Based in Seattle, Artist Trust supports and encourages artists working in all disciplines in order to enrich community life throughout the state of Washington. That can be difficult at times, since the state is large, with many remote areas. It’s not uncommon for artists in rural areas to have to drive long distances simply to access the Internet.
“We really needed to think about how we should be investing in technology to align with our strategic goal to reach people statewide from our small office in tech-savvy Seattle,” explained Margit Rankin, executive director.
Rankin and Associate Director Lila Hurwitz learned about the NTEN Nonprofit Tech Academy shortly after a staff restructuring, during which Hurwitz took on an increased oversight role for IT management, including acting as the liaison between the nonprofit and a newly contracted IT consultant.
Around the same time, Rankin had taken the helm of Artist Trust and received a grant to buy hardware and software. The nonprofit already had a lot of technology embedded in its day-to-day practices, she said. Its grant programs for artists are administered almost entirely online; it offers webinars and other virtual programs; and it uses The Raiser’s Edge for donor management. In addition, its comprehensive and highly-trafficked website is the most important way that constituents across the state learn about and take advantage of Artist Trust’s programs and services.
But no strategic technology plan yet existed to ensure that IT was in fact serving the organization’s overarching mission, goals, and programmatic needs. Rankin told staff, “Let’s make a plan before we just go and buy things.”
Both Rankin and Hurwitz found the Academy session on IT planning useful for understanding the key components of a technology plan. Hurwitz since has been working closely with the IT consultant, and the plan is now in its second draft. It doesn’t contain every element discussed during the Academy, Hurwitz noted, but it does cover hardware and software needs, which are critical right now as the organization heads into its budgeting process for the coming fiscal year.
Participating in the Academy has given Hurwitz confidence in her abilities to manage the planning process rather than relying completely on an external consultant. “For so long we relied on someone from the outside to know and do it all. The Academy helped me step up to the realization that we have to bring some of it in-house,” she said.
“We can’t afford to have someone on staff solely devoted to IT, so it was important for us to figure out what in-house skills we can develop and what can be appropriately outsourced to make sure we’re managing effectively,” Rankin added.
Both Rankin and Hurwitz are excited to present the draft technology plan to the board of directors. “We really are going to face significant investments and need to make decisions, and now we have a plan in place to be able to articulate those needs more effectively,” Rankin said.
Academy participation also helped Hurwitz make better use of social media. Following a tip she learned during one session that images tend to be shared more often than text or links alone, she posted an image on the Artist Trust Facebook page [www.facebook.com/ArtistTrust] with a quote from an artist. It reached nearly 18,000 people, up from an average of 3,500, with nearly 1,300 talking about it (the average had been 125).
Measuring the actual return on investment with social media still feels a bit elusive to both Rankin and Hurwitz. “I can’t tell you that these people gave $100 at our annual auction,” Rankin said, “but that post was a direct promotion of the event, and it did much better than we expected.” (The annual Benefit Art Auction exceeded the fundraising goal by $50,000 this year).
As a result of Hurwitz’ expanded role as technology liaison, staff feel better supported. And acting as a conduit between the organization and the consultant helps her stay abreast of tech-related issues and needs. Once each month, she meets with the consultant to review those issues and set priorities. Next on the agenda are discussions about a new server or cloud-based alternative, since Artist Trust and its 11 staff are outgrowing their current hardware.
Still, it’s challenging to make decisions about the best products available and getting staff trained on those that are ultimately selected. “It’s hard to wrangle all that’s out there,” Hurwitz said.
Keeping an eye on the bigger picture, however, helps. “Our strategic plan doesn’t say ‘Invest in technology’,” Rankin said. “Our strategic plan says we need to continue to reach artists in underserved areas of our state, and one of the ways we can do that is to use technology. That’s how we integrate and operationalize it.”
[This case study is part of a series documenting the challenges and successes of arts-related organizations learning to apply technology strategically and effectively to achieving their mission. The Nonprofit Tech Academy is an 8-week course hosted by NTEN. This case study and this organization’s participation in the NTA were generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.]