June 3, 2013

A Brief History of Nonprofit Technology Leadership, And a Call to Action for New Circuit Riders

A month or two ago, a friend of mine asked me a great question: “What is the role of circuit riders today?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. But the question stuck with me, and I have an idea that I want to share, appropriately, with the NTEN community.

We speak a lot here about nonprofit technology, more affectionately known as “nptech.” The origins of nptech lie in the tradition of circuit riding. The circuit riders that founded NTEN were a loosely affiliated group of people who saw the need for technology at nonprofits before the nonprofits did. As with the Lutheran ministers from whom they borrowed the “circuit rider” name, these people weren’t motivated by money, but by missions, those being the missions of the numerous nonprofits that they served.

The typical services that a circuit rider would provide included setting up basic PC networks, installing phone systems, and designing Access or Filemaker databases to replace paper donation records. While NPOs still need some help getting their basic technical plumbing in order, that work is now simpler and help is easier to find than it was in the 90’s. And anyone designing an Access database for an NPO today should be spanked!

In the early 90’s, we were hitting that turning point where PCs went from specialized systems to commodity equipment. Prior to that, a telephone was on every desk, but there wasn’t necessarily a computer. And, even if there was one there, it wasn’t turned on every day. Today you don’t even need a phone if you have a computer, a VOIP service, and a headset. So we hire people trained in setting up specific systems, or we pay a professional company, rather than relying on volunteers, because it’s more critical to get it right.

So what is the role of the circuit rider in a world where we hand the networking to tech integrators and subcontract database design to specialized Blackbaud and Salesforce consultants? By nature, the role of the New Circuit Rider should be short-term engagements that offer high value. It should capitalize on a technical skill set that isn’t readily available, and it should be informed by a thorough understanding of nonprofit needs.

It’s a type of technology leadership – maybe even a stewardship of technology leadership. I say that it starts with technology assessments. What small to mid-sized nonprofits need most importantly is some good advice about what to prioritize, what to budget for, how to staff IT, and how to support technology. The modern circuit riders’ legacy should be a track record of leaving their clients with a solid understanding of how to integrate technology staff, systems, and strategy into their work. There’s a great need for it.

Just this month I’ve heard stories of NPO leaders who have no idea how to title, compensate, or describe the duties of the IT leader that they know they need to hire; I’ve met newly promoted accidental techies charged with huge integration projects with no strategic plan in place; and I’ve seen a $15 million social services org scraping by with two full time IT staff supporting their five-office enterprise. These organizations need some guidance and advice.

So I’m opening the floor for strategies as to how we build a New Circuit Rider Network to fill this immediate need, and I’m proposing we start helping nonprofits do more than invest in technology, that we help them plan for it and resource it proactively.

Peter Campbell is a nonprofit technology professional, currently serving as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to legal aid programs throughout the United States. Peter blogs and speaks regularly about technology tools and strategies that support the nonprofit community.

Peter Campbell
Peter Campbell is a nonprofit technology professional, currently serving as Chief Information Officer at Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants to legal aid programs throughout the United States. Peter blogs and speaks regularly about technology tools and strategies that support the nonprofit community.