Technology has been a blessing in many ways throughout this experience of the pandemic. As a long-time consultant to and employee of nonprofit organizations, I have been extremely pleased with the technology use levels I’ve seen this year. Nonprofits and individuals have adopted technology to communicate, deliver programming, and maintain operations like never before. At the same time, I have been very sorry that it took such a tragic worldwide event to spur technological embracement in our sector.
I recently re-read “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel in which a missionary family moves unknowingly into the Belgian Congo of 1959 and escapes barely, if not entirely, intact. Several chapter headings of that book keep springing to my mind when I think about the pandemic, chaos, technology, and nonprofit organizations: “The Things We Carried,” “The Things We Learned,” “The Things We Didn’t Know,” “What We Lost,” and “What We Carried Out.”
I believe the things that nonprofit organizations have carried into the pandemic, learned, didn’t know, and lost are fairly obvious and will leave it to others to analyze those bits of our shared experience. For this article, let’s talk about what nonprofits will “carry out” of the pandemic. In other words, what will our sector do as we move forward? Will we revert entirely to our previous ways of doing business, or will we keep the best lessons and efficiencies that we have learned?
From my own observations and experiences, here is what I hope we will carry out:
- Proactive technology planning and budgeting. I have observed much progress in this area over the past two decades. However, many small and medium-sized nonprofits still manage technology reactively, only addressing technology issues or spending money on solutions when a problem arises. Deliberately planning and budgeting for technology, much like we do with overall strategy, is a less stressful and costly approach. Convene a committee, meet at least quarterly, benchmark your technology usage and spending, and make a technology plan that supports your overall strategic plan. Continue to update the plan even more often than you update your strategic plan since new technology and advances occur regularly. Your committee need not be a group of tech-savvy folks. More importantly, it should be made up of people who are deeply familiar with the organization’s programs, workflows, and operations. (Remember to include disaster recovery and business continuity in your planning — that would have come in handy for many organizations going into this pandemic.)
- Increased technology skills training for staff. Between questions I have received from nonprofit leaders and staff and from conversations with my clients, colleagues, and friends, I have sensed that the amount of technology pain caused by a lack of training and skills has become much more noticeable. Some nonprofit leaders, especially those who have relied heavily on administrative assistance and task delegation, have significantly struggled. All nonprofits should endeavor to find and track staff members’ technology skills and skill gaps and insist upon training, being sure to match learning to each individual’s learning style. There are many options available — online video tutorials, continuing education classes, on-demand digital courses, etc. Many are free or low cost. Training increases comfort and efficiency, thereby increasing staff confidence and technology adoption rates.
- Creative digital and virtual program delivery. While this area has caused much suffering for organizations this year, it’s also the area in which I have had the most delight for the creative solutions I have witnessed. The creativity I have seen this year is unprecedented and has genuinely displayed the resourcefulness and fortitude in our sector. For example, I am a resident of the Pittsburgh region and cannot travel frequently due to personal circumstances. Still, this year I took a 360o immersive, self-guided, virtual tour of the Winchester Mystery House in California and donated one of my oil paintings to an online fundraising auction to help people experiencing homelessness. I will watch The Nutcracker Ballet by the Pittsburgh Ballet and the New York Ballet for the first time from my own living room. While some programmatic experiences and services cannot be wholly replaced by digitized versions, we continue gaining efficiencies of scale and cost savings by using technology in appropriate ways. We can also expand our services beyond our typical reach.
Most of all, in both our professional and personal lives, this year has been about identifying and paring down to the essentials. What do I absolutely need to do? What can I do without? Which failing programs have we permitted to operate for too long and need to scale back, change, or eliminate? With even more limited resources than usual, all nonprofits have been forced to examine all areas of operations and programs and make hard decisions this year. I believe this practice should have been happening long before now and hope that we will continue after the pandemic ends. Let us focus on what is most important, impactful, and not be afraid to let go of the things that no longer work for us.
What lessons and practices will your nonprofit organization carry out from the pandemic?