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Technology for Not-for-Profit…Is It Different?

By Cheryl Nelan

Are technology services and products different for not-for-profit organizations?

Many people associate not-for-profits (or maybe the term nonprofits) as organizations that have no budget.  In other words, they think these organizations survive with:

  • Donated computer systems
  • “Free” IT services
  • Low to no budget

That’s simply not the case. Most well run not-for-profit organizations know that “not for profit” doesn’t mean spend no money.

Running a successful not-for-profit is much like running any business.  It means staying focused on the mission and investing as many of the dollars brought in back into that mission as you can.  But, to do that, you also have to run an efficient and productive business.  Staff and volunteers need to be able to work effectively to achieve the mission.

Data is critical.

The donor database is our most valuable asset.

It is always interesting when we first meet with potential new not-for-profit clients.  They often warn us about how they are different from a for-profit business – but the difference is generally the decision-making process, not their technology needs.  They still need us to help with IT procurement.  They still need business-class technology.  They still want an IT partner that will help protect their data and keep it secure.  Training their staff on cyber security threats is still a concern.  Managed IT services with proactive care are still important.

Not-For-Profits and Their Board of Directors

As I said, the biggest difference in a not-for-profit, is their decision-making process.  Many for-profit businesses are owned and operated by one or two people.  When working with small to mid-sized businesses, a decision can often be made rather quickly.  If the owner wants to move forward, he/she does.  Sure, sometimes they bring in their trusted staff to help make this critical decision, but the owners/partners have control and can generally make a speedy decision (they don’t always but that’s for another post).  On the other hand, not-for-profits are typically run by an Executive Director who reports to a Board.  As with for-profit businesses, the Executive Director may choose to bring in staff members to help with the decision.  Sometimes they have a volunteer who is well versed in technology that they also lean on.  Excellent.  What I suppose some IT companies find challenging is the Board approval process.  I’ve served on a number of boards, so I get it.  Not-for-profit boards are generally made up of volunteers who have chosen to donate their time for a cause they are passionate about.  They represent members of the community:

  • Business leaders at other local companies
  • Educators from local schools and universities
  • Philanthropists and active volunteers.

A strong board is diverse and has people representing different functions (legal, accounting, training, as an example) as well as different backgrounds (corporate, education, etc.) and socio-economic diversity.

Knowing their IT partner has their back is critical.

A strong IT plan is an investment – in time as well as money.  So, the Board will most likely be involved in setting the budget and approving the expenditures.  The knowledge that this investment will provide a return for the organization that enables them to better deliver on their mission must be understood.  Not just by the Executive Director but also by every member of the board (or at least the majority).  Communicating the value and planning the budget takes time, but it is time well spent.  At the end of the process, the new IT partner will have the support of the Board and staff.  There will be clarity on the investments to be made.  And, a relationship will have been formed.

I love working with our not-for-profit clients.  We can see where we make a difference and that’s a wonderful feeling.  I love knowing that we are playing an important role in the success of these clients … and supporting our local Rochester NY community.

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