A consultant’s take on tech equity

NTEN recently published the first version of the Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology. Guide contributor Rubin Singh shares his perspective on why the nonprofit sector needs to continually ask the questions posed by the guide.

At the peak of this summer’s protests across the country demanding racial justice, companies came forward expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Many organizations stood in solidarity with racial justice advocates by making public statements committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The nonprofit community, however, and the ecosystem that supports them, remained mostly quiet.

Perhaps it’s the belief that we are part of the solution because our work is in the nonprofit sector; therefore, we can’t be part of the problem. History, however, proves otherwise. The nonprofit technology space has a dual struggle in that both sectors (technology and nonprofit) have historically perpetuated inequities. In particular, for the nonprofit sector, research tells us that the lack of diversity has created such a disconnect between programs and the communities they serve that the result can create more significant problems than the ones they intended to solve.

Reflecting on this and my role as a nonprofit technologist, I’ve never been more sure that the challenges we face in this dual-sector will not be solved by hashtags, diversity statements, or workshops. If organizations are serious about equity and racial justice, then solutions must be embedded in everything they do — from the partners they work with, to how their products are priced and sold, to the way impact is measured. Equity is not a checkbox to achieve success. It has to be the lens through which success is defined.

Anyone who has worked for a nonprofit knows, “it’s different.” The terminology, practices, challenges, and what motivates staff — there’s just a nuance in this sector that you “get” or don’t. It makes people want to stay in the sector forever or turn and run immediately 🙂 But when I started consulting with nonprofits, I was surprised that technology vendors and implementers used all the same methods and techniques in selling, pricing, and implementing technology as they did with for-profit corporations. Foolishly, they thought they would be equally successful. I’ve watched well-respected consulting companies fail project after project. They simply didn’t understand the nuance.

  • I’ve seen system implementers lead elaborate strategic visioning sessions without knowing basic nonprofit business functions, roles, or data. These implementers would build out inflated project schedules with a team of resources to “learn the industry” while on the job, billing top dollar for their most junior resources because, after all, “how hard can it be?” I’ve seen this “one-size-fits-all” approach to consulting leave nonprofits not only with their annual budget blown-away but also with over-architected half-solutions that keep them reliant on consultants for years to come. I am not arguing that implementers should shortcut their processes for mission-driven organizations, but as nonprofits are forced to be nimble and make the most out of every dollar, consultants and vendors who work in this sector should be expected to do the same.
  • Nonprofits are often the recipients of pro bono services by well-meaning corporations, funders, and technology vendors. Of course, these organizations offer their time and expertise generously to advance mission-driven organizations at no charge. And with most nonprofits strapped for cash and grant money tightly restricted, funding for technology projects is minimal. “Free” is a compelling alternative. So we should only be thankful, right? But for every pro bono project I’ve seen run successfully, I’ve seen twice as many utter disasters. My team has personally cleaned up a lot of them. And while nonprofits think they may be saving money with the pro bono option, a project gone wrong can cost twice as much (if not more) to undo and untangle. Such projects often have no work statement, no defined project schedule, and are implemented without the right expertise. Vendors don’t feel an obligation to put in the extra work, because after all, they’re “doing it for free.” And nonprofits are hesitant to speak up because they don’t want to appear ungrateful. Too often, this leaves nonprofits waiting around with half-solutions until the vendor completes higher-priority projects. To be fair, pro bono projects can have a tremendous positive impact. I have been both a recipient and implementer of such services, but the vendor must be the right fit, and it must be planned right.
  • Fair and transparent pricing continues to be a challenge in this industry. There is a growing trend of technology vendors that offer flat discounts to nonprofits. So whether you’re a local food pantry or a National Cancer Research Center, your discount is the same. In such cases, a sliding scale pricing model based on annual revenue may be more reasonable. Other vendors offer nonprofit discounts that come with limited features and customer service. Or some vendors do not publish pricing at all, leaving it to the Account Executives to “wheel and deal” individually with operations managers on their overly complex pricing scenarios and long-term contracts to maximize return. To be fair, I understand that technology vendors, system implementers, and consultants who work in this sector are not just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They are looking to make a profit, as they should. As a consultant in this space, my livelihood depends on it. And if your products or services focus solely on the nonprofit sector, I want you to continue investing in your products and services to better the communities we serve. But here’s the thing. Every nonprofit leader knows that they will be scrutinized for every penny spent on “overhead,” so they have learned to be mindful and deliberate in how each dollar is spent. The ecosystem that supports nonprofits must respect this by doing the same. So my advice? Do your research, publish a fair price that is mutually beneficial and that everyone can understand.
  • Over the years, I’ve worked with many organizations that have made bold and public claims to increase diversity and inclusion in their work, only to ask for automation and customizations in their CRM that bypass diversity and inclusivity altogether. From automated assignments of volunteer matches to automated scoring of candidates to receive grant disbursements. It is not that these organizations are disingenuous about their commitment to diversity. It’s just their blindspots prohibit them from connecting their principle to practice.
  • In every CRM implementation I’ve worked with, I have requested a cross-functional team across the user base to participate in requirements and design to keep it as inclusive as possible. And in the case where there is an external-facing component, having a small set of donors or program participants engage in the interface design. Too often, I’m told that IT (or sometimes leadership) will drive the design instead. Sometimes this is viewed as the quickest solution to saving money or avoiding philosophical debate over the process. Still, the end result is a system that is not inclusive, and the staff is not happy with it. And public-facing forms or portals that don’t consider end-user feedback only lead to form abandonment, data integrity issues, or low usage altogether.

The challenges are many, but the sector’s power dynamics give smaller to medium-sized nonprofits little voice to surface such concerns. And for nonprofit staff, there are limited resources to take to leadership to articulate industry-wide benchmarks. To this end, I hope this guide educates and empowers organizations while also holding parties accountable.

I would love to see every grant application and RFP include a question asking organizations, “What have you adopted from the NTEN Equity Guide to create a fairer, inclusive, and equitable product or service?” I’m excited for the day I see nonprofits, vendors, and implementers proudly share their pledge toward committing to the equity guide on their websites and share their experiences of what they’ve accomplished to the broader sector.

Despite my concerns about the inequities in our sector, I am hopeful. I know the vast majority of nonprofit and technology leaders understand the challenges that face us and genuinely want to take positive steps, but the lack of diversity in both sectors often lead to “blind spots” which prevent leaders from knowing what steps to take. The tech equity guide is a great place to start, And while it may be overwhelming, my advice is, pick something. Meet with your team and find something that will be easy to adopt. Once you make advances in that area, choose something else, make it part of your annual goals and strategic plan.

In today’s climate, there are no shortages of problems, and they are very daunting. Let’s use our privilege, platform, and collective strength to be part of the solution.

Download the Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology.

Rubin Singh
Founder & CEO
OneTenth Consulting

Rubin is the Founder & CEO of OneTenth Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that works exclusively with nonprofits for their technology strategy and CRM implementation needs. Rubin is a seasoned professional with over 20 years of experience in the CRM space, and over 15 years in the nonprofit sector. Throughout his career, Rubin has pursued his passion for social impact by empowering and enabling nonprofits through a variety of roles in technology, strategy, and organizational management.