December 29, 2015

Technology Failing Is Not Your Problem: A Case Study

Organizations of all missions and sizes participate in NTEN Labs, one-day capacity building workshops, throughout the year to share their tech challenges, successes, and dreams with their peers. We asked Birgit Pauli-Haack, from NPTechProjects, to answer a few of our questions and share her organization’s relationship to nonprofit technology.

What is your organization, and why does it exist?

The organization is called NPTechProjects. It exists to help nonprofit leaders, staff, and volunteers transition to a strategic approach to technology in order to further their collective mission and impact. The challenges in the 21st Century are too complicated and too complex to ignore the last 10 years in technology available to manage and overcome those challenges.

There is not enough assistance available in our area to help nonprofit leaders to incorporate a data-driven mindset—not only for grant application and reporting, but in their day-to-day operation, marketing, and donor relationship cultivation.

We have been working on this since I came back from the first Leading Change Summit in September 2014, where I was working on Impact Circles for the LCS’  Ideas Accelerator. After more conversation with nonprofit executive directors (EDs) and board members, we expanded on the idea to create an agile organization to provide project management expertise and coaching to their leadership. We cover the full lifecycle of projects:

  • Concept and research in the problems to solve
  • Requirements gathering, software, and tools selection process
  • Review of inner-organizational processes
  • Implementation planning and execution
  • Training standards and follow-up

Impact Circles—ED round-tables on strategic use of technology—are now a part of the larger framework. Our organization currently is in start-up mode; we are putting the final touches on our first outreach to local and regional organizations as well as foundations.

How would you describe the current role of technology at your organization?

I research viable open-source products and the role they play in their communities, like CiviCRM or WordPress. My background is web and application development, specifically application integration via external APIs—a way to for systems to “talk to each other” on the back end. Our business has been web development & design, mobile development, and digital marketing. Testing Tools and APIs excites me.

As a co-organizer of our local 501TechClub, I bridge the gaps between nonprofit leadership and organizations like NTEN & Techsoup. I have been a Regional Ambassador for Techsoup’s global Netsquared program since early 2015

Tell us a story: good, bad, or ugly

In 2015, even the talk about spam can be considered spam. The problems solved by many organizations still seem to be disrupting operations for some. For instance, we know of one chapter organization, which communicates heavily with chapter leadership and various interest groups about advocacy. Chapter leaders turn over once every two years by design. Operational emails with up to 1,200 recipients are a normal occurrence at that organization, which is a highly ‘spam-suspicious’ activity. Mailman listserv messages are considered spam by some ISPs, no matter what. Several times a year, this one organization has found their domain name and email server IP address on various Internet service providers’ spammer ‘black lists’ for a period of a couple of days at a time. In total, they maintained 84 email addresses and 27 groups with their own domain names.They outgrew their hosting companies email server and listserv offerings, but they didn’t know where to turn to as they didn’t have any funds for full-blown enterprise-level email provider.  

We talked several times about this issue, and I always came back to suggesting Google Apps for this kind of operation. The organization wasn’t a 501(c)(3) organization, however,so they didn’t qualify for Google for Nonprofits, and the idea was shut down, as $5 per user seem to be way outside their budget. I did some research, conducted some tests with other Google Apps work accounts, and looked more closely at the organization’s current set-up. It turned out that only three of the used email addresses were actually email address with inboxes. The rest were set-up as email aliases, forwarding emails to people’s private email addresses. With Google Apps for Work, you can have 30 nicknames, as Google calls aliases, Google Groups are free anyway. We created a spreadsheet for the migration and training videos on how to handle groups subscriptions, as well as how to set up filters for email forwarding on Google. And for $15 dollars a month, they eliminated the talk about spam around the organization.

What has been your biggest tech challenge at your organization?

My soft answer: I generally subscribe to a theory that when technology seems to be failing, oftentimes technology is not the problem. While it may be a good sector to blame because everyone can certainly relate, most often the underlying issue is resistance to change and the omission of leadership buy-in.

My direct answer: We need to keep our humanity when we design automated systems. The biggest challenge is to listen in order to build pathways for responses—not on an individual basis at a cocktail party, but at scale.

Example: As a data-driven organization, the biggest challenge for us has been to ask the right questions and find the answers within the vast amount of data that are already available within an organization. The data might be unstructured and unavailable in one single source, which makes the nerd in me shudder. It doesn’t mean, however, the data are not there. Based on what we know about that donor, supporter, or volunteer, we must find the right technology to tailor the content of our emails, on our website, and via the social webs toward the appropriate person. It’s not always a tech challenge, per se. Rather, building interpersonal relationships at scale is actually the biggest challenge we have.

What is on your organizational wish list?

To raise enough funding for resources to increase the organizational and technological capacities of 100 organizations over the next three years.

Do you have any nonprofit tech New Year’s Resolutions for 2016?

Apart from launching NPTechProjects, I will create more opportunities for nonprofits to collaborate and pool resources. I will provide remote hands-on instruction for nonprofit board members for their daily technology needs to get them past their or email. And I really want to improve digital storytelling; we all are just scratching the surface of this interesting concept. Let’s get ready for the wave of peer-to-peer fundraising, when we as nonprofits need to rely on our supporters to carry our mission to their friends…  and friends of friends.

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Birgit Pauli-Haack
Birgit Pauli-Haack, co-founder of Relevanza, Inc., brings more than 18 years of web development and web community expertise to the company. With her other company, Pauli Systems, LC also headquartered in Naples, Florida she has been providing interactive, user-friendly, web-based business applications and server administration services to an array of corporate, nonprofit and private clients, both international and domestic since 2002. In addition to leading her companies , Birgit is an active member of the web community, and provides pro bono technology products and services to local non-profit organizations. She has been a technology leader with the Naples Free-Net 1998 - 2015. She is a frequent presenter on Internet topics at conferences worldwide, and has worked on open-source projects in the ColdFusion Community, and for social services agencies. Birgit has a degree in business management, specialized for Tourism & Resort Management, and extensive technology experience. Birgit also runs the local WordPress User group, called WordPress Meetup SWFL and the local 501 Tech Club, Tech4Good SWFL, supported by NTEN as well as TechSoup Global's Netsquared. Both monthly meetups are free of charge for participants. Founder of NPTechProjects - a nonprofit in start-up to assist local nonprofits using technology to further their mission.