of what it should look like when technology is well-embedded within the organization.

Members of the leadership team understand the role of technology systems  

The leadership team shares an overall technology strategy and roadmap. Equally important, they empower a senior technology leader to oversee the implementation and management of key systems across the enterprise. ​ 

This is sometimes referred to as “a seat at the table,” but it’s more than that. While I do feel strongly that the senior technology leader should be part of the management team, it’s important that the rest of the management team doesn’t abdicate their own responsibility. It’s a collective responsibility for all leaders to understand the role of technology, how it fits within the organization, and the broader technology roadmap.  What’s also implied here is that these leaders will support this vision within their teams and areas of responsibility.

There is strong leadership support for fewer, more integrated systems​ 

This second point is an attempt to underscore the importance of working against systems sprawl. In the modern technology world, where staff members can download, install, and use new systems often with no involvement from IT, it’s critical for the leaders of the organization to support a “less is more” approach.  

Often seen in the form of Governance, there needs to be a process for reviewing business needs prior to implementing new software. Unless the leadership team supports, and adheres to technology governance, staff and teams will find a way to install what they think they need.  

Staff understand how to leverage support for their technology needs 

Staff should understand the role of the business systems owners, and there should be clear reporting/governance structures and communication channels. Staff should know where and how to ask technology-related questions, make enhancement requests, arbitrate data concerns, etc. ​ 

The organization as a whole should understand how to get the most out of the technology they’re given. Staff should know how to get answers to their questions, they should know which system to use for what purpose, and they should understand the process for requesting new systems. Moreover, the business systems owners should understand their role in systems selection and deployment so there isn’t confusion about who’s responsible for what. 

There are processes in place for project and portfolio management, change management, and governance

It is critical to track the work that IT does to ensure that it’s always working on the highest value tasks and projects. It’s not enough anymore to just think about IT as basic user support and desktop/infrastructure management. Transparency and capacity management are more important than ever – both of which help to create a more collaborative environment with our business colleagues, which, in turn, results in better technology solutions. This leads to strong stakeholder engagement in technology projects, so that systems are implemented with business units, not for them. Business owners feel involved and engaged. 

Ongoing training and support are priorities 

Notwithstanding the previous point, it’s still critical to make sure that the staff feel supported and know how to use the tools we give them. There should be processes and people in place to ensure that staff feel equipped to effectively use technology to carry out their work. ​It has become very common to outsource this function, which can be very effective. However, that doesn’t relieve the organization of the responsibility to ensure that adequate resources are applied to this critical area. Training, in particular, can have an outsized impact on the effective use of technology by hiring a single, dedicated training resource and giving that person the tools, they need.  

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Key Attributes of the Tech-Enabled Nonprofit

By understanding what “good” looks like, organizations who are looking to turn around their technology function and start to pay back that technical debt can have a clear signpost. These attributes can also be turned into quantifiable metrics as part of a survey to track progress towards “good.” I have seen organizations use these goals to track progress on their journey towards better and more impactful technology. It’s also useful to refer back to these attributes as the management team looks to track progress.

In the end, understanding aspects of what the future might look like will help us get there with greater ease. When the leadership team has a better understanding of what it should look like when technology is well-embedded within the organization, achieving these key attributes can help nonprofits overcome technology debt and find right-size solutions that in turn enable better mission delivery.

Fall leaves on forest floor