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Technology as a Nonprofit Force Multiplier

2014-August 20
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

Exponent Philanthropy
recently posted a great article on the value of supporting nonprofits' technology needs. There's no question that most not-for-profit organizations are technology-starved. My own experience working in not-for-profit information technology a decade ago (am I really that old?) consisted largely of performing CPR on decrepit machines that could barely keep up with the day-to-day demands of word processing and email.

Technology is what the military calls a "force multiplier:" something that makes a force (in this case a not-for-profit organization) more effective than it would be otherwise. For technology to be the force multiplier it can be for not-for-profits, we need to recognize that the greatest long-term benefit is likely to be found in equipping the employees: administration, communications, development, finance, teachers, clinicians.

The problem is that many (most?) funders want to see their technology money go to benefit their target populations directly. This leads to grants that pay for shiny new equipment in computer labs for kids' after-school programs, but leave the finance department managing budgets using what amounts to an electronic abacus. I'm certainly not arguing that kids don't need computer labs, but in the seemingly unending era of doing more with fewer resources, technology can help organizations streamline the ancillary work and let them spend more of their time and energy on serving people.

Today's information technology needs are exponentially greater than they were a decade ago, and the array of options for products and services is truly dizzying. In this climate, it's important to be deliberate about what technology an organization needs to best advance its work. Further, it's essential to enlist technology experts to help navigate the choices and to identify what solutions offer the best bang-for-the-technology-buck.

We've offered (and plan to continue offering) technology grants for the past six years through a stand-alone request for proposals (RFP) in order to help organizations working in our fields and funding geography meet this critical need. We've divided our initiative into two phases: planning (cleverly called Phase I) and implementation (called -- wait for it -- Phase II).

The Phase I grants are straightforward grants that are used to pay technology consultants to work with eligible not-for-profits to determine where they are with technology, what they need (hardware, software, policies, and training), and write a plan to get them where they need to go. These plans are focused explicitly on back-office operations -- the very need that so many not-for-profits can't/won't/don't address. We have a short list of consultants that past grantees have worked with, but we generally like to let organizations choose their own consultants.

We award up to $125,000 in our Phase II grants, but we require a dollar-for-dollar match for our funds. The match is important because after our grant goes away, there will be an ongoing expense associated with keeping technology up to date. The ability to put up those matching funds, which can come from any (legal) source helps give us some confidence that the organization will be able to maintain the gains realized through our grant.

The bulk of the Phase II money ends up going into hardware and infrastructure (cabling, servers, switches, routers, and computers), but we also take a careful look at whether the projects include training in their budgets. While it's fun to buy shiny new desktops and enormo-screen displays, the reality is that without training the staff, we're paying for expensive paperweights. Technology can't be a force multiplier if the staff have no idea how to use it.

Overall, we've been pleased with how our technology grants have turned out. Workflows have been streamlined, communications (internal and external) have been improved, clinicians have gained access to tools that let them spend more with the people they're serving than filling out paperwork. We've certainly experienced a few philanthropic "blue screen of death" equivalents, but on balance the technology plans and implementations we've funded seem to have done what we hoped -- made our not-for-profit partners more effective than they would have been otherwise.

Photo by quimby
Flickr: Bletchley Park / 2059795695
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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