The Technology of Accountability
With the spotlight of accountability that has been recently focused on large nonprofits, there is an increasing need for them to present a more transparent public image regarding everything from governance to fundraising. Combined with the current emphasis on fundraising for all organizations, it is time for nonprofits to evaluate their infrastructure and technological capabilities so that they can not only be more efficient, but more accountable. For smaller nonprofits especially, it is time to stop being reactive and become proactive by acknowledging the need for standardization and promote the use of technology as a means to achieve a stronger more efficient organization.
As should be the case, smaller nonprofits devote the majority of their budget to meeting their program needs. While this is the basis by which all nonprofits should operate, it is not a model conducive to the technological advancement of the individual organization. So, how do we maintain the diversity and core values of the sector and become more proactive regarding technology without the funding for a research and development team? Ironically, we steal the model from the for-profit community.
The corporate world, by focusing on the bottom-line, realized long ago that no matter how good their product was, the public wouldn’t support a company that is judged unethical. One incident, which caused a reaction from corporate America, was the tuna scandal. As we all know, the tuna industry was rocked when Charlie’s net was harming dolphins. With the help of some very vocal advocates (our nonprofit brethren), the public soon boycotted all tuna that was judged to be “not dolphin friendly” and marketing experts converged to promote a feeling of corporate transparency and accountability. But I digress. Essentially, accountability regarding the actions of corporate America, have long been considered essential for success in today’s society and, after watching the accountability scramble, we should have been prepared for our turn under the microscope in the post September 11th era.
In order to be more prepared for public scrutiny, we, as a sector, need to first, get our houses in order and, second, invite the public in for tea. The corporate sector has long been involved in the standardization process to increase efficiency and accountability. Standardization establishes confidence in the product, which increases confidence in a company's performance, which increases the ROI…, which translates into nonprofit-speak as increased donations.
The first step in standardization for a nonprofit is examination of the infrastructure. Is every vendor held to the same standard? Is there a trading partner agreement in place for every vendor? Is every transaction held to the same standard? Is there a standard for processing each and every donation? If you’ve answered yes to all these questions, congratulate yourself; you’re a step ahead of most of corporate America.
The next step is to automate the process, and, of course, this means a bit of an investment if you don’t have a techie on staff. Following the lead of the business model, an elaborate system (EDI) of purchase orders, invoices and every day EFTs are next in the process. Though this seems complicated, the backend of the system is barely visible to the user and web-based documents are the norm of today and the immediate future (with the insurgence of the versatile XML). Keep in mind that many corporations instituting this type of process contribute millions of dollars and volunteer hours to charity annually. In many instances, each facility is challenged to participate in volunteer activities within the local community. Contact with local facilities of huge corporate entities could result in an in-kind donation of technical expertise. Additionally, the outsourcing of this process could be considered as an additional element of accountability.
The most important aspect of accountability is increasing the reliance on technology in the sector. Though many don’t like to acknowledge the fact, technology is becoming the constant within the organization. It is the memory of an evolving, diverse and dynamic sector. An internal network (LAN/WAN) should be installed, a standard filing system utilized and, of course, security (external and internal) initiated and observed. I’ll never forget my first volunteer experience with a small nonprofit. After spending all day working to technically elevate the staff (at their request), I sent an email from home asking for a list of members from the database. After not receiving the list for several days, I was surprised at a board meeting when the Executive Director presented me with a handwritten list of the names of all the members.
While all these processes will prepare your organization for the future, there are many unknowns on the horizon. A prevailing prediction is that, eventually, the cost of protecting our information will be prohibitive, and computer networks will proliferate so widely, that individuals and organizations will, for the most part, give up the effort to protect their private databases. By then, electronic information will be accessible to everyone, everywhere. This eventuality will mark a new era for society—the open information era. So, do we as a sector, get ahead of the curve by standardizing and sharing information electronically across the sector and in the process create an accountability benchmark, or do we remain a reactive sector?