NTA Profile: PLUK

  • 6 full-time staff; 25 part-time
  • 9 board members
  • $500K annual budget
  • Mission: PLUK unites parents, professionals, families and friends of children with special needs to support one another and share information for the benefit of their children.

Parent’s, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) serves 30,000 Montana families of children with disabilities and special health care needs. The Billings nonprofit, founded in 1984, also is the Montana affiliate of the national Parent Center Network.

With close to 40 staff and hundreds of volunteers peppered around the rural state, keeping everyone connected with one another and with clients in a cohesive way is an ongoing challenge, said executive director Roger Holt.

Despite a somewhat chaotic approach to technology, PLUK has been an early adopter. “We serve folks in very, very rural, isolated areas. Including technology within our strategies has always been kind of a necessity to be able to do our work,” he said.

Holt went through NTEN’s Nonprofit Tech Academy (NTA) in the fall of 2010. The experience prompted him to look critically at a number of PLUK’s business processes, from security and data redundancy to setting tech priorities.

One of the top priorities for PLUK has been its phone system. Over the years, the nonprofit had built an “ad hoc” arrangement comprised of four or five phone systems–plus individuals’ mobile phones–to connect everyone around the state. “There hadn’t really been the technology to do it right with one system at our price point,” said Holt.

Maintaining multiple systems was costly–upwards of $30,000 annually just for landline and long distance service. Then several months ago PLUK’s mobile carrier restructured its rate plans, and prices for unlimited monthly usage dropped. The PLUK team long had a goal of one comprehensive system with all, or nearly all, of the capabilities it needed, and savings from the rate plan restructuring “got the ball rolling” for a new, VoIP-based phone management system.

Implementation of the new system is nearly complete. Now each staff member, regardless of location, has a direct line to give to clients. Within the organization, employees have an individual extension that can be used by intra-agency callers around the state. Voicemail is a thing of the past. Instead, instant messaging delivers messages from callers directly to staff desktops, laptops, tablets and cell phones. In the Billings office, the phone no longer rings since calls are routed directly to the extension the caller needs. Incoming faxes go right to users’ email, and multiple failover systems ensure messages will always be delivered.

“Everyone has control now,” said Holt. “No one is a slave to the phones. We implemented a totally different design for this system to be able to help clients better and faster and to allow really easy, efficient access to our people. In the end, we need business class service–at a reasonable price and with unlimited flexibility to do what we need and easily integrate with other technologies, like our cell phones, computers and tablets.”

After much research, PLUK found a company in Canada that could provide Montana phone numbers. The small firm was responsive, garnered great customer reviews, and the 75% cost savings over the systems PLUK was using prior made the move an easy decision.

Still, envisioning and designing the ideal phone system to meet organizational and client needs was difficult, Holt said. “Rethinking a system like this is hard when you’re not working from a model; that’s a disadvantage to being an early adopter. You know what you want, but it may not exist yet.”

Patience comes into play, too. “It just takes time, and you need to allow that; everyone lives with the construction while you’re doing it,” said Holt. “It’s not like you design a system and let people know the date it’s coming and you implement [on that day].”

Another challenge for PLUK was finding local expertise. “There isn’t enough demand here for there to be businesses that provide IT consulting services,” he said. As a result, “you have to be very creative. We tend to use many different components that we put together and make work. And we develop experts internally.”

That means the planning process has become more fluid at PLUK. “Within the organization, it’s my job to set priorities and monitor what’s going on, and it’s everybody’s responsibility to look at how we do things and what we need to change to make us more efficient and provide more and better services.” Staff tend to “love it,” he said, “because they’re not doing the same old thing everyday.”

The increased efficiency and cost savings from the new phone system will enable PLUK to initiate other high-priority tech projects. “We’re able to move those funds into other areas, and that’s going to allow us to focus on our website and all those other pieces of technology we can use to reach so many more people,” said Holt.

Upcoming projects include new email and secure online document management systems. “We don’t know what it’s all going to look like yet, but everybody’s involved and onboard because we’ve determined these are priorities. We have multiple test beds going and we’re using our resources in the most efficient way to connect with the people we serve.”

The overall NTA experience as well as the process of implementing the new phone system, among other business process improvements, have advanced PLUK’s IT maturity level. “Rather than thinking about and planning for technology as a separate item, it is included in our everyday management and planning,” Holt said. “We focus on programs and services and how we can do more, better, faster. Technology is just one of the strategies and tools we use.When you work smarter and leverage it, we learned we can do so much more.”

Kim Roth