Even though the promise of the Internet boom times has faded, corporations are still investing in technology. Technology holds the promise of more efficient operations, further reach, and the ability to do more with less. Technology allows small and large companies to play on the same field. That is why technology still seems to be the word of the day—even for nonprofits. We are ready to reap the same benefits these for-profits have been seeing and put these innovations to use for greater societal good.
Even if an organization has made an initial investment in technology simply so employees can communicate with each other and the outside world, moving beyond rudimentary technology solutions is difficult. Recent studies have suggested that nonprofits are “wired, willing, and ready” to take advantage of technology. However, technology adoption is actually fairly slow at the vast majority of nonprofit organizations. If they are indeed ready, why are nonprofits not adopting technology wholeheartedly? In fact, there are many fences to jump to get to an optimal use of technology. One of the main problems is that nonprofits don’t always know where to start. Another problem is that nonprofits often just don’t have the time or the funds to take advantage of the promises of technology.
As a nonprofit executive, have you ever gotten a call from some well-meaning firm either going out of business or upgrading its equipment asking if you’d like a donation of 50 computers—but only if you picked them up that afternoon? What do you say? When I worked in human service organizations I used to get those calls frequently. They resulted in a frenzy of activity. We’d get someone to go out and pick up the computers, find a place to store them, and sometimes just let them sit there. That company’s and our own intentions were good. But, we just didn’t know what to do with the computers once we had them. Often the computers were outdated. They wouldn’t have operating systems on them. They might have been Macs when the whole office was on PCs. In fact, we had no real plan for technology and no idea how to integrate this donation into our systems.
Technology is complex and it requires us to think about it as a tool and not independent of our general business practices. However, we can’t think of technology as an ultimate solution to our needs. If we’re going to successfully integrate technology into our organizations, we need more than the equipment/hardware. Technology needs to be thought of within the context of our work and as a facilitator to meeting our missions. Nonprofits need access to the information, tools and skills to manage and utilize technology optimally for our organizations and our constituency.
A wide variety of resources exist to help the nonprofit overcome this hurdle. From publications like the E-Philanthropy Review, to online discussion groups, to fundraising consultants, to technology providers and product vendors, a wealth of information is now available. Resources are available for everyone from the administrative assistant who has gotten saddled with the “fix-it” moniker to the executive director who needs to know enough to make informed decisions about technology for her colleagues and staff.
My organization, TechSoup, is a nonprofit organization that is devoted to assisting nonprofits acquire the technical information and resources they need. A while back, TechSoup added message boards so that nonprofit staff and technology providers could talk with each other and provide real-time assistance on specific questions. Just this past February the newest service, DiscounTech, was added. DiscounTech is a partnership with major technology providers wherein these corporations donate and discount their products and services for the benefit of the nonprofit sector. Thus, nonprofits are able to access the best technology solutions and tools within the context of information and assistance to help successfully utilize this technology.
So, with the proper resources, what should I have done with those 50 donated machines? I’d have looked for a computer recycler in my area and had the computers delivered there. The recycler could have taken care of refurbishing the machines and installing operating systems. I’d then have hired a technology consultant to come in and install the machines—at least the ones my organization needed. Then, we’d have bought a network solution and office utility software. We might have even bought some online training so we could all understand what we were doing with our computers once we got them. This process would have given us a leg up in our technology implementation. And that is TechSoup’s ultimate goal: giving nonprofits that leg up to take advantage of the same tools that corporations use but for a different purpose—to create a more civil society.