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Six Ways Nonprofits Can Leverage Technology Investments

Eugene Chan

As you think about how to grow technology capacity and recognize that increased fundraising will be a key part of that growth, think creatively about ways to leverage resources you already have at hand to lay the foundation for an effective and compelling technology request to funders. Here are six different ideas nonprofits can use as starting points.

1. Be your own lead technology funder

Often, foundations may not be ready to be the lead or sole supporter of a technology project. But without that first funding partner, how do you establish track record and credibility?

If your organization has the financial wherewithal, consider devoting a onetime portion of your budget to a technology project for your organization. In short, make a technology grant to yourself. Here are the steps:

  • Outline the problem and state why technology makes sense as a solution.
  • Plan and develop a proposal (including a realistic budget and timeline).
  • Review the proposal and challenge its assumptions (if you can, ask a nontech staff person, a board member, or even a current funder to help in this review).
  • Make the decision to fund (or not) and set measurable objectives for evaluating success.

If you can say that you invested in your own technology in this manner with deliberation and forethought, funders are more likely to be convinced to commit resources to the effort. And undergoing such a process may enable you to better anticipate issues of concern that a program officer may raise when you submit the actual proposal for funding.


2. Support training for accidental techies

Think about contacting funders for resources to provide classes, training stipends, or scholarships for accidental techies. Accidental techies rarely have the opportunity to receive formalized training in helpdesk support, database management, network administration, or in any of the areas outlined in ["The Accidental Techie"].

These days, numerous learning options (in-person and online) are available, especially in the information technology arena. Classes tackling every conceivable aspect of technology are offered through local colleges or specialized for-profit and nonprofit training providers. Attending technology conferences is a great way for techies to compress learning into a short period of time and to meet other techies as well. Online classes, or e-learning, are an option that avoids the travel and time constraints of classroom-based learning.

Given the quickly changing nature of technology, investing in the skills of accidental techies can be a low-cost investment that yields a high return. With this strategy, you may be able to tap into "education"-focused funders, rather than just "technology" funders.


3. Map critical technology functions to program functions

Examine your organization's critical administrative and program functions and how technology helps you to carry out these functions. You can do this simply in a word processor as a table, or, for the more visually oriented, it could be graphically mapped out in a diagram. We suggest this as a good exercise to do during a staff retreat or strategic planning session where the entire staff can participate in mapping out these technology linkages.

For example, such a map may lay out the need that communications (which includes outreach and development functions) has for a robust contact database, individual e-mail addresses for staff, and a regularly updated Web site. The map would outline who is responsible for maintaining the applications, the content, and the required technology each person needs to perform their responsibilities.

Not only is this a good strategic planning tool for management, it serves as a handy way for organizations to document to funders just how integrated the technology functions are in your nonprofit's operations and programs. It can also be the precursor to a full-fledged technology plan. Just as organizational charts can provide clarity between staff positions and program functions, a technology function map will serve to explicitly link your information technology infrastructure to your nonprofit's organizational capacity.


4. Use nonprofit technology assistance providers

If your organization has utilized the products, services, or assistance of technology-focused nonprofit technical assistance providers (NTAPs) -- CompuMentor, NPower, the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN), and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services come to mind -- in essence, you have reaped the benefits of grants made by funders who care about technology and nonprofits.

Visit online technology providers such as TechSoup or Gifts in Kind for non-profit-priced technology. Collectively, NTAPs are an effective way to contract for technology consulting, obtain quality training, and acquire affordable technology (especially software).

In addition to NTAPs, explore local alternative technology support resources such as established community technology centers, circuit rider programs, or college internship programs, to augment the technology ability of your organization.


5. Understand the total cost of ownership of technology

Say you are shopping for a new car. You've bought and read automobile magazines, read online reviews, and visited dealers. You know exactly how much you can spend. Beyond the sticker price, an informed car buyer will also weigh factors such as fuel mileage, insurance premiums, and car reliability when deciding whether a car is affordable. Wouldn't you? Now, what if we applied this thinking to technology investment as well?

This is what total cost of ownership (TCO) does and why it can serve as a useful guide for nonprofits and funders alike. A concept pioneered in the corporate sector, TCO refers to anticipating all costs associated with the deployment of technology: equipment, software, ongoing maintenance, troubleshooting, and even staff downtime resulting from technology failures.

A suggested TCO guideline is that for every $100 in your technology budget, spend no more than $30 on the equipment purchase and reserve $70 for support and maintenance. More abstractly, anticipate that 70 percent of the technology budget will go to the costs associated with ongoing maintenance, upgrades, unanticipated downtime, and troubleshooting of technology.

For nonprofits, applying a TCO rule of thumb enables you to plan for growth of technology support resources that is consistent with your organization's growth. For technology funders, understanding the TCO of a project is an important measure of understanding how a nonprofit has planned for the sustainability of technology after the purchase has been made.


6. Share knowledge and resources

While each nonprofit has a unique mission and constituency, the experiences and challenges that face accidental techies lie along roads well traveled by other individuals and organizations. Consult with other nonprofits to see whether they would be willing to exchange copies of technology plans or funding proposals with you. Or check with a local nonprofit technology assistance provider who might have sample templates or worksheets.

Without copying, seek to learn and benefit from their insight, planning, and approach to technology. Actively ask and answer questions. Adapt and apply (with permission and acknowledgement) what you can to your own organization and technology systems. And if you ever find yourself with an opportunity to share information or resources that would benefit another organization, especially in the realm of technology, do so with good cheer and a helping hand.

[There are many] important roles that accidental techies can play in resource development and fundraising, such as helping to document the value of technology and preparation of technology-related proposal plans and budgets. Because technology funding is still a relatively small portion of overall giving by foundations, apply all the tools and evidence you can to make the case to your current and potential funders for the effectiveness of a technology investment in your organization.

Don't forget to be an ambassador for the value of technology resources and investment. Whether the end result is better communications, improved data analysis, or a more dynamic Web site, if you believe in the promise and potential of technology, evangelize ways that grantmakers and grant seekers can reap the benefits of technology.


Editor's Note:

This is the second part of an excerpt written by Eugene Chan, taken from CompassPoint's "The Accidental Techie," by Sue Bennett. To read the first part of the excerpt, see How Technology is Funded: The Basics on TechSoup. To purchase a copy of Bennett's book, visit CompassPoint's online bookstore.

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