May 18, 2016

Technology Adoption in the Workplace: A View from the Trenches

For human beings of all ages, technology inspires fear and anxiety. Cari Romm quotes Christopher Bader in her article for The Atlantic, “Americans Are More Afraid of Robots Than Death” (October, 2015).

“’People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,’ said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman …. ‘You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.’”

The propensity to adopt new technologies involves a mindset, an established set of attitudes that includes flexible thinking, a “can-do” attitude, and a genuine desire to improve efficiency and effectiveness. On a personal note, working on major gift fundraising with little or no administrative support led me to tackle those challenges by adopting technology to manage my work more efficiently in-house, and to better staff my volunteers and donors. My mindset has always included a determination to succeed despite seemingly impossible odds. Technology has helped make my success possible.

The constant barrage of information available online and conveyed by the media regarding new developments in technology and the ever-increasing variety of new software and devices available today has heightened confusion about what tools one should use. Karyn Greenstreet noted in Passion for Business that we “are getting distracted by too many ideas or the latest fad, going off in a million directions and never completing anything. This loss of focus is costing you hundreds of hours a year in lost productivity, lost hours, lost dollars.” The same is true for nonprofit organizations.

I agree with Laura S. Quinn and Amy Wagner in their helpful article for Idealware, “Unleashing Innovation” (March, 2012): “It’s possible for organizations to improve or innovate using a little creativity rather than purchasing a new and expensive piece of technology.”

If nonprofit staff members would take the time to learn Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for instance – not just a cursory overview, but learn them in an in-depth fashion – they would discover these tools provide almost all one needs to manage a variety of fundraising campaigns, for instance. A few years ago, I gave a “DIY” presentation along these lines to a crowd of nonprofit fundraising executives, and eyebrows were raised. But the truth is, I have done it. My “mindset” mattered almost as much, if not more, than the “tools.”

A question the NTEN Community confronts on a daily basis is how to elevate the use of technology in nonprofit organizations and in nonprofit cultures. I agree with NTEN that technology is a force for good. In the context of lean economic times especially, technology can improve efficiency and effectiveness with fewer staff members, but only if those staff members have a positive mental attitude toward technology, and they take the time to learn how to use it. I share NTEN’s aspiration that the world should be a place “where all nonprofit organizations use technology skillfully and confidently to meet community needs and fulfill their missions.”

Executive Directors play a pivotal role in this regard. If your Executive Director has no interest in making use of technology, the organization will fall behind in that regard. Staff members follow the lead of the Executive Director, and the Board normally does the same. If staff members and/or Board members can provide convincing, hands-on examples of how technology can improve the work of a nonprofit organization, then change is possible. But in my experience, proof must be provided.

Keep in mind, someone holding the position of Executive Director is beset with competing priorities. Taking the time to learn the nuances of a new technology may not be possible when they are dealing with hiring, employee management, accounting, top notch programming, public services, and more. Perhaps the answer lies in empathy.

Ask yourself these questions. Can you make the Executive Director’s workload easier with technology? Can you help your nonprofit organization accomplish more, and help it stand out from similar organizations? Can you improve the ability of staff to work collaboratively with technology? Can you spread the word about your mission and its worthiness for financial support more extensively with technology? Can you raise more money? Can you save the organization time and money?

Gary Vaynerchuk writes about empathy for HuffPost Business in, “Empathy: One of the Keys to My Business Success” (May 4, 2016):

“… It’s not just about being caring, but it’s also the ability to understand people on a higher level …. If you can understand what the other person is thinking and what their goals are, you can reverse engineer those aims and map it back to your goals too. That knowledge sets you up to win. You’ll both win.”

Changing an organization’s mindset can be tough. The staff and Board have important roles to play. How they frame the adoption of new technologies to their Executive Directors can make a difference in how accepting they will be. In addition, before suggesting new technologies, nonprofits should review existing technologies. I have discovered it is often true nonprofit staff may not be using existing software to full capacity. The answer to improved effectiveness and technology adoption may lie in using existing software and related technologies already in place, along with periodic training (or continuing education) to ensure they are up-to-speed on the latest software and technology updates.

Last but not least, I am an advocate for joining NTEN, a user-friendly organization designed specifically for “social change professionals who put technology to use for their causes, share technology solutions across the sector, and support each other’s work.” NTEN greets questions with enthusiasm no matter how simple or complicated. Advice is shared online and in person during events like the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference, and during webinars (live and recorded), and in research publications.

Photo Credit: Alan O’Rourke of audiencestack.com

Carolyn Appleton
I am a nonprofit fundraising and communications expert based in Central Texas, but working statewide and beyond.