June 5, 2014

Making Smarter Decisions when Selecting Technology

I love grocery shopping at the beach. There’s something really festive about that trip to an unfamiliar grocery store at a time when I’m spending money totally differently than when I’m at home.

Vacation money can feel like monopoly money. The gathered family spends long, lazy beach days that terminate in bacchanalian cocktail hours in the airy kitchen/great room of the beach house.  Drinks and snacks add fuel to the fun. (For all I know this happens in the mountains or by rivers, too, but we vacation at the beach mostly.)

The first shopping trip for the week isn’t the fun one, when the shoppers actually have to get the staples and ingredients we’ll use for big group meals. No, the good grocery trips follow that first trip. The one I volunteer for is the “we need fresh corn to go with the pork chops tonight” trip. When I hit the grocery store with that mission and a short list of other items to get, I can wander the aisles tossing Easy Cheese™ and Pop Tarts™ into the cart. After all, when else in the year do I let myself eat Easy Cheese and Pop Tarts?

This serves as analogy to my point. When nonprofits face a technology purchase, things can get heady, like they do in that unfamiliar grocery store. I’ve seen agencies that are level-headed and take measured steps in nearly everything go a little bonkers when greeting the unfamiliar organizational change opportunity presented by a major technology purchase.

I cringe a little at my own analogy. After all, my argument might come off as equating a capital investment in a tool that an organization can use to meet its important mission with choosing a flavor of Pringles™.  IT decisions make a much larger, longer-lasting impact than grocery trips. The heart of the process doesn’t differ as much as one might think, though.  A simple set of questions drives both decisions:

  • What do we have?
  • What do we need?
  • What do we want?
  • How much can we take on right now?
  • What work will be involved to use what we get now?
  • What options are available?

What makes beach shopping so much fun, in fact, is that I suspend some of these questions, leaving, “What do I want?” to reign supreme. To make a good IT decision, we need the discipline to ask all of the right questions.

It’s also important to note the questions that matter less than those above:

  • What’s the trendiest technology available?
  • What are people outside the day-to-day work of my organization pressuring us to adopt?
  • What would be the best thing to get for political reasons?

While novel things are tempting, and while pleasing volunteers or funders can feel good in the short term, we are the ones who will eat the cheese we get, and we have to make sure that we choose for ourselves.

What do we have?

We must start at the bedrock of what we currently have in the cupboard, if you will. We should start with a simple inventory of the number of machines, their operating systems, and the kind of network the organization uses (if any). For one thing, this will keep us from buying peanut butter when we already have peanut butter. It also helps to gather as much information as possible about what we currently use to solve the problem at hand, how long we’ve used it, and how we came to use it in the first place.

If it didn’t sound so strange, we could phrase this question, “What/who do we have?” Because achieving our objectives depends so heavily on the people doing the work, we take stock of who will be using the new tools. Where appropriate, the everyday users should be represented in the group that decides what new tools to bring in.

Examining the people part may help keep us from acquiring a solution without spelling out who’s going to do the work to create a return on the investment. For example, organizations that have never had a centralized database tend to lack a database administrator on the organizational chart. Or maybe someone’s been filling that role, but it’s been sub rosa. We should rewrite job descriptions where we expect the composition of employees’ work to change when the new tool arrives.

What do we need?

Often what we have is the best first draft of a requirements list for its replacement. While the technology shopping expedition gets launched because of what’s wrong with the website/networked copier/managed email service, we ignore what we like about the current tool at our peril. So we should start with the good and ill of what we’ve got. The good gives us a positive list of things we need; the bad highlights the gaps between what we have and what we need.

Beyond the status quo, requirements derive from our environment, our work processes, and our strategic objectives. The needs of our funders or licensing bodies become our needs. When analyzing work processes, it’s important to differentiate between the ideal way we’d work if the tool was perfect and workarounds that might have become entrenched in the absence of a sufficient tool. Finally, we choose technology that can fit now and grow into our strategic priorities for growth, replication, reinvention, or even contraction. Where the tool in question touches our constituents, hopefully their preferences can be qualitatively or quantitatively described and considered.

What do we want?

Although it shouldn’t be the only question, we need to contemplate our wants in technology decision-making. At the scale of many nonprofit organizations, we’re often conscious of leaving items we want (but don’t strictly need) on the table. We thrive by doing more with less. Still, a technology investment has a shelf life, and during that shelf life, we have to live with it. We should articulate, therefore, what we really want before crossing it off the list as too difficult, time-consuming, or expensive.

The want list may include mobile access, speed, and ease of workflows. Potential customers tend to ask questions in the form of, “Can the new thing…?” The unsatisfying answer is almost always “that depends”. It depends on money and time and willingness to compromise. Of course, the more money and time available, the less willing we need to be to compromise. In my experience, providers avidly take on such question because they enjoy helping people solve problems. After they tell us what can be done, good providers will explain the tradeoffs or limitations of using their product to solve our particular problems.

A word of caution about wants: it’s important that we not load up a new technology item with more expectations than it could possibly fulfill. Installing video conferencing won’t solve long-standing tensions between two offices that have never gotten along. It may break down barriers to people talking in a more personal, direct way, but human leadership – not video links – will need to work on human relationships.

How much can we take on right now?

One of the underestimated areas of inquiry in this process covers what else is going on in the life of the organization and to what extent the organization can absorb IT change. Sometimes, a short-term defined conflict would be best to avoid, like a special event. Those conflicts can typically be planned around. At other times, an organization needs to focus on something for an indefinite period of time, like a leadership transition or a not-quite-scheduled move. If staff have a lot of change to deal with already, it might be good to delay the IT change in order to control at least one variable in their work.

What work will be involved to use what we get now? 

It’s important to approach the arrival of a new IT tool with a sober acknowledgment that people’s jobs may change to use it. That change tends to be distributed unevenly around the organization. It may hit front-line users or fiscal staff or managers more acutely. If we’re trying to shift offline traffic to an online system, our communications need to be clear and persistent.

What options are available?

It’s best to search out multiple options before getting attached to any one option. For most decisions, there’s a wide range of choice. It’s only human to anchor to the first choice we encounter, either negatively or positively. Outlining the above criteria objectively will help to evaluate the options on a level playing field. To find options, ask the experts, and ask your peers. Expert reviewers can provide an overview of what’s available in the good, better, and best tiers. Seek out comprehensive guides that use objective criteria. Peers can sometimes reveal the truth about using the product day to day in a nonprofit environment that the marketing materials don’t.


It’s tempting to hope that someone else can make these decisions for us. If for no other reason, we would then know whom to blame if things go wrong. In the real world, however, there’s no decision fairy. Consultants or volunteers may be able to help by asking the right questions or describing what they see in the particular market in which we are shopping. Those who do the work day to day, though, are the best people to step up and examine all of the above questions in order to get the best thing possible within the constraints of time, money, and talent with which the organization is working.

Also, take a moment to pause and capture what life is like with the current tool to create the “before” image. A few months into life with the new tool, pause again and capture the “after” image.  A good decision should produce results for mission by enabling communication with more people, saving resources, or allowing us to work in a whole new way. Mark those things that the new solution enables as a way to tell the return-on-investment story internally and externally and to help the organization gird its loins for the next bout of IT shopping.

Finally, set a reasonable dollar limit, take the team to the grocery store, and buy the worst junk food they have to celebrate.

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Jeff Forster
Jeff Forster - is a Senior Consultant at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University. Mr. Forster has assisted a variety of nonprofit organizations in the Pittsburgh area, specializing in policy analysis and the use of databases for process improvement. Mr. Forster holds a masters degree in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelors degree from Yale University.
Interest Categories: Strategy
Tags: strategic planning, technology planning