How nonprofits can unlock
to help them be more effective in their missions.
FILE: SCAN OF THE ARTICLE AS PUBLISHED
- (Click here if you need a PDF
- by Patricia Dines
- January 2011
NorthBay biz magazine
With budgets and workloads already stretched
thin, keeping up with technological innovations can
seem like just another task added to the overflowing
plates of local nonprofits. But NorthBay biz has found
the good news
(c) Copyright Patricia Dines, 2011.
All rights reserved.
"With the economy the way it is, nonprofit leaders have other
things on their minds right now, like keeping the doors open,
paying their staff, and providing their services. But to the
degree that nonprofit leaders look at some of these [technical
tools], they'll be better off in the long run. You just have
to pick and choose what's best for your organization."
-- Linda Davis, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership of
- If you talk to just about any nonprofit about its use of
today's technology, you'll likely hear variations on the same
double-edged themes. On the one hand, most nonprofits are
attracted to the idea that new software, websites, Facebook pages,
blogs, tweets, and online videos can help them promote their
organization, be more efficient, and advance their mission.
However, with budgets and workloads already stretched thin, these
new tech expectations can seem like just another task added to
overflowing plates, as nonprofits sigh and continue "making do"
with their existing hodge-podge of ill-fitting, disconnected
- The good news is that the same fertile explosion that makes
the current tech domain so overwhelming is also creating exciting
new options, often at quite affordable prices. Plus, organizations
don't have to figure it out alone; there's help available for
discovering or affording those great solutions. Even better,
community members can pitch in and thus contribute to our shared
- Grayson James, executive director of the nonprofit Petaluma
Bounty, notices that nonprofits often struggle without knowing
that a better solution exists or "that it might not be as
expensive as they thought." In short, he says, "there's hope for
nonprofits that might be struggling to manage their data
- Setting the scene
- Melissa Breach, director of programs for the Center for
Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership of Marin, observes, "It's hard
for any industry when drastic culture shifts take place." She's
just in her late thirties and yet, she says, "I'm an old lady by
technology standards. The people training me or doing social media
work are often 15 years younger than I am. Sometimes even I feel
like, 'Oh, it's a whole new world and I don't understand,' because
it's just not the way my mind works. But when I see nonprofits
that have found a way to pay for [new technology],
prioritized it, and used it to push their mission forward, then it
catches my attention."
- Chris Dumas is product manager at the San Francisco office of
FirstGiving, whose online fund-raising tools have channeled $1
billion from individuals to nonprofits. He notes that "technology
has changed dramatically in the past couple of years, and
nonprofit technology has benefited because the cost of producing
new products has gone down." However, he recognizes, "It's also a
very confusing space," because there are so many products, the
market changes rapidly, and nonprofits' needs vary so much.
"Navigating all that can be a challenge," he says.
- Starting the search
- Countless resources are available to help nonprofits find
appropriate tech solutions, including books, websites, workshops,
webinars, roundtables, consultants, and more. Dumas highlights
three helpful resources:
- Idealware (www.idealware.org), whose
tagline is "helping nonprofits make smart software decisions." Its
"thoroughly researched and impartial resources" include online
training, articles, and reports such as "The Nonprofit Social
Media Decision Guide."
- NTEN (www.nten.org), or the Nonprofit
Technology Network, which offers conferences, webinars, blogs, and
research studies, including, for example, "The Consumer's Guide to
Donor Management Software".
- TechSoup (www.techsoup.org), which is the
only online service that channels software donations from
manufacturers to nonprofits for just a small administrative fee.
It also provides refurbished hardware and online educational
information, including webinars and community forums where you can
ask specific questions.
- Gayle Carpentier, TechSoup's chief business development
officer, emphasizes that "not every nonprofit has the same needs."
She strongly advises that, before choosing individual software
packages, organizations start with "a good solid technical
assessment," to identify what their organization has and would
like. This can help ensure limited funds are spent on tools that
truly help the organization's work.
- Sonoma County resources
- Nonprofits can also get assistance with tech implementation
from local nonprofit centers. For instance, the Volunteer Center
of Sonoma County (VCSC, www.volunteernow.org) offers
professional networking roundtables, volunteer matching, a
reference library, a searchable foundation database, an online
consultant directory, and workshops such as "Social Media
Marketing for Your Nonprofit" and "Power Up Your Nonprofit
- VCSC's executive director, Eunice Valentine, notes that
nonprofits in general are "very frustrated" regarding technology.
"The last couple of years, as social networking has caught on,
funding has also been exceedingly difficult. So I think it's more
exciting now, but it's also more challenging, because you have to
market yourself in so many more mediums to keep up with donors and
get people involved."
- She feels the pressure in her own organization's activities,
as it struggles with information located in different databases
and explores ways to let people sign up online for workshops and
events. Another challenge, she says, is, "We can't afford the
salaries to attract people with [technical] skills, so we
depend, as most nonprofits do, on volunteers with technical
expertise coming in to help."
- VCSC is currently upgrading its online volunteer opportunities
list to a more powerful online matching system and is considering
other system enhancements to improve software interconnectivity
- Help in Marin
- A central resource for Marin nonprofits is the Center for
Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership of Marin (CVNL,
www.cvnl.org). Its offerings include conferences, ongoing
peer roundtables, a resource library, and workshops on topics such
as social media, raising money online, and donor management
- CVNL also uses technology in its work, says CEO Linda Jacobs
Davis, "for our website and things like surveys, data collection,
webinars and as part of our events. For instance, with the Human
Race, we have software on our website that the teams and
nonprofits can use to collect donations. We're even blogging and
- As with other nonprofits, a key issue for CVNL is the lack of
integration between the different software it has for finance,
membership, workshops, and volunteer matching. She hopes its
upcoming switch to a new product, which combines workshops and
volunteer matching, will help somewhat.
- A Napa perspective
- Terence Mulligan, president of the Napa Valley Community
Foundation (NVCF, www.napavalleycf.org), says "Nonprofits
are under tremendous strain these days; I think it's the worst
climate in decades. They're being asked to do more with less,
grants are harder to come by, many have laid off staff, and they
still have to [produce results]. So there's probably a lot
of people deferring significant technology investment, ironically
at a time when those investments could help them be more
efficient" with their limited resources.
- From his experience working with local nonprofits, Mulligan
observes, "Most are still in 1992, from a technology standpoint."
This is generally because they're not big enough to afford a
dedicated IT person, so "nobody has the macro-level strategic view
of their technology needs, except the executive director." Thus,
enhancements are often done on a piecemeal, as-needed basis.
- Another key problem, Mulligan notes, is that donors tend not
to fund technology upgrades because they don't consider them
"sexy." They'd rather direct money to specific community
activities than help buy a new database package that would save
staff time or make the organization's work more efficient.
- To address this issue, NVCF offers capacity building grants to
nonprofits, "expressly for this boring, unglamorous, but really
important infrastructure stuff." This allows nonprofits to get
appropriate software and "actually run like a business and not
drive themselves crazy.
- "We're big proponents of investing in infrastructure,"
explains Mulligan, "because we think a nonprofit's success or
failure often comes down to its management team," and providing
them with good tools is vital to ensure that funds are used well
"I think there's a real need to move away from solutions that
are ad hoc and cobbled together
and towards things that really help nonprofits run more
efficiently and make better use of their time."
-- Terence Mulligan, Napa Valley Community Foundation
- One nonprofit's journey
- Petaluma Bounty has the exciting mission of addressing hunger
and food security by "working to create a sustainable food system
in Petaluma, with fresh food for everyone." However, Programs
Director Ruth Persselin says, its efforts were made more difficult
because, like so many other nonprofits, it was using "multiple
off-the-shelf technology products that were not at all
integrated." Thus, it had separate web applications and software
packages "to track supporters, volunteers, and donations; process
payments; do event ticketing; create online forms; and communicate
through e-newsletters and e-blasts" (emailings).
- Grayson James, executive director of the organization since
its 2006 founding, says most smaller nonprofits are "way behind"
business when it comes to technology, because "they often start on
a shoestring and patch things together as they go, and there's
never enough time or staff."
- He indicates that having information split between different
programs has made it challenging, for instance, to identify people
who participate in multiple ways. And, when information needs to
be transferred between web or software programs, it usually has to
be transferred manually, which takes time and creates the
"opportunity for error." Plus each application requires its own
user ID, password, and training every time a new staff member,
board member, or volunteer needs to use it.
- An integrated package
- The prospects for Petaluma Bounty's technology tools started
improving about mid-2010, when Persselin went to a meeting of The
Minerva Project, which connects nonprofits with consultants
willing to volunteer their services. There she met Lomesh Shah,
president of IQR Consulting, who agreed to help.
- Shah first looked for existing software to meet the
nonprofit's needs and budget, but didn't find anything suitable.
So he developed an integrated, web-based nonprofit tool called
NonProfitEasy (www.nonprofiteasy.com) in collaboration with
Petaluma Bounty and two other nonprofits. As we're going to press,
this application is moving from beta testing to product
- Shah describes this system as designed from the ground up for
small to medium-sized nonprofits, integrating in one place the
functions they need "on a day-to-day basis," at a price that's
affordable. In one program, nonprofits can manage donors,
volunteers, and members; send emails and e-newsletters; blog and
access social media; register people for events (integrated with
PayPal Pro); collect and integrate online donations; and track and
report everything together.
- Shah confides that, in developing this product, he was
surprised at "the complexities of nonprofit operations. I didn't
realize the magnitude of work I was undertaking!" With a
nonprofit, he says, "You have the same challenges as a for-profit
business," but you have additional challenges, because "you're in
the market with an intangible, a cause or a mission," rather than
just selling specific products or services.
- Another key difference is that nonprofits survive on the work
done by volunteers. If each new person requires expensive software
training, the costs quickly add up. For that reason, Shah aimed to
keep his product's design "absolutely simple" to use.
- Petaluma Bounty's James indicates he's "really eager to make
the shift" to the new software, and expects the biggest benefit to
be saving time and money, "because our staff won't be spending so
much time learning and managing all these different systems." He
likes that there's an overall system logic that makes sense and is
very intuitive; that it's web-based, so anyone can use it from
anywhere on any computer; and that in-house staff can configure
many aspects themselves, avoiding the need to bring in an expert
to modify things like contact categories, online forms, and event
- "Also, when I prepare reports for the board, I can go to the
built-in Dashboard [screen] and see all our key data at a
glance, in a simple graphic format," then click to see further
details. "Currently, we have to dig through all sorts of different
applications to pull that out. Plus, we can give our board members
[direct] access to the Dashboard, so they don't have to
ask us for basic data all the time," says James.
- So what's James' advice for other nonprofits? "I think it's
good to get somebody with a tech or social media background on
your board, or as a very strong volunteer. It helps to have
somebody really immersed in this to lead you each step of the
- Innovating the future
- CVNL's Melissa Breach observes that, in addition to using
technology to "measure and communicate," nonprofits are also
exploring ways it can help them deliver innovative core services.
This might mean, for example, offering online one-on-one tutoring,
"so kids can get top-notch help no matter where they live," she
- She also points to the Marin Institute, which works on issues
of public policy around youth drinking. The organization recently
held a contest inviting young people to submit compelling
counter-drinking ads, and put the winning videos on its website.
Breach says, "The kids' videos are exceptional." (See for yourself
- Another example she mentions is that of a Kenyan woman who ran
a small blog to document her region's violence. Overwhelmed by
people offering and requesting information about where the
violence was, she posted a plea for help. In response, two
American kids built a tool that lets anyone post information as
pinpoints on a public map. "So basically this tool was able to
aggregate an entire community's safety net." The upgraded
software, now called Ushahidi (which means "testimony" in
Swahili), is available free and has been used in other troubled
areas of the world. (www.ushahidi.com)
- Breach muses, "I think there's something really interesting
going on. People who've historically been watchers, or just used
information, are now becoming creators, people who step up and
actually impact the world. That's really new. You didn't used to
be able to do that from your couch."
- When NVCF's Mulligan looks at the potential of the new tech
tools, he's especially interested in "figuring out whether social
media can help us invert the traditional gift pyramid," by
encouraging more everyday people to give small amounts. He feels
this would democratize philanthropy and broaden the support base
- "Anybody who works in philanthropy was totally blown away
that, after the Haiti earthquake, tens of millions of people
donated $10 through their mobile devices," he says. "That's just
staggering to me. And the large national charities have the
resources and technology teams to pursue that, while the rest of
us in the middle, chipping away at the granite wall every day with
our little axes, are thinking, 'Man, that is so cool! How can we
- Bringing it home
- These stories illuminate just some of the opportunities
available to nonprofits that apply technology both to amplify
their effectiveness and innovate new solutions.
- Mulligan suggests that community members can help make these
possibilities real by giving donations for tech infrastructure to
their favorite nonprofits. "You'd be amazed at what a $500 to
$2,500 gift, or a series of those, could do for a nonprofit, to
help them 'up' their game." Also, people with technical skills can
serve on a board or volunteer their time for a project or on an
- The real bottom line, says James, is that "when nonprofits can
do what they do better, cheaper, faster, and more effectively, the
communities they serve benefit too." And that, in turn, benefits
Patricia Dines is the author of a wide variety of helpful
books, newsletters, and articles that inspire and empower
constructive action on community issues. For more information, see
- Great Article!
- Hi Patricia, I really enjoyed the North Bay Biz article --
great job on covering all that territory. I think it will really
help out a lot of nonprofit folks.
- I wanted to share with you that around the time we were
exchanging emails about this article, I was going through some
paperwork and ran across a stack of clippings that I had put
aside, some dating back years (!) and they were "EcoGirl" columns
-- I saw your name and thought, "Hey, that girl leads a double
life!!" Very cool. Keep up the good work. :-)
- Ruth Persselin, Programs and Outreach Director, Petaluma
Hi Patricia, I think you did a great job on the article -- you
really got the story and why it's so important. Congratulations
and thank you.
- Grayson James, Executive Director and "Chief Bounty
Hunter," Petaluma Bounty
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