October 10, 2012

NTA Profile: The Community Foundation in Jacksonville

  • 12 full-time staff
  • 15 board members
  • $1.7M annual operating budget, with over $194 M in assets
  • Mission: To stimulate philanthropy to build a better community.

As the oldest community foundation in Florida, The Community Foundation in Jacksonville has helped local citizens be good stewards of the region’s communities, talents and environment since 1964. Although its programs and services have evolved, technology hasn’t always kept pace.

“If it broke, we’d try to figure out how to squeeze funds out of the budget to fix it,” said Mark Walker, director of research and technology. “We had a fixed asset plan, but we didn’t earmark specific allocations for technology, and we didn’t have a central place where we tracked the equipment and software we bought and when it would be upgraded or replaced.” The foundation has been innovative in its use of state-of-art software suites but tended toward a reactive approach to server infrastructure and staff workstations, and it lacked a comprehensive technology plan.

The situation concerned Walker, who had “a bad experience” at a previous job when a virus hobbled his employer for nearly two weeks. At The Community Foundation, he’d instituted data backups and redundancy, but the server infrastructure would not enable a quick recovery from a virus or downed server. Either would have been “a death blow” to productivity.

Productivity already was hampered by outdated employee workstations, which could take 15 to 20 minutes to boot up in the morning. With nine of the nonprofit’s 12 fulltime staff members using a computer the majority of the day, the wasted time–and frustration–added up. The old machines also couldn’t handle an upgrade to Microsoft Windows 7, a necessary move since Windows XP is nearing its end-of-support date.

The foundation’s reactive approach was less budget-driven and more the result of “not knowing how to talk about technology and ask for what we need,” Walker said.

Around the same time, Walker learned about the NTEN Nonprofit Tech Academy (NTA). Immediately following NTA, he and the foundation’s chief financial officer, Grace Sacerdote, wrote a proposal to the finance committee and the board of trustees. Using what they learned through the program, they made the case for a $50,000 investment in new server side hardware and software. The eight-page document covered four key topics: why now; the proposed work outlined in specific but lay terms; the risks of not investing; and a soft budget.

“We presented the reasons why we needed to do this now — our servers were beyond their warranties; not having hardware redundancy put us in the vulnerable place of having to wait for replacement parts; without a virtualized environment, it would take us a long time to recover from a virus or software malfunction.” He and Sacerdote also explained the need for new hardware in order to upgrade software to current, supported versions. And they pointed out the transparency of any downtime to donors and grantees, who were increasingly making transactions on the foundation’s website.

“We explained that without the upgrades we were forced to be reactive, rather than proactive,” Walker said. “We used a lot of the language and lessons from the NTA, particularly about how to communicate why the investment in capital costs is important to doing business and how it can make you more effective at your mission.”

Both the finance committee and the full board approved the proposal. Many members hail from the finance and insurance industries and understand risk and exposure. “The upgrades we proposed definitely put us in a position to minimize risk and the downtime that could result from a failure,” Walker said.

Over the course of three months, Walker implemented the proposal — replacement of five servers with two (in a virtualized environment); updating all software, including the server operating system, database, security and email software as well as Blackbaud and Fusion Labs products; and installing a new, networked backup system for remote recovery. Desktop anti-spam and anti-virus software also was upgraded.

The server-side work took priority, but in the process Walker learned about a technology infrastructure grant program through the Jesse Ball duPont Fund. The foundation applied for $5,000 to replace employee workstations, with a commitment to also develop a technology replacement and savings plan. The funding was granted, and Walker recently installed the new workstations. “It was immediately a morale booster here,” he said.

Of course, not everything went according to plan. Flooding in Thailand led to huge price increases on hard drives (and therefore server cost). Unforeseen consulting costs for upgrading website software on the Blackbaud platform also pushed the project about 10% over budget. Managing a “moving, behemoth project” along with Walker’s regular workload was an added challenge.

The proposal processes for the board and the hardware improvement grant were significant steps toward integrating technology into the foundation’s ongoing strategic planning. And after a detailed analysis of peer foundations that Walker led, the board also has added a website redesign to its 2012-2014 plan.

“The hardest thing for most nonprofits is convincing supporters that building capacity is an important investment. It’s such a buzzword but an unsexy thing to donors. It’s not a story you can tell by pulling on heartstrings; you need a different strategy when you have these discussions about how you do business. [You have to put your] thoughts in order in advance and in well-written documents. We haven’t had a lot of pushback, and that says a lot about being prepared.”

Today the foundation is “ahead of the curve” and value-driven in terms of technology, said Walker. The impact of that is profound and yet simple: “We are now in a place where we can be more productive for our constituents with a significantly lower level of risk. We’re now more effective at our mission — that’s the impact.”

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Kimberlee Roth