Creating Technology for Nonprofits

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Watch an October 29, 2020 community call discussing how the guide was created and how you can use it in your organization.

Nonprofits, funders, and technology vendors each create technologies that nonprofits use. These tools are sometimes designed specifically for the nonprofit sector or even for niche mission types, including grantmakers. Still, many technologies nonprofits use today were not built with them or their communities in mind. Ultimately, the technologies nonprofits use come with bias from those who created it and the anticipated original customer. Consequently, the data nonprofits collect and rely on, how nonprofits communicate or interact with constituents, and even how they deliver programs or accept donations may be filtered through a commercial lens that does not reflect the unique needs, expectations, or care appropriate for nonprofit work.

The term “provider” is primarily used in this section to highlight that all kinds of organizations are responsible for driving technology in the nonprofit sector, including nonprofits, funders, and vendors. These guidelines are relevant to corporations, social enterprises, small companies, and nonprofits who create, implement, and support technology.

Sales & Marketing

Follow Ethical Sales Guidelines

Nonprofit organizations are providing critical community services. When selling to nonprofits, prioritize the needs and use cases of their work over sales. Help organizations avoid unnecessary or unsuccessful expenditures.

  • Sales processes should be mutually beneficial. The provider should discuss their approach and strengths and weaknesses openly so that the organization can make an informed decision (even if it costs the sale).
  • Providers should be clear about the breakdown of pricing and educate organizations about individual components. There should be transparency in what is included as-is versus what is an add-on feature at additional costs. Providers should support nonprofits in removing unnecessary components (even if that decreases the sale size).
  • Providers and nonprofits should define and work through a list of use cases. Providers should be transparent if their solution cannot meet some of these needs or only do so at additional cost.
  • Providers should be clear about which features are upcoming, partially available, or only available with additional customization. Be transparent and honest about your upcoming roadmap and timeline.
  • Transparency is required for financial kickback and incentive agreements. Nonprofits must understand the potential conflict of interest in selecting the recommended vendors or consultants.
  • Providers should be transparent about what kinds of nonprofits they will and will not sell or donate to (the type of nonprofit, budget, issue area, affiliation, constituency, etc.).
  • Providers should be transparent about their attitude, policies, and enforcement against the sale of its products and services to hate groups as identified in any given country.
  • Nonprofits selling technology created to support their services should frequently and intentionally confront the tension between the need for earned revenue and the need for as many nonprofits to benefit as possible.
  • Nonprofits should consider the relative merits of providing free open source solutions versus selling fully supported solutions to the nonprofit community.

Prioritize Community Outcomes

Relationships between nonprofits and technology or service providers should always prioritize the nonprofit’s outcome and community impact.

  • Providers should take care that sales goals do not incentivize the selling of unnecessary services. Similarly, the sales process should also support representatives in spending the necessary energy helping nonprofits get what they need.
  • Together, nonprofits and providers should consider the long-term sustainability of the solution, including whether the organization can sustain the system’s cost or effort over time.

Price Equitably

Most nonprofit organizations have less access to capital than for-profit organizations. Even within the nonprofit sector, there is a significant difference in the ability to pay.  Products and services should be accessible to as many organizations as possible.

  • Providers that do not work exclusively with the nonprofit sector should offer nonprofit pricing. Nonprofit pricing, license comparisons, and key delivery tiers should be clearly and publicly visible on the website, not up to each nonprofit’s negotiating power.
  • Different sizes and types of nonprofits have differing levels of access to capital. Consider creative but transparent pricing models to make the offered services accessible to as wide an array of organizations as possible.
  • Consider that the same systemic oppression impacts nonprofit institutions as individuals. Organizations led by Black, Indigenous, queer, disabled, and other people with marginalized experiences are likely to have less funding, which should factor into pricing. Consider how pricing can help alleviate systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic oppression.

Understand the Provider Customer Base

The broad customer base of providers should be available to organizations. Organizations should make decisions accordingly.

  • Providers should be honest and transparent about the extent and nature of their experience in the nonprofit sector. The general types and size of nonprofit clients should be disclosed. For-profit and nonprofit experiences are different.
  • Providers should be transparent when products were designed specifically for the nonprofit sector, and when nonprofits will need to adapt products intended for other industries.

Be Intentional With Pro Bono Services

Pro bono services should be used carefully. Free products and services can be a powerful way to make solutions accessible to nonprofits. However, pro-bono projects risk unsustainable or incomplete solutions.

  • Clearly state (but do not inflate) the value of pro bono services so that nonprofits can decide if the approach is sustainable over time.
  • Be transparent about the pro bono approach and staffing. Inform organizations if new or inexperienced staff are slated to work on pro bono projects. Be clear if the pro bono services do not match the same full-cost service.
  • Understand that nonprofit business processes are frequently nuanced, complex, and require a specialized understanding of their relationship to mission-driven outcomes. Technology deployments to nonprofits can fail if driven from a purely commercial perspective. As much as possible, use a project process and staffing that is identical between pro bono and paid services.

Nonprofit Expertise

Staffing & Project Team Membership

Ensure that projects are staffed with individuals who can support nonprofit organizations properly.

  • Do not staff nonprofit projects with inexperienced employees to save money, or with employees who will require first learning standard nonprofit business processes and practices.
  • Make implementation teams diverse. These teams can better partner with nonprofits in creating change.
  • If you market your organization as having nonprofit expertise, staff projects with those experts.
  • Be transparent about the expertise of team members.

Build Nonprofit Specific Expertise and Pricing

The nonprofit sector is unique, not a lesser version of the for-profit sector. Providing products and services in the nonprofit sector requires specific skills.

  • Providers who consider nonprofits a target sector should invest in building the necessary nonprofit expertise across their internal teams. Be transparent if this experience is not in-house.
  • Providers without the necessary nonprofit experience should discount their services or pay nonprofit clients to compensate organizations for their time educating the provider. A nonprofit should not pay both for implementation and educating the software provider.

Implementation Process

Embrace Nonprofit Diversity

Many nonprofits do not have a full time IT staff. Many nonprofits also have organizational cultures that prioritize values and community involvement that make processes slower than a corporate technology timeline. Cultural humility is required when supporting organizations with cultures that differ from corporate norms.

  • Do not assume technology expertise or staff. Avoid jargon and check for understanding without assumptions or judgment. Plan to educate staff as a core function of the implementation work with nonprofits.
  • Use inclusive meeting facilitation and project management practices to ensure all voices are heard.

Support Intentional Nonprofit Project Management

Nonprofit organizations often do not have technology-specific implementation expertise. Providers should take care to support nonprofits through careful project management practices.

  • Projects should include a budget for project management. This budget should include internal staff time to ensure the demand for those staff is fair.
  • Providers should make clear when nonprofits are blocking further action.
  • Providers should establish clear responsibilities for action, decision-making, approval, and communication for each task.
  • Nonprofits should regularly be provided with an accounting of hours and costs against the project timeline.
  • Changes that will impact the timeline or cost of the project should be documented.

Implement With the Staff and Community

Nonprofit technology projects will not succeed if only the technology team and senior leadership are involved. Projects should include staff from all areas of the organization. Projects with a constituent-facing component (through direct access or data collection) should consist of community members.

  • Providers should require and support the formation of representative project teams within nonprofits.
  • Care should be taken to address power dynamics in project decision-making between leadership and staff, and between staff and community members.
  • Constituents (and other non-staff participants) should be compensated at a comparable rate to nonprofit staff.

Treat Projects as an Ongoing Process

Technology projects are living processes. Organizations and providers should assume that changes and support will be necessary after implementation. Organizations should be provided as many opportunities as possible to review and provide feedback during implementation.

  • Providers and organizations should plan and budget for the support and changes inevitably needed after every go-live. Providers should be transparent about the ongoing costs and support needs of a given solution.
  • For larger projects, an implementation should be divided into multiple phases. This allows for frequent and early reviews of the project. Based on these reviews, organizations should be permitted to adjust the scope or end the project and pay only costs to date.

Product Focus

Prioritize Accessibility

Providers should make their products, materials, and training inclusive and accessible.

  • Make products and training materials accessible to individuals with auditory, visual, physical, and other disabilities. Prioritizing accessibility creates a world that is easier for everyone to thrive in — regardless of disability.
  • Meeting facilitation, training, and other interactions should consider different learning styles and neurodiversity.
  • Open-source solutions should be provided with detailed documentation and, when possible, community or paid support options. Many organizations that could benefit from open-source solutions do not have developers on staff.
  • Constituent-facing tools should consider access to technology, the internet, and other wealth-driven supports.

Own Product Impact

Providers should take some responsibility for building tools that provide the best chance of positive community impact. Ensure tools encourage equitable nonprofit program delivery.

  • Include the community and build with equity in mind when designing products and creating default workflows.
  • Add features that support the equity standards laid out for nonprofit organizations in this document.
  • Consider and work to limit the harmful uses of products, including surveillance, misuse of personal data, or aiding harmful institutions’ actions.
  • Consider the bias of AI deployed in products.
  • Use product language that is accessible to more than economically comfortable white people. Avoid coded racist language like “black and white” or “master/slave.”

Simplify Data Access & Sharing

A nonprofit’s data belongs to it and its constituents. Vendors should make that data easily accessible so that nonprofits can share with funders or other organizations when necessary.

  • Nonprofits should be able to extract all of their data or reports without additional fees. Where they exist, nonprofits should be given access to APIs and other tools for data portability without extra cost.
  • Providers should have clear policies about data storage with current nonprofit customers and how that data is destroyed after nonprofits are no longer customers. These policies should be provided and discussed with nonprofits before they begin their use of the technologies.
  • Providers should make data export and sharing options flexible enough that nonprofits can easily share data with and between other nonprofits and with funders.

Prioritize Security

Nonprofit organizations often must meet security needs far more complex than their organization size would suggest. Providers should provide tools and training to support the security of nonprofit data.

  • Providers handling (or providing tools that will handle) sensitive data should pay for and publish external audits of their products and data handling practices regularly. The depth of these audits should depend on the size of the vendor and the data’s sensitivity.
  • Providers primarily serving nonprofits with constituents concerned about government surveillance should consider zero-trust security to ensure community members’ safety.
  • Providers should not charge extra fees for necessary security precautions like two-factor authentication or SAML integration.
  • Providers should incorporate security training into their general curriculum (as it relates to their systems).
  • Providers should be transparent about the geographic region their data will be stored. When vendors have a server presence in multiple regions, nonprofits should be able to select the region of the servers that store their data.