Everyone seems to be talking about digital transformation, yet the topic of technology can be hard to bring up in the not-for-profit boardroom. Technology change demands leadership’s commitment and support, but engaging board members who may not be responsive to (or interested in) technology can be tough for the NFP executive. The key to unlocking barriers to talking tech in the boardroom is to make the conversation about the three things your board cares about: impact (why do we need this?), investment (what is it going to take?) and risk (what could go wrong?).
The first and most important question you need to answer is why you need to introduce new technology. Many board members don’t have technology backgrounds, so you need to steer away from the technical stuff and focus on what technology change means in terms of outcomes. Whether you are implementing technology to improve productivity, increase donations, deliver better services, grow your supporters community or meet compliance requirements, the need for change needs to align with tangible results. Your board members will have been involved in setting strategic objectives for the organisation, so use those as a basis to show how the new technology will help create the impact your organisation strives for.
There’s an inherent reticence in the NFP sector to spend money on activities that are not perceived as directly benefiting the end client. Technology still has some ways to go when it comes to being seen as more than a cost centre, and board members won’t wait long before they ask how much this is all going to cost. You may not be at a point yet where you know the budget you’ll need, but it’s important to set expectations early on and give board members a sense of the type of funding that will be required. You need to be clear not only about what it will take to implement the technology but also what it will take to keep it running. To make decisions, you board needs to understand the total investment required. When it comes to technology, this goes well beyond financial costs; it’s also about resources, skills, time and team engagement.
One of the fundamental duties of a board member is to manage risks. NFPs come under intense scrutiny about what they do and how they operate, and even if different organisations carry different risk profiles, board members have a mandate not to take undue risk. Some of your board members may have had bad experiences with technology projects, or have seen other organisations receive negative exposure after introducing a new system. They may be unsure about security issues associated with the cloud, or have concerns about how you propose to manage personal data or take online donations. So bring up risks early on, so that your board can not only make an informed decision, but also support you in managing those risks. And for a full risk picture, also talk to your board about the risk of doing nothing.
Talking their language
No one really needs to hear about obscure acronyms or complex technology concepts, and unnecessary technical jargon can quickly become a conversation killer. You may need to educate your board on technology, so ban geek-speak and swap technical words for terminology that is meaningful to your organisation. A technical presentation from your IT manager or an external provider is likely to be lost on board members, and it’s critical to convey information that is understandable and relevant. Keep the message simple, but don’t make it simplistic. Your board members are smart people and are perfectly capable of understanding complex ideas; the challenge is to present them in simple, clear terms that speak to them in a language they understand.
Keep talking… and listening
Once you have your board open to talking about technology, keep the conversation going. Your board’s responsibility and involvement do not start and stop at making a decision to invest in technology, and their support needs to go well beyond signing off on a business case. Keep your board members engaged and updated on progress, but be careful not to talk to your board only when there are issues or problems related to technology; leave plenty of room for sharing achievements and successes.
Most importantly, talking is nothing without listening. So ask your board members what they need, what they worry and care about, what they expect from you. Being sensitive to where they’re at with their own readiness to embrace technology will help you adapt your approach and secure their commitment.