Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Embracing technology is a major challenge for any organisation, and in a sector where it’s traditionally viewed as an overhead cost, not-for-profit organisations can have a hard time even getting started. Sleek technology marketing may give you the impression you can get a new system in faster than you can say “digital transformation” but the reality is markedly different. Underestimating what it takes to successfully initiate, implement and sustain digital change can lead to disastrous consequences for NFPs. Yet, when technology works, it can be truly transformative. And to get there, there are two things that NFPs must have: capacity and mindset.
Whilst there is increased recognition within the sector that technology is key to achieving growth and sustainability, many NFPs face major challenges in undertaking technology initiatives. The joint Infoxchange-ConnectingUp annual surveys on the state of digital technology in the NFP sector find year after year that these challenges are to do with capacity: finding the budget for it, knowing where to invest, and being able to support technology change through adequate skills and resources.
When we think of capacity for digital change, there are three aspects we need to take into account:
Money: this is the obvious one, and because often IT spend doesn’t go directly to the beneficiaries of your organisation, getting funding for it can be a tough sale. Whilst there are now a lot of cost-effective ways for NFPs to access digital tools, there is no such thing as free technology. And it’s essential to be crystal clear before you start about the benefits you will get out of it. Being realistic about both the costs and what you will get in return are key to making an informed decision, and to turning a cost into an investment.
Skills and resources: whilst money can buy you technical resources and skills, technology projects are never just about the technology. Intimate knowledge about what you do, and perhaps more importantly why you do it, are fundamental to a successful IT project. For NFPs, it means not only getting the right people to help you, but also being ready to dedicate part of your own resources and expertise to it.
Planning: non-profit organisations don’t have the luxury to slow down on the services they deliver and take a break from their purpose. Good planning is not about drawing up a project schedule; it’s about planning in context, and integrating new digital initiatives with your business-as-usual activities. IT projects that happen in a vacuum are doomed to fail, and integrated planning is key to enabling digital change whilst managing disruption to your ongoing activities.
Yet capacity on its own is not enough, and going down the path of technology change because you want to, rather than because you have to, can be the difference between project success and failure.
In his popular 2013 TED Talk, Dan Pallotta makes a compelling argument for changing the way we think about charities. He talks about how NFPs need to give themselves the means, and mindset, to invest and grow, and stop shying away from investing into things like Marketing, Fundraising, and other areas usually perceived as administration costs. We need to do the same with technology; as it permeates every activity we undertake and every connection we make, we need to change our perceptions and look at it as an asset that can actually serve our purpose.
Positive mindset about technology is critical, but it’s more than one person saying “we need to go digital”; it’s about creating a collective mindset across all levels of stakeholders. It starts with your leadership team, including your board, buying-in and committing to change. It’s about engaging early on (and throughout the project) with your staff and end-users. It’s also about being clear with your funders, donors and supporters about how technology change can help you help others. Ultimately, it’s about getting everyone building a common view of how digital change will create positive impact for the organisation, and, most importantly, for those who benefit from the good work you do.
When you stop and consider what you need for successful technology change, it can be overwhelming and tempting to decide it’s all too hard. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. Understanding where you’re at when it comes to capacity and mindset helps you know upfront where your challenges might lie, work on overcoming them and build the right foundation for change to take place. As for the “do nothing” option, it’s probably the first question you should ask. The answers might shed a new light on how you see technology.