Strategic Leadership: What a Nonprofit Leader Really Needs to Know about IT

Submitted on Wed, 6/5/2013 - 7:30am
Many executives don’t approach management and leadership in accounting or evaluation matters, for example, with the same trepidation as they do technology. And yet the same skills that make any leader effective are appropriate to managing technology.

Just about every time I meet with a nonprofit executive to discuss some technology project, within the first few minutes I hear: “I’m not a technology person.” But who is? Why don’t we hear “I’m not an accountant” or “I’m not an expert in evaluation” or “I’m not an expert in governance”? Many executives don’t approach management and leadership in these areas with the same trepidation as they do technology. And yet the same skills that make any leader effective are appropriate to managing technology.

I believe some of the fear comes from the fact that technology changes so fast, and it is harder to know what you don’t know. Not being a technology “expert” makes people uncomfortable – it is full of acronyms and concepts foreign to the average user. It takes a strong leader to feel comfortable demonstrating their ignorance by asking questions. Why is this particularly challenging for the nonprofit sector?

In our experience, we have seen less “permeability” between the nonprofit world and the government and commercial sectors – with many nonprofit staff having spent their whole careers in the nonprofit sector, reducing the transference of knowledge of commercial best practices in. There are other exacerbating circumstances – the generational divide, with younger staff bringing different expectations to the job, smaller capital budgets, and the ever-present focus on keeping overhead low – all increase the challenges for appropriate technology use in nonprofits.

Yet the basic skills that great leaders apply to other parts of their jobs apply to the management of technology. Basic skills:

  • An ability to get things done and get them done well – if you’re a “can do” person, you can do this
  • Create a long-range technology plan that keeps mission as the focus
  • Finding good people and trusting them while holding them accountable for performance
  • Due diligence – getting multiple quotes for any large purchase or project, checking references and performing peer benchmarking
  • Budgeting and tracking spending, performance and schedules, and evaluate your performance
  • Ensuring there is clarity in your organization in terms of role and responsibilities and overall reporting structure
  • Supporting your staff – with communication, training, and elicitation of feedback from all levels
  • An eagerness to learn what you don’t know

Technology decisions are hard. The material is complex and unfamiliar, benefits are hard to quantify and the often significant costs can run beyond initial estimates. And while we hate stereotypes, the network or database engineer explaining a new system or problem may not be good at explaining the issues in layman’s terms. There can also be great variation in prices between one project and another.

So what does a nonprofit leader really need to know about and do in information technology? Our list includes just a few key items:

  • Understand the scope: Your nonprofit’s technology environment includes your domain name, website, social media accounts, hosting services, technology contractors, hardware, software, network, software systems (both desktop and enterprise), services, and elements related to risk management (backups, viruses, security). You should start with a good and complete understanding of what you have.
  • Get people you trust: We don’t expect nonprofit leaders to become technology experts, any more than they should be expected to understand accounting like a CPA or the law like their counsel. What leaders must do is find and form long-term relationships with technology experts they trust – whether as in-house staff or outside contractors.
  • Plan: While none of us can predict the future, you can be sure your website will look old after a few years, software will need to be upgraded, and technology opportunities will come up that may be of real benefit to your organization. If you have a strategic plan, you should have a technology plan, updated every year and with an associated budget.
  • Protect: While reserves can cushion that unexpected expense, a theft of donor credit cards, website hack or catastrophic server failure with an unusable backup can cripple an organization. Technology plays an instrumental part in protection.
  • Manage the FUD: Especially within the context of a new system deployment, Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (yes, this is a real “thing”) can kill the best. The people part of technology is as important as the technology part.
  • Choose IBM: No, we don’t mean that literally. We mean that you should favor industry standard approaches to “future proof” your investments.
  • Do the Math: Most technology investments should pay for themselves (otherwise, why do them?) Take the time to prepare a real cost / benefit analysis of your options.

Along the way, we have seen our nonprofit leaders' blind spots. Take care to:

  • Keep your software up-to-date. You know what you get for your maintenance and support fees. New versions include new features, as well as security updates and bug fixes.
  • Avoid the “do it yourself” mentality. While your staff may not cost as much as a contractor, they probably have better things to do and it will take far less time to leave it to the experts.
  • Pay what it costs. Too often we have seen nonprofits take the lowest bidders or worse, only consider the hourly rate and not the total project cost. Combined with due diligence to ensure the price is fair and reasonable, you will get what you pay for.
  • Negotiate: Contractors expect negotiations. Read contracts thoroughly and negotiate terms.
  • Don’t Cede Control: While having experts and vendors you trust is important, that doesn’t mean you can cede control to them. You have to stay involved throughout any significant engagement.

There is no magic bullet in technology. Many times, small improvements come from small actions. Most nonprofits are advised to build on their existing base – of software, of internal capacity and staff skills and familiarity, and of basic business processes.

The benefits in technology are significant. Some of the benefits different kinds of technology initiatives have include:

  • Saving money by increasing staff efficiency and effectiveness
  • The ability to scale. Perhaps you can manage 100 constituents on a spreadsheet, but when you get to 1,000 and more, you need a new way
  • Increased reliability in infrastructure
  • Creating new opportunities for your program
  • The ability to focus on key performance indicators
  • Less reliance on contractors by implementing systems that can be maintained by in-house staff or that require less support

You don’t have to be a technology person to manage technology. You have to believe it is important – as nothing gets done until and unless you prioritize it. Then apply the same excellent leadership skills you bring to your job to technology.

Dr. Lisa Rau is the CEO and co-founder of Confluence, a technology consulting, Salesforce, CiviCRM and open source website design and development firm focusing on nonprofits. She is active in the technology-for-nonprofits movement nationally and is a frequent invited speaker in nonprofit forums. She is on the faculty of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Learning and Leadership Institute and serves as a Guest Faculty at Tidewater Community College’s Academy for Nonprofit Excellence. A previous Visiting Professor of Computer Science in the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Science Department, Lisa has published over fifty professional articles. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Exeter, specializing in Artificial Intelligence.