In this guest blog, Peggy Duvette, Director of Social Impact at NetSuite.org, offers nonprofits smart and practical guidance on how to best utilize free technology like software or cloud applications within your organization.
We all know technology is radically changing our world and accelerating your organization's ability to achieve your mission. What you may not know, is that a huge amount of that technology is available to you for free. Rather than pursue every free solution just because it's free, successful organizations spend the time understanding the problem they are trying to solve and exactly how the free solution can (or in some cases cannot) help.
While there isn't a one-sized-fits-all approach to choosing and utilizing free technology, there are some steps you and your organization can take to make the process of deciding which technologies are right for your organization and leveraging those technologies easier.
Here's the list:
1. Determine the Problem You’re Trying to Solve
In the same way that you don't get in the car and start driving before you know where you're headed (unless you're joyriding), you don't want to start a search for new technologies before your organization has determined the problem you're trying to solve. When it comes to determining the problem, here are a few things to keep in mind:
a. State your problem in clear terms, not buzzwords or tech jargon: For example, your problem isn't a lack of "financial transparency," your problem is that you can't accurately report where money is being spent to your funders. And email marketing isn't your problem, the problem is that you want to engage with donors and increase donations and email is one way of doing that.
b. Problems should be recognized broadly across the organization: Make sure the problem you're trying to solve is one that impacts more than one person or department. In the example above, not being able to accurately report where money is spent to a funder is a problem that affects development, accounting, and the CEO. Spend time thinking, then listing out all of the stakeholders impacted by the problem. Ask your colleague if they agree.
c. Problems need to be specific and have a narrow scope: Going back to the problem above, start with a specific funder whose reporting is difficult and solve for that. Once you've solved for your initial problem, you can expand upon that.
2. Establish a Task Force/ Committee
Once you've determined the problem, bring together the people inside your organization who understand the problem and can help solve it. We like to call these two groups of people "doers" and "deciders." In the case of wanting to improve your financial reporting to funders, "doers" are the people who input the data, run the reports, close the books, etc., while "deciders" are those who can make decisions about how a project will roll out and who will be accountable.
Once you've established your committee, commit to meeting regularly. Regular meetings ensure that your doers have a voice in the process, and deciders understand the process for solving the problem.
3. Understand the True Cost of Free Technology (Questions for Your Technology Vendor)
While a "free" offer can be an exciting one, it's important to understand how much free technology will potentially cost you in purchase costs, implementation costs, long-term maintenance costs, and staff time. While it's sometimes the case that your organization will be able to use "free technology" right out of the box, there's a good chance that you'll need to purchase additional licenses or make customizations to meet your needs or solve your specific problem.
A technology vendor should be able to help you navigate this process and understand potential costs associated with your use of their technology.
4. Create a Training and Adoption Strategy
People are resistant to change, even if the change promises to improve the way your organization does a particular thing or even makes that person's job easier. A training and adoption strategy is intended to help alleviate this resistance and give everyone involved a clear plan for going forward.
Going back to our original problem of being able to accurately report your expenses to a funder, the solution could mean that your staff now need to track their hours and expenses in a new way. The training and adoption strategy would provide staff with step-by-step guidance for how to do this and how to sunset current ways of completing these tasks.
And lastly, your training and documentation should be ongoing, even after you've adopted new technology. Good documentation makes scaling and training new employees that much simpler.
5. Take Advantage of the Community (Free Technology Should Come with a Community)
In the same way your organization is not single-handedly responsible for ending world hunger, homelessness, or domestic violence, you shouldn't have to approach solving your organizational problems alone either.
When your organization is looking at free technology solutions, make sure you’re also looking beyond the tools to see what training and support are offered, and whether or not you'll have access to other organizations who are also using the technology. There are also communities attached to technology so remember, when you adopt a technology, you become part of that community.
In the example of reporting money spent to your funder, the technology you choose should have examples for how organizations similar to yours are tracking expenses and time and pulling reports.
While it might be tempting to choose a brand new tool that seems to offer lots of bells and whistles, it's also important to think about how much expertise a particular vendor has in the nonprofit sector and whether or not they'll be around two to three years from now.
In a sector that's pressured to do more and spend less, free technology can be an incredibly valuable resource to help your organization scale its work and meet your mission. While this isn't an exhaustive list of tips, we hope that it gives you a place to start as you begin evaluating technology solutions.
As director of social impact at NetSuite, Peggy Duvette and her team are responsible for the donation of the NetSuite products to nonprofits globally. NetSuite.org, the Corporate Citizenship arm of NetSuite, has been supporting nonprofits and social enterprises to create social impact through software donation and volunteer programs since 2007. To date, they’ve been supporting a community of 650+ global nonprofits and social enterprises with free and discounted software and pro bono volunteerism. For more information, visit www.NetSuite.org.
- NetSuite software donation
- Idealware tech resources for nonprofits
- TechSoup’s NetSquared, which brings together nonprofits and activists, tech leaders and funders, and everyone who's interested in using technology for social change
- Netcorps’ tech resource sheet
- NTEN’s nonprofit tech clubs
- TechRepublic article: "10 awesome technology nonprofits you should know about"