Bringing the Business of IT to the Nonprofit World
Five questions every nonprofit IT department should be askingIn the world of nonprofits, as in most organizations, decisions can be made fast. Opportunities arise and actions must be taken, sometimes without informing the entire staff of what's to come. Information Technology, or IT, is too often the last department to find out about the plan – a plan that frequently requires our involvement to implement. IT departments often feel like they're trying to catch up, versus being an integral part of the planning process, which I believe can make a major difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of a nonprofit organization.Let's think about that for a second: Would you come up with a diagnosis for yourself, then go to the doctor and tell her to operate? No, the right thing to do is to go to her first, present the problem and with her expertise, she will recommend the best solution.When it comes to technology in the workplace, the IT department should be your first call. We are the technology doctors and our "patients" are both staff members and clients.Technology at CHF InternationalAt CHF International, we communicate daily with thousands of people all over the globe who are providing emergency relief, delivering economic support and implementing crucial health programs to some of the poorest areas of the world. Our headquarters needs to be able to communicate with field officers regularly, and our field officers need the technology to communicate with the people they are there to help. Simply put, we cannot do our jobs without technology.The solution is to speak upIn the nonprofit IT world, efficiency is paramount. People are very passionate about what they do and they can sometimes get carried away with ideas. It is our job as IT experts to speak up! We know what is realistic and what isn't, we know that there is a much simpler solution, or that the first solution won't work very well. Efficiency in the nonprofit sector, especially in the humanitarian aid work that we do here at CHF International, could mean saving lives.The best way to have our voices heard is to make sure we have something good to say. If your organization isn't giving you room to think like a business, make room – they'll thank you later. If we allow ourselves to be business-driven, we can source the best possible solution to the situation at hand.Here are five important questions every IT department should be asking when making a project decision:1. Is this technology practical?In development work, environmental conditions are big obstacles to overcome. Sure it's great that we have just figured out a way to talk in real time over the internet. But when a storm takes out the internet access in a small African village, that communications vehicle will no longer be of use. Technically the technology works, but practically it is a failure. Better to re-evaluate early on and, in this instance, develop offline workarounds.2. What is the true cost of this technology?Ongoing maintenance, training and other staff costs beyond the initial investment are elements business thinkers factor in, not necessarily IT folks. Some experts estimate that the purchase price of a new technology is merely 10 to 15 percent of the long-term cost.3. Are we looking at all the options?Sometimes, what the organization thinks it needs is not actually what it needs. We as IT experts (and business thinkers, as I'm encouraging) need to make sure we hone in on what the actual problem is, then go from there; not hear what someone else thinks the solution is, then deliver.For example, in one country, some of our field workers thought they needed a very sophisticated product to be able to complete part of the project. That product would have been costly to not only purchase, but to install, teach to use, and maintain. By taking a moment to go over all other options, we discovered that there was freeware available that would get the job done just as easily.4. What existing solutions are there within the organization's global operations?Closely linked to considering all the options is making sure we check our existing inventory, see if we can outsource, and research what we can buy off the shelf. In development we do not have a Fortune 500 company IT budget, so we must figure out how to choose the best solution for our size of organization.5. Have we hired the best we can afford?While many professionals in our position will not be the decision-maker on new hires, we at CHF International unite to take part in that process. On a number of occasions, the IT department from headquarters was involved in setting up and interviewing the IT professional who would be working in the field. We helped find someone who we felt was up to the task because we knew exactly what the project needed. This helps ensure a smooth project start-up.Regardless of what type of nonprofit you oversee, there are constituents who need to access data regularly. Technology is the link between those constituents, and it may not be the newest tech gadget on the market (in fact, in nonprofit work, it rarely is), but we've found that when you think in business-like, practical terms, there can be great hurdles crossed with simple technological fixes.Working with your counterparts in the field, you can determine what's best for the project, so speak up.