June 2015

NTEN: Change | June 2015

Introduction | NTEN: Change, June 2015

Letter from the Editor: Joleen Ong, Marketing & Publications Director, NTEN

You will often hear us say: Technology can help nonprofits effectively meet their missions. It’s true! But what does this look like inside the organization?

The 18th issue of NTEN: Change explores what organizations are doing to be more effective, and the actions that they’re taking to scale up. It is a collection of articles and interviews that look inside the nonprofit to understand the systems, processes, and tools that are in place to ensure success.

Feature articles:

We also go behind the scenes to get tips from the California Coastkeepers Allianceabout the importance of building partnerships, learn how Splash redefines transparency with technology, receive advice from the Humane Society International on what to consider when planning a global expansion, and TerraCycle demonstrates how to reduce waste and raise funds at the same time.

You might notice: The Change journal has changed! As part of NTEN’s overall website redesign, the Change journal is now hosted on the NTEN site. You can scroll through the articles, click on “In this Issue” at the top to navigate back to other sections, and share individual articles.

Thanks for reading, and let us know what you think!

Joleen Ong, NTENJoleen Ong is the Marketing & Publications Director at NTEN. She is a published writer and researcher on the topic of nonprofit fundraising, communications, marketing, as well as international human rights and labor relations in Asia and Latin America. Follow her on Twitter: @joleendearest.

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Measuring Return on Investment for Technology

By Karen Graham, Executive Director, Idealware

Don’t let technology gobble up staff time and money, without giving enough back. Effective organizations have a positive Return on Investment, or ROI, for individual technology choices as well as their overall investment in technology. In this article, we answer your basic questions about why ROI is useful and how it works. We’ll share simple ways to measure and compare return on investment and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process. No accounting background is required!

What if you were spending three times longer on troubleshooting your broadcast email tool than on developing the content of your newsletter? An exasperated executive director recently lamented to me that this is happening in her organization. Technology is gobbling up staff time and money, without giving enough back.

On the other hand, when an organization is using technology effectively, the results are greater than or equal to the resources invested. That’s what it means to have a positive Return on Investment (ROI).

Let’s take a closer look at some simple ways to measure and compare ROI and go over a few tips for establishing your ROI measurement process.

When is ROI Useful?

When you’re making a purchase decision, thinking about ROI can help you considered whether the product or service is worth your money. But that’s not the only time when ROI is useful. When you are looking at past investment choices, ROI analysis can help you evaluate those decisions and make more accurate projections of costs and benefits next time. When you are writing grants, articulating the funder’s ROI in terms of dollars and mission impact makes your case stronger for technology funding.

Challenge yourself to look beyond specific purchases and projects, and considered your organization’s overall return on its investment in technology. Your executive director and IT director or advisor should be looking at how resources are allocated toward hardware, software, and services; as well as across programs, fundraising, marketing, and administration. Are expenditures made in proportion to the way technology benefits each of those functional areas? Are you wasting resources on technology that isn’t doing much for you? Is your technology budget simply keeping the lights on, or is it fueling your mission?

Basic ROI Mechanics

To do return on investment analysis on a practical level, you don’t have to be an accountant and you don’t have to be perfect. For now, let’s not worry about net present value, internal rate of return, cash flow, or payback period. Let’s keep it simple.

The basic formula is: ROI = net gain/cost

Example: I spend $50 and make $75. My net gain is $25.

ROI = 25/50 = .5 or 50%

In order to do this, you need to assign numbers to the costs and benefits. Many of your numbers will be guesses and approximations. Just make note of your assumptions as you go along, and consider running some alternate scenarios. For example, if your estimate of staff time saved is over or under by 20%, how does that affect the equation? Also, choose a timeline. For items with an ongoing cost, such as a software subscription or equipment maintenance, I typically use a 3-5 year timeline.


Some examples of costs are money, staff time, disruption and frustration, and opportunity cost. Opportunity cost means the missed chance to do something else that might have saved or made money. In addition to the investment before you, think about the cost of other alternatives, including the option to do nothing. In the price tag for technology, don’t forget the costs of training and support, and disposal or recycling of your old technology.

Some costs are tricky to measure. I worked with one nonprofit employee who suspected she was spending an unreasonable amount of time on a tedious report creation task. She was comparing data management products that purported to streamline this work. So, she timed herself with a stopwatch on the current process, then timed herself doing the same task in each of the products under consideration, and multiplied it out by how many times per year she needed to create the report. By doing this, she formed a reasonable projection of how much time the old system was costing her.


What are the benefits of a technology investment? You might think immediately of ways that it saves you money or increases staff productivity. Note that efficiency by itself isn’t worth much—it is the increased output or decreased personnel cost that matters. One organization made the case that by freeing up two hours per week for the development director, she could personally contact enough donors to more than cover the cost of the investment in her efficiency.

Technology can also lead to new or increased revenue streams, a broader reach of your services, and other benefits. For example, in my technology capacity building work, video conferencing and document collaboration tools enabled us to provide remote consulting to clients in an underserved rural area and helped to build our image as a tech-savvy organization. At another organization, a CRM investment improved morale by making employees’ data entry and reporting work more enjoyable, while at the same time improving the quality of services by providing visibility into the client’s full history and relationship with the agency.

Some return on investment analysis falls short because it does not fully capture the benefit side of the equation. Think about what your organization is trying to accomplish in the world. Is it possible to quantify mission impact in terms of social ROI? For example, if a technology investment can be tied to increased wages, helping people off public assistance, or reducing carbon footprint, consider how you might factor that into your ROI equation too.

Example: Should I Buy A New Server Or Move To Cloud Services?

Weighing return on investment for replacing a server versus implementing Cloud file storage and management is a great example because it’s a real decision that many nonprofit organizations face today. It’s interesting because multiple alternatives add complexity: you could replace or upgrade existing servers, move to a platform such as Office 365 or Google Apps, move completely or partially to a file management service like Box.com, use more lightweight hardware such as a NAS device, or many, many other options—including doing nothing.

It might be tempting to boil this decision down to a simple choice between costs that are more front-loaded and costs that are spread out over time. But the cost-benefit equation is more complex than that and will be different for each organization, depending on how you weigh various factors. For example, it’s generally agreed that Cloud-based file management offers greater mobility than a conventional server network. Does that matter to your organization? Does it matter enough to ask all of your coworkers to say goodbye to that remote desktop connection, which was such a pain to set up but now works almost all of the time, and go through the pain of learning a brand new system?

In this analysis, I didn’t attempt to assign a dollar value to morale or some of the other more fuzzy aspects of return on investment. However, I did try to unearth some of the hidden costs. Considering only the cost of the technology itself, a conventional server network looks pretty inexpensive, while Cloud services appear slightly higher. Adding in projected costs for implementation and support gives you a better feel for the total cost. Adding downtime, training time, and lost productivity changes it again—and this makes the Cloud look less expensive. In the end, it’s unclear which one is the winner, due to the margin of error.



  • This is loosely based on a real nonprofit organization and the numbers came from an assortment of price quotes and best guesses.
  • It’s perhaps misleading to have such a precise total. It might be better to say the expected costs are “$20,000-25,000ish” for both options.
  • Actual downtime can make a huge difference in the totals.
  • For convenience, we’re saying there are 30 employees and cost of staff time is equal to the average pay rate of $30/hour.
  • I chose to use a five-year cost of ownership since that is a reasonable life span for a server.
  • This doesn’t count added productivity from increased mobile access.
  • This also doesn’t count any of the costs of a remote access solution with a server.

More on the Process

Now you know a bit about how ROI analysis works and you’ve seen an example. Maybe you’re ready to try it in your organization. Who should be involved? How much effort should it take?

Like any aspect of a technology investment decision, if you want buy-in from leadership and end users, you had better involve them. End users will help you check your assumptions about the real costs and benefits. The executive director and board should be making sure ROI is considered in important decisions and provide guidance on the relative weight of each factor. Initiating and leading an ROI analysis is an opportunity for an IT director or other technology responsible staff person to position themself as a valuable resource and as someone who is capable of thinking strategically about technology.

Of course, you shouldn’t perform an ROI analysis for every little decision. If you need a mouse, buy a mouse. But make it part of your organizational culture by using it consistently for large investments—before and after deployment. Circle back to check whether your assumptions were right, and you will learn to get better at this.

When presenting the results of your analysis, don’t assume that everyone else is going to geek out on the details. Share a handful of data points to make your case, and tell a story that provides context and interest. Let’s say I was presenting the same analysis about server vs. Cloud. I might point out that the five year cost is approximately the same, but the chance to reduce down time by even a small amount is tremendously valuable because…etc.

And finally, remember that ROI is not the law. Sometimes you won’t be able to show positive ROI with numbers, yet there is still a strong business case for your investment. Do your homework and you will be able to make a deliberate, well-informed decision.

Karen Graham, IdealwareKaren Graham is the executive director of Idealware, an organization that helps nonprofits make smart software decisions by providing research based publications and training. She is also the owner of Smart Girl Consulting and the co-organizer of the Minnesota 501 Tech Club.

Top image credit: katsrcool, Flickr

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When Disaster Strikes: Social Media That Drives Self Recovery

By Timo Luege, Senior Communications and Advocacy Consultant and Founder, Social Media for Good

Social media has become part of the daily lives of billions of people. When disaster strikes, these are the networks that they turn to. Yet many organizations still treat social networks mainly as a fundraising instrument, rather than as a chance to connect and engage with people. This is a missed opportunity that reduces both operational efficiency and undermines the authority of formal disaster responders. What is needed is operational capacity building, particularly at the local level.

The first thing that disaster survivors want is not food, water or shelter, but information: “Where is everyone? Is everyone ok?” – these are the first thoughts that go through people’s minds. It doesn’t matter whether you were safe at home while your spouse was travelling in Japan when the Tsunami hit, whether you were cheering for your child from the sidelines during the 2013 Boston Marathon, or whether you yourself were living in downtown Kathmandu when the earthquake struck on 25 April. The second you hear that a loved one is in danger, you grab your phone and try to call. Of course, odds are that you will not get through, since the phone network has very likely crashed – if not because of the disaster, then because of the thousands of people trying to do the same as you. Internet connections on the other hand frequently stay up, even after the mobile phone networks have crashed.

As a result, social media is increasingly becoming the best way for disaster survivors to tell their friends and family that they are safe. That is not a small thing, particularly if you are in the affected area yourself. What’s more, this very emotionally charged action anchors social media in the minds of the affected people as the place to go for information related to the disaster. It is therefore only logical that they also turn to social media to coordinate their next steps. Not only is it where they have already found information, it is also where they can access their virtual support network that can help them cope with the crisis.

Nepal Earthquake Facebook Safety CheckThe Nepal earthquake and Facebook’s Safety Check
Following the earthquake in Nepal, Facebook activated “Safety Check“, a normally dormant Facebook feature that helps friends and relatives find out whether their loved ones are safe. To determine who might be in the affected area, Facebook uses information it constantly collects about its users, such as check-ins, IP addresses and profile information. It then asks these users to confirm whether they are safe and shares that information with their friends.

Alternatively, friends can also report their friends as safe. Compared to other, more sophisticated tracing mechanisms, Safety Check has the advantage that affected people can stay within the software environment they are already familiar with. By providing clarity on many easy cases, the application can help reduce the number of inquiries that reach more resource intensive services, thus freeing up capacity to focus on the more difficult cases/

After every disaster, we now see Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags springing into life whose sole purpose it is to identify needs and coordinate assistance. Within two days of the Nepal earthquake for example, a Facebook community dedicated to the response had attracted 15,000 fans.

From the point of view of institutional disaster, responders this is both a blessing and a challenge. On the one hand, we know that most of the burden to rebuild their lives is borne by the affected people themselves and any tool that facilitates their self-recovery is positive. In fact, the requests for assistance posted and filled through social media can frequently meet the needs of individual households much more precisely than institutional responders. Where most large organizations plan their activities based on typical needs of households in affected areas, social media users typically post and address the concrete needs of distinct households.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1498/Sokol

On the other hand, this decentralized approach adds complexity from a coordination point of view: Since most formal disaster response organizations are not actively monitoring assistance organized through social media, the situational analyses of national and international disaster responders are missing an important aspect of the response, i.e. the resources that the community itself is able to mobilize. This in turn can lead to assistance not being optimally allocated, for example when an organization sends blankets or food to a village that already organized these goods via social media. It can also lead to very practical problems: During serious flooding in Germany in 2013 for example, volunteers who had organized themselves through Facebook, stacked sandbags in the wrong locations and without knowing how to build an effective sandbag barrier. This then forced professional disaster responders to reallocate their own resources to instruct the volunteers and to take down and rebuild the barriers.

The solution is obvious: National and international organizations must accept that social media networks are increasingly the forums through which communities coordinate their self-recovery activities. Yet very few organizations have embraced this change. A recent study of 26 natural and man-made disasters across the world found that during acute crises, NGOs mainly use their social media channels to ask for donations or volunteers, while government entities mainly broadcast messages of caution and advice. Real engagement was largely absent. As a result, affected people turn to their peers for assistance and advice. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, scientists found that the absence of social media engagement led to an erosion in the trust in formal authorities, yet these rely on their authority to fulfill their role.

What is needed is a willingness and the capacity to accept affected communities as an active partner in the response – beyond the lip service that is routinely paid to the concept. This means not just monitoring what is being shared on social media but actively engaging with online communities. For many international organizations this involves additional challenges when the main language in the affected country is different from that of most staff. Therefore capacity building has to happen primarily at the level of national disaster response authorities and local staff, yet many organizations still block their national staff from accessing social media sites on their computers.

A middle-income county that is leading in this area is the Philippines who have included social media in their official emergency response mechanism and pro-actively communicate specific hashtags as part of their regular disaster preparedness programs.

The Digital Divide
Given that most humanitarian emergencies happen in parts of the world with poorly developed infrastructure, including limited access to information and communication technology (ICT), many organizations are skeptical about the usefulness of social media as an operational tool. In many contexts, that skepticism is both healthy and justified. Obviously, social media should only be used as an additional tool for disaster responders in appropriate situations, rather than deployed as a technology that replaces existing practices. But we also need to recognize that the percentage of people who have no access to telecommunications is shrinking. According to a 2014 report by the GSM Alliance, the developing world today accounts for two in every three smartphones on the planet. Even people who don’t have smartphones increasingly can have access to social networks because some of them have launched initiatives that allow users in low-income countries to access their platforms via SMS or through stripped-down, text-only versions. What’s more, urbanization gives more people access to better ICT infrastructure and further increase the number of people who have access to social networks.

Coordinating with structured and spontaneous groups of people who are organizing themselves through social media will be messy. Many organizations shy away from the engagement, because they are afraid that they don’t have enough resources. Groups like the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), can help lessen some of this burden by managing the relations between formal disaster responders and informal networks of online volunteers. However, ultimately social media monitoring and engagement have to be operationalized according to the goals they are meant to support.

At headquarters level, that includes marketing and fundraising. But in the case of emergencies it also means that program staff at the field level need to have the right tools and training to use social media to inform situational awareness, coordination and decision making. Much of this falls on the shoulders of national disaster responders, many of whom will need international support to build that capacity as part of their disaster preparedness plans.

In the long term, social media will be one of the factors that change communication and coordination from a pure top-down approach to many-to-many interaction that is facilitated through digital networks. This will require adjustments, particularly for organizations that are used to operating in a hierarchal structure; however, ultimately these changes will contribute to emergency response operations that are more appropriate to the needs of those affected by disasters.

Timo LuegeTimo Luege advises humanitarian organizations in the use of digital technology for communications, advocacy and operations. His field missions include Haiti, the Philippines, and Liberia. Timo is based in Germany and writes about his work on Social Media for Good. You can follow him @timolue.

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Virtual Organizations: How to Create a Culture of Collaboration

Interview with Heather Martin, COO, InterfaithFamily, and Susan Hibbard, Executive Director, BUILD Initiative

Fast Facts

Interfaith Family Logo

  • OrganizationInterfaithFamily
  • Interviewee: Heather Martin, Chief Operating Officer
  • Mission: InterfaithFamily empowers people in interfaith relationships — individuals, couples, families and their children — to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and encourages Jewish communities to welcome them.
  • Annual budget (2014):  $2.7M
  • Total # of years in service:  14
  • Total # of full time staff members: 21 FTE
  • Total # of time zones that your staff members operate in: 3

BUILD Intiative Logo

  • Organization: BUILD Initiative
  • Interviewee: Susan G. Hibbard, Executive Director
  • Mission: BUILD Initiative supports the people who set policies, provide services, and advocate for children birth to age five. Taking a systems approach, BUILD partners with state leaders working in: early learning; health, mental health, and nutrition; and, family support and engagement. BUILD provides guidance, leadership training, and capacity building.
  • Annual budget (2014): $4.09 million
  • Total # of years in service: 13
  • Total # of full time staff members: 8
  • Total # of time zones that your staff members operate in: 2

Technology has resulted in the ability to do tasks anywhere, at any time, connecting teams across time zones, regions, and cultures. In this day and age, being physically in the office is no longer a necessity to get the work done.  But is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

What are some of the challenges and benefits to operating 100% virtual? How can teams stay connected and build a culture of collaboration, even if your colleagues aren’t sitting next to you?

We interviewed two nonprofit leaders from organization that operate with 100% virtual teams: Susan Hibbard, Executive Director, BUILD Initiative (BUILD) and Heather Martin, Chief Operating Officer, InterfaithFamily. We asked BUILD and InterfaithFamily to share their experiences, tools they use to stay connected and collaborate, pros and cons of being virtual, and their advice for nonprofits that are considering making this switch.

Q:  Why did your organization decide to be 100% virtual and/or have a flexible work from home policy in place?

BUILD: Being virtual was a natural development and perhaps an outgrowth of being conceived of as an initiative rather than a forever organization. When the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (ECFC) designed the BUILD Initiative, two consultants from different states served as the “staff.” One had originally been a funder and the other was hired to support the ECFC’s design process. The design called for one full-time staff person and an evaluation partner. Rather than become a 501(c) 3, ECFC sought a fiscal sponsor to manage the grants and finances. By the end of the first year, BUILD was supported by an Executive Director in West Virginia, two consultants—one in New Jersey and one in Maine—an evaluation partner in Iowa, and a fiscal sponsor in Massachusetts.

Over time it became clear that BUILD met a need that was ongoing; the time horizon for the work elongated from a five-year estimate to maybe forever. Leaders and advisors have questioned whether BUILD should have its own 501(c)3, rather than the shared services, fiscal sponsor structure, but no one has advocated for creating an office with all the staff co-located.

InterfaithFamily: There were two issues that required us to create a flexible work environment. The first was opening up our InterfaithFamily/Your Community (IFF/YC) initiative in 2011. This required us to hire people on the ground in local communities. The second was making sure we had the right people doing the right work. By not limiting ourselves to a geographical area, we have been able to hire excellent staff regardless of their physical location. And within larger metropolitan areas, having a flexible work from home policy allowed us to attract talent that we would not have otherwise.

Q: What tools do you use to stay connected? How is your organization structured internally to help facilitate a culture of collaboration?  

BUILD: The team—staff and key consultants—has weekly staff calls and an additional monthly deeper dive call, usually focused on one or two pieces of project work. Sometimes these are just calls, but increasingly we are using webcams and our webinar capacities. We use ReadyTalk. In addition, subgroups of the team meet weekly. These can be calls as small as two people or sometimes including five or six members of the team, depending on whether it is a project-focused subgroup or more of a check in call between a supervisor and another team member.

The team meets in person for 2-3 days at least twice a year. We often use a facilitator to help us plan those retreats and then to facilitate some or all of the time on site. In addition, many staff members attend meetings together, which provide additional opportunities to share information, discuss work, etc. And, all staff attends our annual meeting with state partners. Occasionally, the whole staff or a significant segment of the team will attend a training together.

We use Central Desktop to share documents, calendars, and work plans. We also use Dropbox to share documents.

InterfaithFamily: Every week, our National Director and the Associate Director of the IFF/YC initiative (both located in Boston) use WebEx to meet with all the directors in the local communities. The entire organization has access to Lync and many one-on-one conversations between employees working from home and in other cities take place using this technology. We have all staff meetings 1-2 times a month using Webex, so that no matter where anyone is working they are able to connect and participate. Cell phones, text, and email are also key.

File sharing is done through SharePoint, though the migration and shift in culture around this was challenging. Monthly meetings take place with various national staff (such as with our National Director of Marketing and Communications) and the staff in each community to ensure there is an open line of communication and that everyone is on the same page with various projects. The National Director and Associate Director of the IFF/YC program have weekly Lync meetings with the Directors in each community. We bring the Directors together 3 times a year for 2-day meetings, and annually we have a 2-day all staff retreat.

When a new employee is hired, regardless of where they are located, we bring them into the Boston office for an orientation. We have found that while we can create an effective virtual working environment, it’s essential to have a personal connection early on with the people you will be working with on a regular basis. The return on the investment of having a remote employee meet face to face with their colleagues has been key to successful communication for our organization.

We also have all employees fill out a communication preferences form, which identifies the best way to contact them, when, etc. This is helpful because there are people who would rather have someone pick up the phone and call them rather than send them an instant message. There are some staff that based on their schedules, are not available for an hour in the afternoon because they have to pick up their kids at school. We even had one staff member tell people to make sure they don’t put smiley faces in their emails to her because it drives her nuts. Knowing these things makes communication with remote employees much more effective.

Q: In your opinion, can you share a pro and con about working in an organization that is virtual? Is it something that you think all nonprofits should consider doing?


  • Pro: We are able to hire good people regardless of geography.
  • Con: We do have to work very hard at consciously making sure we remember that there are many people not privy to the “water cooler” conversations that happen and that we can never over communicate information enough.


  • Pros:
    • Recruitment: Being able to hire talent without geographic limitations. Staff, consultants, and key subcontractors can all live anywhere, which greatly expands the pool of potential hires.
    • Flexibility: Staff can do some amount of their work (writing, reading, and other solo activities) at whatever hour works best for them. This can facilitate team members’ juggling between work/life demands.
  • Cons:
    • Building Relationships: Office camaraderie and conversation at water coolers or over lunch can build up a backdrop of familiarity, trust, and friendship. Virtual organizations need to find other ways to build the trust to minimize miscommunication (easy with email) or inadequate communication (leading to working in silos).
    • Support Staff: It is harder to have support staff for multiple team members when there is no office.

Q: For nonprofits that are considering making this shift to having more, or all, staff work remotely, what advice would you give to them? 

InterfaithFamily: A strong infrastructure needs to be put into place to support those remote employees. Without the proper processes, resources and support in place, managing remote employees can be a drain on the organization.

BUILD: Virtual teams do need good communication skills and tools, but most importantly, I think, staff working virtually needs to like and be effective at virtual working. Some people lack the discipline necessary, some find it isolating, others can’t communicate effectively without being able to read faces, and others are too used to having an assistant just inches away. I don’t think it is for everyone or for every organization, but there are many benefits to virtual work, home offices, and virtual organizations, not least of which is the cost savings.

Heather Martin, Interfaith FamilyHeather Martin is the Chief Operating Officer for InterfaithFamily, a nonprofit organization supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities.
Susan Hibbard, BUILD InitiativeSusan Hibbard has worked for the BUILD Initiative since its launch in 2002. She currently serves as its Executive Director. She lives with her partner in Portland, Maine and is the mother of two rambunctious boys.
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Creating A Tech-Savvy Nonprofit Culture

By Peter Campbell, Chief Information Officer, Legal Services Corporation

What kind of challenge does your organization have supporting technology? Below are several scenarios to choose from:

  • Little or no tech staff or tech leadership: We buy inexpensive computers and software and rely on consultants to set it up.
  • Our IT support is outsourced: there is no technology plan or any staff training.
  • We have a tech on staff who does their best to keep things running: no staff training, no technology planning.
  • We have a tech on staff and an IT Director, but no technology plan: IT is swamped and not very helpful.
  • We have staff and IT leadership, but strategic plans are often trumped by budget crises. Training is minimal.
  • IT Staff, Leadership, budget, and a technology plan, but executive support is minimal. IT projects succeed or fail based on the willingness of the departmental managers to work with IT.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? A lack of a functional technology plan, little or no staff training, and/or no shared accountability for technology in the organization. While it’s likely that the technical skills required in order to successfully perform a job are listed in the job descriptions, the successful integration of technology literacy into organizational culture requires much more than that. Here are some key enabling steps:

Technology Planning: If you have a technology plan, it might not do more than identify the key software and hardware projects planned. Technology planning is about much more than what you want to do. A thorough plan addresses the “who,” the “why,” and the “how” you’re going to do things:

  • A mission statement for the technology plan that ties directly to your organizational mission. For a workforce development agency, the tech mission might be to “deploy technology that streamlines the processes involved in training, tracking, and placing clients while strategically supporting administration, development, and communications”.
  • A RACI matrix outlining who supports what technology. This isn’t just a list of IT staff duties, but a roadmap of where expertise lies throughout the organization and how staff are expected to share it.
  • A “Where we are” assessment that points out the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities in your current technology environment.
  • A “Where we need to go” section that outlines your three to five year technology vision. This section should be focused on what the technology is intended to accomplish, as opposed to which particular applications you plan to buy. For example, moving to internal social media for intra-organization communication and knowledge management” is more informational than “purchase Yammer.
  • Finally, a more technical outline of what you plan to deploy and when, with a big disclaimer saying that this plan will change as needs are reassessed and opportunities arise.

Training: Training staff is critical to recouping your investments in technology. If you do a big implementation of a CRM or ERP system, then you want your staff to make full use of that technology. If you’re large enough to warrant it (50+ staff), hire an in-house trainer, who also plays a key role in implementing new systems. This investment will offset significant productivity losses.

Smaller orgs can make use of online resources like Khan Academy and Lynda.com, as well as the consultants and vendors who install new systems. And technology training should be part of the onboarding process for new hires, even if the trainers are just knowledgeable staff.

In resource-strapped environments, training can be a hard sell. Everybody likes the idea, but nobody wants to prioritize it. It’s up to the CEO and management to lead by policy and example – promote the training, show up at the training, and set the expectation that training is a valued use of staff time.

Organizational Buy-in: Don’t make critical technology decisions in a vacuum. When evaluating new software, invite everyone to the demos and include staff in every step of the decision-making process, from surveying them on their needs before you start defining your requirements to including staff who will be using the systems in the evaluation group. When staff have input into the decision, they are naturally more open to, and accountable for, healthy use of the system.

Don’t make critical technology decisions in a vacuum. When evaluating new software, invite everyone to the demos and include staff in every step of the decision-making process…

Executive Sponsorship: With technology clearly prioritized and planned for, the last barrier is technophobia, and that’s more widespread than the common cold in nonprofits. Truly changing the culture means changing deep-rooted attitudes. This type of change has to start at the top and be modeled by the executives.

True story: At Salesforce.com, every new employee is shown the “Chatter” messaging tool and told to set up a profile. If a new user neglects to upload a photo, they will shortly find a comment in their Chatter feed from Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, saying, simply, “Nice Photo”. That’s the CEO’s way of letting new staff know that use of Chatter is expected, and the CEO uses it, too.

Play! One more thing will contribute to a tech-savvy culture: permission to play. We want to let staff try out new web tools and applications that will assist them. The ones that are useful can be reviewed and formally adopted. But locking users down and tightly controlling resources – a common default for techies, who can trend toward the control-freakish side – will do nothing to help establish an open-minded, tech-friendly atmosphere.

Overcoming Tech Aversion: We all know, now, that technology is not an optional investment. It’s infrastructure, supplementing and/or taking the place of fax machines, printers, photocopiers, telephones, and in more and more cases, physical offices. In the case of most nonprofits, there isn’t an employee in the company that doesn’t use office technology.

But there are still many nonprofits that operate with a pointed aversion to technology. Many executives aren’t comfortable with tech. They don’t trust it, and they don’t trust the people who know what to do with it. A whole lot depends on getting tech right, so enabling the office technologist – be it the IT Director or the accidental techie – is kind of like giving your teenager the keys to the car. You know that you have to trust them, but you can’t predict what they’re going to do.

Building that trust is simply a matter of getting more comfortable with technology. It doesn’t mean that management and staff all have to become hardcore techies. They just have to understand what technology is supposed to do for them and embrace its use. How do you build that comfort?

  • Have a trusted consulting firm do a technology audit.
  • Visit tech-savvy peers and see how they use technology.
  • Go to a NTEN conference.
  • Buy an iPad!

Building a tech-savvy culture is about making everyone more engaged, accountable, and comfortable with the tools that we use to accomplish our missions. Don’t let your organization be hamstrung by a resistance to the things that can propel you forward.

PeterCampbellPeter Campbell is currently the CIO at Legal Services Corporation, America’s partner for equal justice. He can be caught blogging on all things nptech at http://techcafeteria.com.

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YNPN: Growing While Grassroots

By Jamie Smith, Communications & Network Engagement Director, YNPN

The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997 when a small group of young nonprofit professionals began to commiserate about their shared experience in the sector. These challenges included low wages, little professional development or respect, few opportunities for advancement, and their desire to build more effective and sustainable careers. They soon realized that they weren’t alone in these experiences and sought out other young professionals for support and development. They put up some flyers, made a few phone calls, and organized a meet-up at a local bar. They had high hopes that maybe a dozen people would join them. Instead, more than 100 people showed up that night and eventually, along with several hundred more people, became YNPN’s first chapter.

I love the YNPN origin story because it’s illustrative of the larger experience we’ve had as a network over the last 18 years. From our very first event, the growth of YNPN has surpassed our greatest expectations. Today, the YNPN network serves more than 50,000 members, with chapters in 42 cities. Between 2011 to 2014 alone the number of YNPN chapters increased by nearly 70%, growing from 25 to 42 chapters.

Map of YNPN’s chapters around the country

At a time when most membership organizations are facing declining membership, YNPN is growing. We attribute this to the open, grassroots nature of our organization that allows chapters to have the kind of autonomy that provides meaningful leadership and management development opportunities for the young professionals who lead them. We also know that the strong local identity that our structure allows for is an asset to our chapters’ work in their communities.

At the same time, our rapid growth created an urgent challenge for our organization. We were struggling to support tens of thousands of members and dozens of chapters with almost no technical infrastructure beyond WordPress, Google Docs, MailChimp, and chewing gum to hold it all together. We knew we needed a data system that our chapters and we could use to manage membership, share information across the network, and measure our impact. We also knew that bringing over 40 technically separate organizations onto the same database would require more than just new software: it would require some important changes to the way our national office and chapters related to each other.

Our network had grown beyond the point at which we could sustain it and we knew that we would have to change in order to not only grow, but to survive. So in 2014, we set out to determine how we could improve our technical infrastructure and become more efficient without losing the qualities that have made us a vibrant, thriving network.

The Process

We started by hiring two data experts who were also chapter leaders in our network. Cary Walski from YNPN Twin Cities and Copilot Web Services, and Jodi Benenson from YNPN Boston and Tufts University, took us through a detailed discovery process. At the national level, we talked with them about budget, scope, and our concerns about how to preserve chapter autonomy. Jodi and Cary also consulted our chapters extensively on the features that would be most useful to their work through a network-wide survey, a committee of more than 20 chapter leaders with data expertise, and a conference session to gather even more feedback in person.

After synthesizing this information, Cary and Jodi recommended NationBuilder as a “Goldilocks” solution that gave us enough of the features we were looking for while keeping the costs affordable and providing a structure that allowed our chapters to have separate databases that could be synced with the national database. Before finalizing the decision, we went back to our chapters to see if anyone had experience with NationBuilder in their day job or as a chapter. We found out that several of our chapters were already using or considering NationBuilder, and these chapters have been invaluable partners both before and during implementation.

At the same time, we were also working on developing an affiliation model that would address the structural changes that a shared database would require and capitalize on the opportunities it would provide. We called this structure the “Chapter Operating System” because, like a software operating system, it will enable us to use our resources effectively, provide shared services for our network, and be continuously revisited and upgraded as our network grows and evolves.

Our new Chapter Operating System, “or affiliation structure,” includes:

  • A shared investment from our chapters. There are significant costs to the new infrastructure, but the potential costs of not making this investment were much higher. The national office and local chapters making an ongoing, shared investment in this infrastructure will keep it financially sustainable.
  • Separate legal status and bank accounts for each chapter. We want chapters to have the ability to receive grants and donations, collect payments, and have a structure that allows them to operate autonomously.
  • New, clearer definitions of membership. Each chapter will have the ability to define what membership means for their community and local chapter members will automatically become members of YNPN National.
  • Access to a shared database and content management system (NationBuilder). This system will allow us to aggregate data across the network and help all levels of our organization be more effective in engaging our members.
  • An affiliation agreement that clearly lays out all of the above and what chapters can expect from National, including greater transparency about our operations and increased resources and technical support.

Along the way, we also sought extensive feedback from chapters on these structural changes. We began discussing the new affiliation structure with our network six months before the first chapter ever logged onto the database. Over those six months, we hosted four feedback sessions, two NationBuilder demos, and provided a “sandbox site” chapters could use to try out NationBuilder.

We also tested the new infrastructure and affiliation requirements with seven chapters who served as critical friends and helped us refine the process for onboarding the rest of the network. This pilot process was invaluable because it gave us the time and space to figure out the nitty-gritty details of bringing chapters onto this new infrastructure before we had to coordinate the transition of the entire network. It also created living proof of concept in the seven chapters who are now able to speak to their experience of the transition and the benefits of having access to our improved infrastructure.

It might appear that we’re building the plane as we fly it, and that’s because we are. As an organization, we find it helpful to embrace some of the principles of agile development in order to keep pace with the changes we are experiencing in our network and in the greater environment. Launching the process before we had every single detail finalized was the only way to keep it within a timeframe of two years. As a volunteer-led organization, turnover among chapter board members was an important factor to consider as we decided how to bring the network onto the system.

As an organization, we find it helpful to embrace some of the principles of agile development in order to keep pace with the changes we are experiencing in our network and in the greater environment.

Our primary motivation, however, was creating the space to co-develop this plan with our chapters. While the development of the infrastructure and affiliation plans happened at the national office, every aspect of the work was presented to chapters for feedback before it was finalized. Our chapters asked great questions and brought valuable expertise to the table that unquestionably made the plans better.

Those plans have generally been well-received by the network, and by the end of this summer, half of our chapters will be on our new data system and affiliation structure. We plan to bring the rest of our chapters on by June 2016.

What We’re Learning

So far we’ve found that it is possible to roll out a massive infrastructure project and accompanying affiliation structure while still maintaining openness in the network and autonomy at the local level.

As we were researching other affiliation structures, we saw that many were oriented in a punitive way with a thinly veiled threat hanging over the heads of the affiliates: cross us, and we’ll take away your branding. It may sound naive, but we genuinely did not and have not spent a lot of time focusing on what happens if chapters choose not to come on board. Instead we’ve focused our energy on developing a model and a set of tools that people want to access.

Key to building something that our chapters wanted to join was devoting a significant amount of time to consulting them. Not only did we hear from our grassroots leaders about what would be feasible and serve their work best, we were also able to utilize their expertise as data scientists, staff members of other affiliated organizations, and a wide range of other skills they bring to our network.

This process has also reiterated to us the importance of relationships and good communication. As our network has grown, it has been challenging to maintain close connections with all of our chapters, particularly as a small staff without technical tools that could help us track our outreach. Investing the time in deep engagement around this change as well as our investment in technical tools to facilitate communication will undoubtedly make our next big transition, technical or otherwise, less cumbersome.

YNPN’s chapters are it’s most valuable asset and we know that we are stronger together. We obviously have several years of implementation and growing into our new structure before we can pronounce it a success, but we are excited by the possibilities of our new “operating system” and believe it will strengthen, rather than suppress, our grassroots culture.

JJamie Smith, YNPNamie Smith is the Communications & Network Engagement Director for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN).

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California Coastkeeper Alliance: An Alliance for Swimmable, Fishable, Drinkable Waters

By Sara Aminzadeh, Executive Director, California Coastkeeper Alliance

I was not a fan of group projects in school. I usually had a strong sense of how I wanted to approach and execute a presentation or paper, and I lacked the patience and good sense to listen to everyone’s input and move forward in a consensus-driven way. I imagine the feeling was mutual. At the very least, I’m certain none of my classmates who worked with me on group projects would have nominated me to author an article about partnerships.

Things changed dramatically when I started working at an environmental nonprofit organization. As an environmental advocate, you are exponentially outmatched by industries with more power and money than you have, and you are trying to reach a public that might be apathetic to your issue, feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems, and is inundated with content and information. The difficult nature of environmental advocacy is best captured in the movie Clueless when Paul Rudd’s character says he wants to pursue environmental law and his father responds, “What for? Do you want have a miserable, frustrating life?”

Indeed, the challenges that my organization, California Coastkeeper Alliance (CCKA), must address to fulfill our mission of “swimmable, fishable, drinkable” water for California communities and ecosystems are numerous, diverse, and daunting. In the past month alone, we have faced severe drought, rising sea level impacts to our coast, a ruptured pipeline and oil spill, marijuana growers using and polluting water supplies without regulation, communities running out of drinking water, and rivers that are being sucked dry and unable to support fish.

California Coastkeeper Alliance

Partnership is at the heart of CCKA, a network of twelve locally-based Waterkeeper organizations, spanning the coast from San Diego to the Oregon border. Each organization works to defend clean water based on the unique needs of their communities and watersheds. In the wild and remote Klamath Basin in Northern California, our Klamath Riverkeeper is primarily focused on restoring flows to the rivers that sustain the fish populations, and in turn the three largest tribes in California. By contrast, the San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles areas are densely developed coastlines and communities. The Waterkeepers in those areas work to keep the coast and waters clean and healthy amidst urban populations who generally produce large volumes of trash and polluted runoff.

CCKA and its member Waterkeepers work together as a highly effective state-local “place-based” partnership, focused together on the health of California’s waterways. CCKA works at the statewide level to develop programs, policies, and tools to protect water quality and provide sustainable water supplies, while local Waterkeepers mobilize their communities to leverage a grassroots voice for clean water. CCKA and local Waterkeeper organizations continually reinforce each other’s efforts by coordinating resources and pursuing jointly developed water policies that meet the needs of California’s diverse communities and ecosystems. Our structure and work together is adaptive and flexible, which allows us to quickly and effectively respond to unanticipated events. As we’ve seen with California’s unprecedented drought, the focus, scope, and resources dedicated towards core issues can shift on a moment’s (or Governor’s) notice.

Building alliances and partnerships is the only way to foster systemic change for water issues in California. In order to deal with challenges of this unprecedented scale and magnitude, we must advance solutions at those same levels.

We are also part of a larger movement – an alliance within an alliance. CCKA is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental movement with more than 250 individual programs across the United States and around the world. The thread that binds us all is an unrelenting focus on defending waters that are clean and healthy, or “swimmable, fishable, drinkable,” the goal of the Clean Water Act.

As clean water advocates, we are armed with some powerful legal and science tools to address these challenges. The citizen enforcement provision of the Clean Water Act allows us to step into the shoes of the attorney general and enforce the law against polluting facilities. Our Waterkeepers can monitor water quality, quickly determine if a water is contaminated, and often times identify the source of pollution.

The science and law is often on our side, and yet aren’t able to keep pace with well-funded opposition working to rollback and weaken environmental protections, or the urgency of the need and water scarcity crisis that we are facing. This year, we will see more rural communities run out of clean water, and witness rivers, streams and wetlands dry up, leaving fish and wildlife stranded. Climate change forecasts indicate that hotter, drier conditions will become the new normal.

Incremental improvements simply aren’t going to cut it. Big problems like the California water crisis demand big solutions. In order to advance big solutions, we need to partner up –and that is where I have invested a lot of my time and energy recently. Over the past two years, I have built two new networks to bolster the efficacy of our Alliance in addressing California’s serious water supply and water quality issues. Both coalitions are in their infancy, so I can only offer perspective on why these groups came together and what I hope we can achieve.

The first network is called the California Water Partnership and is comprised of seven organizations that have been deeply involved in efforts to protect California’s waterways, supplies, and communities for decades. Previously, work among Partnership member organizations had generally been limited to actions on specific policies or proceedings. Given the scope of the problems and the nature of their potential solutions, we realized that each organization’s efforts would benefit from a more integrated approach to advocacy, allowing for increased cooperation, coordination, and long-term planning among our groups. Critical to the ultimate success of our Partnership efforts will be the integration of each organization’s core abilities, such as the activation of grassroots bases, policy expertise, or access to key decision makers. Pooling our resources and reaching the public through powerful messaging and grassroots organizing is key to generate the necessary political pressure to counter the influence of industry lobbyists.

Ultimately, we need Californians to completely rethink their relationship with water, and demand less of our ecosystems while tapping sustainable, local resources. It’s a tall order, but I think we have built a foundation that makes us all stronger and better poised to tackle the challenges ahead. After two years, we have assembled as a formal coalition with a central hub that supports our ongoing work and is pursuing new proactive initiatives that would not be possible for any one of our groups to undertake on its own. As a cascade of new drought-related reforms, regulations, and funding measures are introduced, we are able to respond in an organized and unified fashion. Our Partnership’s success and longevity will be determined by whether we can articulate and build support for a clear and compelling vision for California’s water future.

As clean water and water scarcity issues intensify in California, the business sector is both heavily impacted and is an integral part of the solution. In our fifteen years as a network, CCKA and local Waterkeepers have often partnered with small businesses and well-known corporations, who understand that the health of California’s ocean, coast, bays, and rivers are essential to their bottom line. Seeking to build on this support while deepening the engagement on environmental issues, CCKA formally established a business partnership network with the launch of the Blue Business Council.

Inaugurated just last fall, the Blue Business Council is already off to a strong start with 30 forward-thinking companies signed on as founding members, including Patagonia, Clif Bar, and Klean Kanteen. This partnership has served as a critical platform for businesses that share a clean water ethic, and has allowed CCKA to leverage the professional expertise and resources of these businesses to influence water quality policies. Not only does the Blue Business Council highlight how diverse sectors of the economy benefit from sustainable water policies, but also it greatly expands the constituency of environmental defenders. Most recently, this collaboration successfully championed the adoption of a strong, precedent-setting statewide policy that will reduce plastics in the ocean, and stop the flow of trash to California beaches and waters.

Trash is accumulating in California’s waters and on its beaches at an alarming rate. Before a few months ago, California had no statewide guidance on how local governments should reduce the amount of trash that flows into its waters. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to present the Blue Business Council’s first statement to decision makers at the California Water Board as they voted to adopt a new statewide Trash Policy. The statement briefly described why “trash-free waters are good for business,” and was signed by 25 California businesses on the Blue Business Council. The Trash Policy was adopted and set a national precedent. Just a few weeks later, a state legislator introduced a bill attempting to overturn the new Trash Policy. Thanks, in part, to a strong showing of business support, the bill was quickly defeated. As we aim to advance large-scale reforms to ensure clean water, the Council will effectively demonstrate to legislators and regulators that there is a clear economic interest in sustainable water management strategies and policies.

For many in the nonprofit realm, working with partners or coalitions is a no brainer. We must make progress on causes that feel important and urgent with extremely limited resources. And oftentimes, you need a number of different groups and interests around the table to develop and execute a workable solution.

On the other hand, I have encountered many individuals and organizations that are uncomfortable with partnerships, just like I was with group school projects. Working to advance any cause—civil rights, education, poverty, or the environment, can be a deeply personal pursuit, one that you aren’t willing or able to share freely with colleagues you don’t yet know or trust. And, of course, organizations work hard to define their unique niche and value-add to their networks, including funders, members, media, and decision-makers. Partnerships often require that you relinquish control, branding, and ownership or control over a work product or campaign.

Building alliances and partnerships is the only way to foster systemic change for water issues in California. In order to deal with challenges of this unprecedented scale and magnitude, we must advance solutions at those same levels. Despite increasing public awareness and decision-maker interest and dialogue about our state’s water challenges, the complexity and scale of changes needed will make it challenging to implement solutions. Securing California’s water future is a task too immense and too important to leave to any one individual organization or sector.

Sara Aminzadeh, California Coastkeeper AllianceSara Aminzadeh directs California Coastkeeper Alliance (CCKA) initiatives to protect and defend California’s ocean, bays, and rivers, including CCKA’s new Blue Business Council initiative, and the California Water Partnership, a coalition dedicated to securing a sustainable and equitable water future for California through the adoption and implementation of the principles and practices of integrated water management. Sara developed CCKA’s climate change adaptation program, and recently authored a chapter Rising to the Challenge: California Climate Change Adaptation in the 2014 Oxford University textbook, Climate Change Impacts on Ocean and Coastal Law. Sara holds a B.A. in environmental studies and political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

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Proving It: Splash’s Tech Leadership

Interview with Kathleen Lendvay, Director of Operations, Splash

Fast Facts

Splash logo

  • # Years established: 8
  • # Splash staff members: 65
  • # Countries with Splash presence: 8
  • # Children served (2014): 300,000
  • Annual budget (2014): $2.5 million

Q: Access to safe water is an issue that impacts so many people in countries around the world. Why is Splash working in the eight countries that it does?
Our social justice perspective drives our mission, but the hard choices of where to work are really based on the reality of finite resources and the need to find the best return on investment – in our case, the greatest impact for as many kids as possible. Splash works in cities with the largest concentrations of the poorest urban children with the worst water quality. This philosophy also drives our emphasis on scalability, because we can have a greater impact by achieving 100% coverage in a city like Kolkata, India than if we had spotty coverage throughout the country.

Q: Can you share more about Splash’s approach and interventions to create access to safe water?
Our core mission is clean water for kids, but our work includes aspects of the entire WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sphere. We install high-volume water purification systems in children’s institutions (schools, orphanages, hospitals, and rescue homes) and combine these with hygiene education, 10 years of maintenance, and collaboration with local government and school officials to improve sanitation at the sites where we work. Our system has three distinct elements of filtration: ultrafiltration (0.015 microns), carbon, and ultraviolet light. Splash’s system can filter contaminated water at a rate of 10 gallons per minute, which is truly unique among water NGOs.

Q: How do you measure your impact? What does success look like in your organization?
Our impact, our successes, and even our mistakes are publicly available on a transparency platform we developed called Proving It. We collect data upfront to establish a baseline, then again upon intervention, post-intervention, and provide ongoing monitoring of behavior change around hygiene, knowledge, and management of school WASH facilities.

Our impact, our successes, and even our mistakes are publicly available on a transparency platform we developed called Proving It.

Long-term, and aside from individual metrics, our view of success lies in our ability to build or partner with local businesses that will eventually assume responsibility for our safe water projects. Once a handover is complete, Splash will exit each country – leaving 100% coverage of targeted establishments and enabling long-term sustainability. This influences our approach from day 1 in each country where we work, so all of our international offices are completely staffed with local talent, including country directors.

Q: Tell us more about the proving.it site where you share your successes and failures. Why did Splash choose to display its work in this manner?
As described in a 2012 NTEN article (before we changed our name from A Child’s Right to Splash), Proving.it was developed to do just what the name suggests – to provide photos and data that show the status and results of every site. Anyone can view detailed information for each site (zoom in using a map view or a list), such as photographs, maintenance and monitoring logs, water quality test results, and hygiene training records. The site also includes stories of our occasional failures, and what we learned from them. Ideally our mistakes are few and far between, and we should be making different ones each time, not repeating the same ones! As Splash grows, we’re investigating additional tools to enhance external access to our data even beyond what we already do.

Q: Splash has a team that works in eight countries around the world – how does your team stay connected?
Our regional program managers are in constant communication with country directors and team members for their regions, and serve as key liaisons back to the rest of the organization. Individual teams (such as the hygiene team, which includes a manager here in Seattle and team members throughout our offices) collaborate regularly through tools like Basecamp and Dropbox. We recently initiated monthly calls among all country directors to share information, enhance collaboration across regions, and as a forum for discussing and gathering input on organization-wide initiatives and processes. In Seattle, our office has an open floor plan to make communication particularly easy. We’re all well within hollering distance (or a skillful throw of a paper airplane)!

Q: What tools do you use to stay connected with your team?
We use several video, phone, and virtual meeting tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Rabbi.it (and a little red phone booth built into our office for this purpose)! Given the necessity of working some odd hours due to time zone differences, we also provide laptops and flexible work hours so that calls can be done from home or other remote locations. In the field, our Monitoring & Evaluation team uses smartphones and tablets to enter data during site visits (often in areas without Internet access), and their updates are uploaded automatically the next time they have an Internet connection. We also use Basecamp and Asana for various types of project management, and Slack for team chat rooms. For email, calendars, and document reference we use Microsoft Office 365, including SharePoint.

We also know that every tool, no matter how well designed, consumes some time and energy; and we’re very aware that with technology, you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. Even for something that’s “free” we force ourselves to ruthlessly prioritize! 

Q: Anything else that you’d like to share that we didn’t ask?
One of the challenges in this highly connected, digital era is to avoid the “shiny object” phenomenon of workplace technology. We sometimes find ourselves tempted by a product that does something a little bit better than what we already use, or a tool that just seems really cool (especially if it’s free or comes with a significant nonprofit discount). But we also know that every tool, no matter how well designed, consumes some time and energy; and we’re very aware that with technology, you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. Even for something that’s “free” we force ourselves to ruthlessly prioritize!

Kathleen Lendvay, SplashKathleen Lendvay is Director of Operations at Splash. Prior to joining Splash, she spent 18 years in management consulting and technology. Kathleen particularly enjoys bringing best practices and concepts from a variety of industries to benefit Splash’s mission, and was drawn to Splash’s emphasis on scale and transparency. Her work experience includes executive team and board level strategic planning and facilitation, technology planning and implementation, and organizational effectiveness.

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Going Global: Humane Society International

Interview with Polly Shannon, Director of Marketing and Communications, Humane Society International

Fast Facts

Humane Society International logo

  • # HSI staff members: 187, including part time and consultants
  • # Countries with HSI presence: 56
  • # Animals treated, rescued (2014): 67,000 animals
  • Annual budget (2014): $7 million

As more organizations seek to expand their operations worldwide, it is critical to understand the implications of “going global” in regards to your nonprofit’s online presence: from online fundraising to advocacy, email marketing, and more. In this interview with Polly Shannon, Director of Marketing & Communications for the Humane Society International (HSI), we learn more about HSI’s experience and her advice for nonprofits considering a similar expansion. 

Q: What is the impetus behind Humane Society International’s global expansion? How were countries determined and how are you assessing that going forward?

In 1991, Humane Society International (HSI) was incorporated as a small offshoot of The Humane Society of the United States. With only a handful of staffers at headquarters in Washington, DC, their mission was bold: to work on behalf of animals around the world. To be successful, they engaged like-minded individuals to advocate in their home countries. At the same time, we began building a network of country entities. Only one from them survived from that era – HSI Australia, which opened in 1994 and continues to grow and prosper as a separate entity.

Humane Society International - online appeal page
With the technical and strategic expertise of our partners at Grassriots, HSI’s donation pages seamlessly accept gifts in multiple currencies. When a currency is selected, the suggested gift amounts will convert to a customized range. In this example, British pounds were selected.

Designed to engage people worldwide on global animal concerns and issues specific to animals in their region, HSI’s approach has always been to combine our efforts from both the policy and program fronts. This approach was a driving force behind our growth in world markets.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we expanded our hands-on program work to include street dog welfare – now a signature campaign for HSI – and disaster response. Also during this time, HSI and The HSUS launched a joint campaign against Canada’s commercial seal slaughter, another signature campaign.

With a growing focus on work out of Canada and elsewhere, we established offices in Canada, Costa Rica, and the United Kingdom in the mid 2000’s. We also began to lay the groundwork for affiliates in India and Europe.

With the streamlining of management structure, an international strategic plan was developed and implemented to enhance the existing strengths and expertise of HSI.

HSI watched as The HSUS launched its online program in 2004. Following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, their online fundraising exploded.

  • In 2006/2007, HSI launched its global online communications program around the compelling programs of HSI.
  • We built our email file from third party acquisition, chaperoned emails, and organic growth – tell-a-friend and other share mechanisms.
  • With the offices staffed and actively campaigning, we also launched online programs in Canada and the UK to address country-specific campaign needs.
Humane Society International - online appeal page
Once a country is selected, local giving options are available. In this example, United Kingdom is selected as the country, and payment options include direct debit, a popular giving method in the UK. The Gift Aid option is also offered. Gift Aid is a government program that allows charities to claim the basic rate tax on every pound donated.

Where we are today
We continue to revise and refine our strategic vision, and today with fully developed campaigns protecting animals worldwide – from farm animals to animals in research labs, wildlife to companion animals (street dogs, animal rescue), and more – market research and fundraising opportunities are key to expansion plans. And we believe we’re primed for growth and are excited about broadening our international presence.

Our organizational focus is in countries where we already operate offices and actively fundraise, specifically the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, as well as Latin America, Europe, Mexico, and India.

HSI’s campaigns are global and regional/country-specific, but all of our digital channels – email, social, web, online advertising – are managed by the online team based in the United States. A few highlights of our current activity:

  • This year, we’re investing more in digital than ever before, with an emphasis on acquisition through third party channels, and we’re seeing good results.
  • We also were excited to launch our Spanish-language program within the past year that already has seen an increase of 60 percent in just 10 months, mainly through Spanish-language Facebook posts and advertising.
  • As for most organizations, Facebook continues to play a vital role in our overall strategy because it allows us to target by geography, language, and interests. That’s key to expanding and engaging our international fan base.

Our online team didn’t get this far alone; we needed expert advice on technology, strategy, and implementation to help us grow. Our partners have been vital to the process.

  • We had to have a technology platform that was right for international fundraising and advocacy. We forged a lasting partnership with Engaging Networks so we can fundraise in multiple currencies and allow our supporters to contact their elected officials directly – wherever they are.
  • Toronto-based Grassriots is the engine behind the success of our online donation pages and action alerts – they’re responsive, easy to use, sharp looking, and high performing to maximize donations and actions. The donation pages are deceivingly simple looking, but complex on the back end to allow a seamless giving experience for our donors in multiple currencies.
  • Our strategy partners at hjc, also Toronto-based, were there with us for the early years to help us develop a comprehensive online program that really set the pace for our growth. As we began to look outside the borders of where we traditionally were focused, they also led the effort through market research that guided us in next steps.

Q: Considerations for online fundraising globally – what does it take to accept international donations?

In the online world at HSI, we fundraise globally, with supporters around the world. We’re not restricted by where we’re incorporated, where we’re a registered entity, or where the work is happening.

Expanding your donation program internationally has many implications on the design and operation of your forms. Understanding the unique requirements of every new market you enter is a crucial first step, so we look at currencies, languages, payment methods, and more. Once we have answers, we determine which of the available payment gateways supports the currency and payment methods we require, as well as single and recurring transaction types.

In the online world at HSI, we fundraise globally, with supporters around the world. We’re not restricted by where we’re incorporated, where we’re a registered entity, or where the work is happening.

Our eCRM platform Engaging Networks allows us the flexibility to redirect transactions through a selection of gateways, depending on the user’s location, currency, or preferred method of payment. This simplifies the development of our forms, so we avoid having to create multiple versions per country or currency. Our development partners at Grassriots were able to reduce this to a single form.

Factors to consider:

  • Are your online donation pages optimized to accept multiple currencies, offer customary payment methods, and tax incentives (when possible)?
  • Can your payment processor handle single and recurring credit card transactions in multiple currencies?
  • Do you offer payment methods like Electronic Funds Transfer, Automated Clearing House, Direct Debit, and other preferred options? Monthly giving is very much the norm outside the U.S., but not using these options and not credit cards.
  • Do you need separate merchant accounts for each legal entity?
  • Is the GiftAid declaration an option for your UK donors? To offer customary options like this, you need to be a registered entity in a particular country with a local bank account.

Q: For nonprofit organizations that are considering an international expansion, can you share some key lessons learned?

HSI is still largely a work in progress, and we’re only now starting a truly comprehensive and integrated approach to expansion. But here are some takeaways we’ve learned on the digital side:

  • Find the right partners to help you with technology, strategy, and implementation
  • Be willing to invest what it takes, particularly in digital acquisition. Sometimes the break-even point will take longer than you would like, but let long term net and ROI serve as your guide.
  • While patience is a virtue, it’s also a deterrent to getting ahead. Be strategic. Be decisive. If the rewards outweigh the risks, take action.
  • If you have any say in the matter, make sure the right staff is leading the expansion wagon. Regardless, insert yourself where it makes sense, offer advice about what happens through your channels.

*This is from our hands-on work of spay/neuter/vaccinate of street dogs around the world; animal rescue from disaster, manmade and natural; interception of trucks smuggling dogs for the dog meat trade in China; that sort of thing. This doesn’t include our policy work to protect wildlife (fighting illegal wildlife trafficking), farm animals (fight factory farming), lab animals (end animal testing).

Polly Shannon, HSIPolly Shannon is director of marketing and communications for the Humane Society International (HSI). She and her team are responsible for online strategy for email, social, web, and marketing, as well as international media relations.

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TerraCycle: How Nonprofits Can Outsmart Waste and Raise Funds Doing It

Interview with Emily Dinan, Senior Account Manager, TerraCycle


Every organization, no matter how eco-conscious, produces waste. Hard to recycle products, such as pens and food wrappers, often go into the landfill waste bin as there are few other options available. What can nonprofits do to be greener about their everyday practices? With capacity and resources spread thin already at nonprofits, how can you make it worth your while?

We interviewed Emily Dinan, Senior Account Manager at TerraCycle, a company that was founded to provide free waste collection programs for hard to recycle materials, and turns them into affordable green products. In this interview, we learn more about how nonprofits can work with TerraCycle to turn waste into donations.

Q: Tell us about TerraCycle and your role in the organization.
Founded in 2001, TerraCycle, Inc., is a world leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, ranging from used chip bags to coffee capsules to cigarette butts. The waste is collected through free, national, brand-funded platforms called Brigades, as well as various consumer and government-funded models. The collected waste is reused, upcycled, or recycled into a variety of affordable, sustainable consumer products and industrial applications. Each year, across 21 countries, TerraCycle collects and repurposes billions of pieces of waste, donating millions of dollars to schools and charities in the process. TerraCycle is the subject of a new half-hour reality TV show, ‘Human Resources,’ on Pivot TV. Season two airs August 2015.

As a Senior Account Manager at TerraCycle, I manage our relationships with the major CPG brands that fund our recycling programs. I serve as the liaison between TerraCycle and the companies whose products produce the waste we are trying to divert from landfills and incinerators. TerraCycle is a unique, creative place to work. It draws a quirky mix of people dedicated to the mission of outsmarting waste. Even though the company is over ten years old and rapidly growing, we still maintain the startup feel with an open office floor plan, graffiti covered walls, and “five minute fit” where the whole office drops down to do pushups throughout the day.

TerraCycle Office
TerraCycle’s offices in Trenton, NJ are made entirely from recycled and re purposed materials.

Q: What are some social/environmental practices you have adopted within your organization? How has technology played a role?
At TerraCycle, we practice what we preach with a zero waste policy at the office. Everything in our offices, from the carpet to the walls to our computers, is repurposed waste. Our desks are old doors, the walls are made from soda bottles, and the carpet is pieced together from scraps. We have boxes set up in the office to collect over 40 different waste streams. Employees bring in their trash from home to put in the collection bins so the material is recycled. TerraCycle also composts all organic waste.

TerraCycle Center
TerraCycle partners with major consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to make their packaging nationally recyclable.

Q: You have more than 40 brigade programs to take care of waste ranging from food packaging to office supplies, can you share more about how this works, and how these programs are set up?
TerraCycle’s Brigade programs are free recycling platforms for previously non-recyclable or difficult-to-recycle waste. Individuals, schools, businesses, or community organizations go onto TerraCycle’s website and browse the various waste streams. Once you’ve selected a few to collect, sign up for the Brigade and start collecting the “accepted waste” for that program. Some Brigades, such as the Personal Care and Beauty Brigade, accept a wide variety of items. Others, such as the Cigarette Waste Brigade, accept only a single waste stream. Once you are ready to send the waste to TerraCycle, simply print out a free shipping label from the website and mail it in. We encourage participants to send it in a recycled box. The coolest part is that for each piece of waste you send us, you will be credited TerraCycle points. Those points can be redeemed for a check to the school or nonprofit of your choice. It’s a great way to rethink garbage and fundraise for important causes.

Q: When you receive this waste, what happens next?
When a box of waste is sent to TerraCycle, it is checked in and weighed at one of our regional check in facilities. The waste is then sorted by material type and aggregated until we reach the critical mass needed to process. From there, about 95% of the material TerraCycle collects is recycled. This process includes shredding the material and then either extrusion or compression molding it into a new product. While a majority of the waste collected is recycled, TerraCycle upcycles some material into funky products like tote bags and pencil cases. A small percent of the collected material is separated for reuse, but this is reserved to electronic waste, paired shoes, and a few other waste streams.

Q: How can nonprofits get involved in your work?
TerraCycle has a Strategic Partnerships department that is dedicated to partnering with nonprofits. The easiest way for a nonprofit to be involved is to start collecting for a Brigade in your office. Participants in our programs are automatically enrolled in the Points Program. For each qualified piece of waste you send to TerraCycle, we award your account with two TerraCycle points. Those two points can be redeemed for a $0.02 payment to the charity or school of your choice, or you can select from a range of charity gifts, such as providing meals, planting trees, protecting endangered lands, gifting farm animals, or providing fresh drinking water. Nonprofits can also request to be listed as one of the charity gifts on the website, and other TerraCycle participants can choose to allocate their points to support your cause.

Q: Can you share any success stories from the points program?
TerraCycle frequently highlights top collectors for each Brigade program and the school or charity their collections support. Most TerraCycle points are redeemed for checks to schools. We’ve found that elementary schools use our collection programs as a way to teach about recycling and raise funds for new classroom materials or after-school initiatives. Save Our Shores is a great example of a nonprofit that utilizes the TerraCycle Points Program to raise funds to continue their beach cleanup efforts.

Q: What is your advice to nonprofits on how to create sustainable change in their office?
We have found that it is all about clear messaging and signage. When I talk to companies about bringing their office to zero waste, the first response is always that people are intimidated or confused. Setting up collection bins that clearly display the acceptable and unacceptable waste easily mitigates this. Keep America Beautiful is doing excellent work with proper labeling and education, particularly the “I want to be recycled” campaign. Therefore, I recommend instituting change slowly and with very clear direction. Changing behavior is incredibly challenging, so make it as easy as possible to encourage participation at the office.

Emily Dinan, TerraCycleEmily Dinan is a Senior Account Manager on the Client Services team at TerraCycle and serves as the key point person for over thirteen recycling programs.

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About the NTEN: Change journal

NTEN established NTEN: Change in 2011 to address the strategic and practical considerations nonprofit leadership staff and board members need to make in order to make sound investments and effective planning decisions that will help their nonprofit organizations achieve their missions.

Learn more about the NTEN: Change journal:

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