How to Do More With Less: Directing IT at a Nonprofit

How to Do More With Less: Directing IT at a Nonprofit

The nonprofit sector comes with its fair share of challenges: limited resources, uncertain funding, regulations, tax reform, et al. Perhaps none of these is more underrated than technology/software concerns (which did crack the top five in this 2018 nonprofit benchmark survey).

Why ‘underrated?’  Simple. Although frugal budgeting is, of course, essential to nonprofit management, modern information technology has the potential to radically transform a nonprofit’s future prospects.  The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network found some telling trends:

  • Nearly 90% of nonprofits agree—technology has helped them reach more people.
  • 95% of nonprofits believe they are better able to achieve their mission because of a recent technology project.

IT solutions for nonprofits are brimming with cost-effective, automated tools that streamline the daily workflow and empower lean organizations.  And yet, nonprofits continue to underinvest in technology. The Fairfield County Community Foundation calls this “The Nonprofit Technology Paradox.” Among other findings, their report revealed that:

  • Most nonprofits (55%) had either no budget for information technology or less than $5,000  annually.
  • Most nonprofits (53%) also had a total operating budget of over $1 million (and 87% were over $250,000).

The takeaway of the research is obvious: by and large, nonprofits are “directing maximum funding to their program work rather than investing in their own information technology.” This, in turn, “prevents nonprofits from being as efficient and effective as possible.” It’s a vicious cycle.

Here’s where a determined, resourceful IT director comes in.  The chronically under-resourced nonprofit sector makes the work considerably more difficult.  If nothing else, nonprofit IT jobs are a master class in “how to do more with less.” One of the most iconic 1980’s TV stars captured the nonprofit IT mindset best when he said:

I call it an obstacle course. Some of the others call it “MacGyver-land.”

— MacGyver, Episode 70, “Survivors”

Unlike MacGyver, success in nonprofit IT takes more than paperclips and pinecones.  But it also demands efficiency in all four pillars of the IT Director’s role—technology, implementation, data management, and user troubleshooting.

Here’s how you do it:

Table of Contents:

Technology: Doing More With Less

Nonprofit IT Directors have a conundrum to solve.  On the one hand, they’re tasked with ensuring proper hardware and software are in place for everything the organization needs (donations, storing documents and records, communication, event management, etc.).  On the other hand, they’re often given outdated systems and meager (or nonexistent) budgets to work with—and few supporting team members help shoulder the workload.

This can lead to long hours and the predictable frustrations of technical limitations.  Here are a few IT solutions for nonprofits that can help you reach technology goals with sparse resources:

Leverage Your Website

Your nonprofit’s website is cheap to host and can be run on minimal technology.  This makes it a cornerstone of any lean IT strategy. Take advantage of all the solutions it can offer without much help.  Leverage your website:

  • For Donations: Websites have become an indispensable source of cost-effective fundraising for nonprofits.  One of the best ways to get the money you need to support technology initiatives is to raise the water level for the whole organization with easy online donation tools.  Add a “donate” menu option in prominent places on your website. Major payment gateways are essential, as is a compelling call to action. Encourage automatic monthly payments and set up a quarterly appeal that links right to this “donate” menu.
  • For Email: An eye-catching email subscription opt-in popup form can go a long way to building your contacts list.  There are plenty of cheap (or free) ways to set up autoresponders that will send welcome emails, donation confirmations, thank yous, and alerts.  These simultaneously save labor and boost your responsiveness.
  • For Feedback: Integrated website/popup survey widgets can keep your organization informed and data-driven without investment in email graphic design, manual outreach, or direct mail.
  • For Interaction: Low-cost and free options abound for connecting with your website’s visitors. Try adding chatbots that can direct users to answers in your FAQ or a contact form.  A floating “contact us” button or a custom webform (where they can submit information or request a callback) can also be powerful tools for your organization’s needs—and they won’t break the bank.

Prioritize Integrations

A self-contained platform that handles everything under the sun (accounting, storage, member databasing, outreach) may be cost-prohibitive—especially if you factor in regular upgrade cycles.  But that doesn’t mean you need to cobble together piecemeal solutions and jury-rig them to talk to each other.

Interoperability and integration between key systems make your life easier.  The workload stays manageable when the solutions you choose are built to plug-and-play with other software out of the box.  Case in point: Can’t afford a full-scale, top-shelf AMS? HubSpot’s CRM is completely free (forever) and loaded with convenient integrations.

As you pursue cost-effective IT solutions for nonprofits (or vet tech-related vendors), prioritize software that interfaces easily with:

  • Single Sign-On (SSO): Your multiple solutions will feel cohesive if they can all share one familiar login (Gmail, a social login, your AMS credential, or whatever else makes sense). Our OpenWater submission management software, for example, allows you to skip account creation and integrate any of those pre-existing logins in place of our default.
  • Info Pre-population: Software that can easily draw info from linked databases makes life easier for your web visitors (and streamlines the donation process).
  • Person Lookups: Whether you’re using an AMS, LMS, CRM, or a custom SQL database, your workflow is smoother if additional software can look up people or recreate lists from these databases with minimal work.
  • Database Synchronization: Few things are as frustrating for IT personnel than siloed databases with overlapping responsibilities.  If you need to manually rekey data from one to the other whenever there is a change, you’re wasting valuable resources and time.  Activity pushbacks and bi-directional synchronization eliminate redundancies, inconsistencies, and tedium. For instance, OpenWater can update a contact in your CRM with a note that they’ve won an award, or automatically push a last-minute change in a conference schedule out to an event app.

Choose Software as a Service (SaaS)

One way to manage a tight technology budget is to skip a few upgrade cycles—especially if it’s on less sensitive assets like word-processing, spreadsheets, or internet access.

Another way is to invest in IT solutions for nonprofits that don’t require regular overhauls to stay current. Subscription-based platforms (especially if they operate on the cloud) can offer you flexibility and save you a ton of money and time that would otherwise go to updates, patches, or newer editions.

Implementation & Training

Technology implementation can be daunting for a nonprofit without the resources to fully support a robust training plan (or the personnel to execute it).  Here are a few tips that smooth out the implementation process without placing a huge drain on resources.

Don’t Do It By Yourself

Get buy-in from a leadership sponsor on major technology initiatives.  Having one voice at the top will minimize resistance or pushback when the implementation requires changes to the familiar way of doing things.  Other non-IT staff can also help the plan run smoothly:

  • Marketing Is Your Friend: The person or team in charge of marketing for the nonprofit is someone that’s naturally skilled at crafting compelling messages. Enlist their help in promoting and informing the staff about the technology you’re implementing.
  • Deputize IT Champions: If you don’t have a large staff to handle the training and troubleshooting that comes with an implementation, pick some deputies.  A few staff members (in different areas of the organization) can become your champions and go-to people for their colleagues who have questions.  Focus your training on these individuals, and they’ll spread the word.

Accelerate the Learning Curve

The IT department has to learn new systems just like anyone else (especially if you’re going to be training others).  That learning happens more quickly if you’re prepping to teach while you learn.  This is a “two birds with one stone” mindset.

You’ll also save time if you (and your trainees) take an act-first, learn-as-you-go approach. Experimenting and keeping learning relevant to current goals will boost retention and understanding.

On that note, always survey staff before doing any training or refreshers—there’s no sense wasting time on areas they’re already comfortable in.  A pre-assessment saves time in the long run. Other implementation best practices that flatten the learning curve include:

  • Bite-sized training phases, rather than comprehensive “101” overviews
  • Online compilations of SOPs and microlearning tools (for reference after the fact)
  • A pre-training message with simple preparatory materials
  • Doing training right before a skill is going to become needed at work

Empower Users

Implementation is at its most efficient when it takes care of itself.  You could try methods of empowering users, like these:

  • Build out a detailed FAQ database
  • Record tutorial videos (show the camera once rather than your users, repeatedly)
  • Incorporate a “search” function on your website
  • Send out weekly tips in an email to reinforce training
  • Work with HR to beef up onboarding materials for technology

Data Management

Nonprofits compile a massive amount of data: contact information, member/user lists, fundraising benchmarks, website analytics, grant records, and more.  Much of this data is sensitive in nature, and all of it is critical to keeping the organization viable.

You don’t need a large IT department to manage this data cascade effectively—just the right tools and approaches.

Teach Staff to Access Their Own Data

Data dashboards, custom reports, and data APIs can go a long way toward helping your users access the data they need, where and when they need it.  Rather than devoting too much of your time as a bottlenecked point-person for compiled data, train users to create their reports with accessible solutions.

Cloud Platforms and APIs are Your Friends

The more you can cut down on database juggling and inconsistencies or redundancies you don’t have time to track down, the better. REST APIs and data integrations shoulder a lot of that load.  Cloud-based software with vendor-managed APIs and databases are even better.  

OpenWater’s support team, for example, can hook in all of your APIs for you from right in our office, so that you don’t need a developer on staff to attach our software to Salesforce or iMIS.  This moves the burden off your plate.

Streamline Security

Sensitive data needs guaranteed security, no matter your budget.  Fortunately, there are a lot of simple security measures you can take that are both cost-effective and high-impact.  To list a few:

  • Store less data (the less you store, the lower the risk)
  • Use secure web forms, not phone/email, for data collection
  • Work with reputable 3rd party vendors that handle security for you
  • Take all of the easy security measures  (virus and malware scans, strong passwords, captchas, SSL certificates, and a secure process for downloaded data)

Troubleshooting (The Help Desk)

The fewer your resources, the more critical it becomes to streamline, automate, and pre-empt your help desk functions.  Tech troubleshooting could create a huge, unplanned resource drain on an underprepared nonprofit.  

Take Preventative Measures

However, there are strategies you can use to reduce the frequency and intensity of help desk requests.  For instance:

  • Train well and train often (see the section on implementation, above)
  • Compile a complete IT knowledge base (searchable articles, FAQs, and tutorial videos in a self-service portal)
  • Automate everything you can (canned support request responses, chatbots, responsive request forms, pre-approval processes, etc.)

Maximize Your Time

There are also ways to get more mileage out of the time you do need to spend troubleshooting for users.  You’ll be more productive with your time if you:

  • Consolidate troubleshooting time (don’t interrupt yourself all day)
  • Set up a rotation among the staff (to prevent burnout and avoid gaps)
  • Gather all the info upfront and in one go (with detailed, required fields on a web form)
  • Rank incoming tickets by level (from emergency to wish list), then prioritize
  • Use the support teams that belong to the software platforms you’re using

Finally, it helps to learn how to talk to non-IT folks about information technology, so that every touchpoint is more efficient.

Welcome to MacGyver-land

These principles and tools can help you transform nonprofit IT from a daunting obstacle course into a manageable equation.  It doesn’t take bottomless resources to direct IT at a nonprofit, but it does take creativity and pragmatism. If you maximize your impact with every action, you’ll be able to do more with less.