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How nonprofits can improve IT practices through partnership — and support their mission Featured

How nonprofits can improve IT practices through partnership — and support their mission Austin Kehmeier

Solving technology shortcomings is an uphill battle — especially for nonprofit organizations (NPOs). NPOs operate within strict budget parameters. Dollars are often earmarked for specific outcomes, making it challenging to allocate funds for internal tech upgrades. In many cases, it’s also difficult for employees to prioritize technology innovation when it means leaving mission-critical work unattended.

The 10th Annual Nonprofit Technology Staffing and Investments Report found, on average, NPOs spend just 6% of their overall operating budgets on technology needs. As technology evolves in both capacity and capabilities, NPOs must juggle updates, monitoring, backups, security, and more — expensive and time-consuming tasks when organizations lack the right IT team.

Digital transformation unlocks the full potential of IT budgets, and NPO partners hold the keys

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed NPOs to adopt more advanced technology in support of remote employees and services. This trend — coupled with the rise of digitally native NPOs — has only widened technology gaps between NPOs prioritizing digital transformation and those still operating with legacy applications and infrastructures.

Fortunately, a limited IT budget stretches much further than expected with the proper external support. Because this type of partnership can be new for NPOs, here are four questions to consider when searching for a technology partner:

Will this partner support our overall mission?

The most critical piece when outsourcing IT needs is to identify a partner that supports your NPO’s mission. The good news is information about potential partners’ NPO expertise and experience should be easy to locate on the company’s website, digital newsroom, blog, case studies, and employee pages. Finding a partner aligned with your mission ensures transparency and signals a level of care for your programming. Both of these factors translate to proactive solutions and more embedded, accommodating technology support.

Can this partner communicate the return on investment (ROI) of our technology?

NPOs face approval hurdles when making technology purchases: A company can simply decide to buy a new CRM tool to automate internal processes. NPOs, on the other hand, must go one step further and also prove investing in that CRM will have a positive impact on their broader mission and population.

But it can be tough for Executive Directors and development teams (particularly those who are less tech-savvy) to connect the dots between technology purchases and better program outcomes. A technology partner with a track record of supporting NPOs understands these unique challenges and can help you communicate ROI to key stakeholders — like board members and other funding sources — in terms of your organization's goals and mission statement.

Is this partner flexible?

NPOs are fluid environments — you need a partner that is up to the challenge. When evaluating technology partners, ask how flexible they can be in terms of work scope, staffing, and timelines.  Avoid partners who only offer one-size-fits-all contracts with rigid parameters or risk wasting money when your goals inevitably shift.

For example, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many nonprofits pivoted focus from their long-term goals to address immediate healthcare gaps, food and housing insecurities, and more. Your technology partner should adapt alongside you to help you achieve your mission, not hold you back. As your technology needs evolve, it may prove important to bring in a new technical expert or slow down a timeline as you reassess goals and pivot.

Does this partner offer commercial expertise?

Although you need a technology partner well-versed in NPOs, you also need a partner with commercial expertise.

This means working with a partner that brings additional partnerships with prominent vendors like Microsoft, AWS, and Adobe. Existing relationships with these tech providers ensure your partner stays on the cutting-edge of digital solutions beyond the support and consultancy provided. These relationships can even result in price reductions for core technology investments since many corporations reserve funding for NPOs in their network.

Additionally, commercial expertise helps you prioritize the digital experiences users now expect. This digital expertise benefits your employees and the people you serve by helping you create more seamless and collaborative digital processes (e.g., sharing documents across locations, status updates on work). It can also have a positive impact on volunteers — a group of people with heightened expectations for technology experiences. These days, many volunteers won’t tolerate clunky interfaces (even in service of a mission they support).

Although NPOs have often treated digital transformation as separate from their organizational missions, technology and mission now go hand-in-hand. When one side of the equation is missing, the other suffers — without efficient and easy-to-use technologies, NPO programming becomes less effective, funding is tougher to secure, and employees are forced to compensate for missing technological capabilities. And when teams lack IT expertise or are stretched too thin, it’s nearly impossible to intervene and roll out new digital solutions.

With your mission on the line, now’s the time to ask for help.

Shane Cronin, vice president, SoftwareONE

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