I know how you feel. I have worked at an enterprise software company in the US, and I have also worked at a nonprofit (NGO) in the Philippines. So I’ve seen firsthand just how different those universes are, as well as how different the utilization of technology can be between them.
And that makes sense: nonprofits are focused on positive social impact, while businesses are focused on increasing net revenue, so the tools they use are bound to be different.
In some regards, yes, but in other ways, absolutely not. I recently read an article about the unhealthy -and potentially deadly – assumption many people make that nonprofits are entirely different from businesses. In reality, as the article reminds us, nonprofits and businesses both operate under the same constraints of time and resources, and they both want to accomplish their objectives efficiently and effectively. The difference tends to be that it is socially “acceptable” for businesses to invest in overhead like technical and organizational tools, while nonprofits limit spending on these tools because they’re told they need to spend less, regardless of if it hinders their level of impact.
Thankfully, that outdated mindset is starting to change.
It is well known that businesses with robust infrastructure (information technology systems, financial systems, skills training, fundraising processes) are more likely to succeed than those that do not, and NGO leaders and funders are starting to realize the same rule applies to nonprofits.
Of course, there are very inefficient and costly ways to add more tech into any organization, including your nonprofit. How do you go about choosing and using the right tools? And how do you convince your leaders and donors that you need those tools to begin with? Here are tips from someone who has been there.
1. Do your research.
Here is a good resource on ways for your nonprofit to get the most out of technology. It highly emphasizes planning, training, and budgeting.
Talk to others who have implemented tech resources successfully, or unsuccessfully. Learn from them.
2. Start simple.
If you haven’t already worked at an enterprise software company, and others in your office haven’t, don’t expect yourself to become a tech expert overnight. Pick tools that are simple and straightforward, and that truly meet a need that you have right now; not something with a lot of bells and whistles that you will never learn or use.
3. Data is awesome. Use it.
Here is a really cool case study about Crisis Text Line, which uses text message to provide safe, anonymous chat services to teens in crisis. With the 3.3 million text messages they’ve received, they are doing data analysis to gain a better understanding of how to prevent issues like depression, bullying, and sexual abuse before they even start.
If you have a phone number your nonprofit’s beneficiaries can call or text, and you have the manpower to have someone available 24/7 to respond to those messages, that is great. But what if you want to keep those messages and do more in depth research or follow up later? Having an automated data collection and SMS/Voice communication platform can be of tremendous help in collecting, analyzing, and storing this data. Whether you want to do research now or later, it’s an invaluable resource.
Of course, upper management and donors totally love data because it is a great way for them to practically see the impact that you are having on a moment-by-moment basis. Although the human interactions probably seem more important to you than numbers in a spreadsheet, not everyone has the chance to be on the frontlines. So data – numbers, analysis of trends, and even personal anecdotes that you can share later if the messages have been automatically saved – can really help your stakeholders connect with and understand your work and impact.
4. Technology isn’t only for fundraising.
As seemingly popular as mHealth, mEducation, mAgriculture, and other m4d or ict4d campaigns are right now, if you google search: “mobile campaigns for nonprofits,” you will get information about text-to-give. Want a failsafe guide for pitching technology to your nonprofit stakeholders? Here it is; and it’s all about how to pitch… you guessed it: fundraising technology.
Nonprofits pretty much always need funds—and here are some donation page best practices that can help with that—but isn’t the main focus of nonprofits their programs? Why not consider implementing organizational management, data analysis, and/or communication technology that helps you help the people you care about most: your beneficiaries?
5. Free can be good… but not always.
Everyone likes things for free, but keep in mind: there is generally a cost somewhere. You can search for “free SMS” on the internet and find websites that will send texts for free, but of course those services come with a lot of caveats and limitations.
Free, open source software is another great sounding resource, but if you are not technically inclined and do not already have an IT team in place, it is going to be much more costly and troublesome than you would initially anticipate.
6. Customized can be good… but not always.
If free has issues and limitations, a fully customized system might be the way to go. Right? It definitely depends on the situation and your approach. Hiring a lone developer to piece together your vision might produce something that you “want” right now but that is easy to break, difficult to adapt, and that quickly gets old. Unless the developer is on your staff, who is going to update your “home grown” system? Who is going to maintain it if something breaks? And what if the idea in your head isn’t so great once you start playing with it in real life?
A lot of times, using existing tech options, especially one tailored to NGOs, is your best bet. You know what you are getting ahead of time, and if you are dealing with a good company, you will have a customer support team available to answer questions and a development team constantly updating issues and adding new features to the software.
7. You and your beneficiaries deserve the best: Efficiency, Security, Customer Support.
Nothing is more frustrating than investing time and resources in a tech system that ultimately makes your staff slower, more aggravated, and less productive. Make sure you do your research and pick a product that works at the level you need, including being user-friendly enough that you don’t need to hire an entire tech team to help you figure it out.
Security is a must when it comes to technology. Online information is vulnerable, and your staff and beneficiaries deserve the highest level of privacy and protection. Aside from making sure the technology you choose has stringent security practices and features, consider what information is important for you to collect and have online and what information you really don’t need. Nothing online is 100% secure.
At engageSPARK, most of our staff have prior experience working in the private sector, including at enterprise software companies. We also have a lot of experience working with the public sector and nonprofits. We think this matters because you deserve the highest level of efficiency, security, and customer support, things that enterprise software customers care about deeply, so we’ve built all of that into our platform. But we also understand the nuanced needs and priorities of socially-focused nonprofits and NGOs.
8. Tech companies want to help nonprofits/NGOs succeed. You might just have to ask.
Because we ourselves are a not-for-profit social enterprise, and we are a startup, we don’t have a corporate-software-level budget, either. But we really value and need tech tools to be efficient. There are a lot of good free tools, but some pay-to-use tools have generously donated their services or resources to us! These include mingle, Scalyr, zapier, and OnePageCRM (thanks, friends!) When Mercy Corps used engageSPARK in December, 2014 to send urgent disaster warning messages to thousands of Filipinos in the path of Typhoon Hagupit, one of our partners, Nexmo, volunteered to donate those messages: 175,000 of them.
Techies around the world, including the Philippines, have held “social good hackathons,” where they spend a weekend or a couple of days working on projects such as making websites for NGOs or apps for disaster resilience. I for one hope to see more of this in the future!
Leave a comment to ask a question, or share your technology story, good or bad!