Navigating Nonprofit Technology

How nonprofits can unlock technology's potential
to help them be more effective in their missions.



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Navigating Nonprofit Technology
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 Marin

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 applications.
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 well-being.
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 effectively."
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 (, 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 (, 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 (, 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, 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 Website."
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 and productivity.
Help in Marin
A central resource for Marin nonprofits is the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership of Marin (CVNL, Its offerings include conferences, ongoing peer roundtables, a resource library, and workshops on topics such as social media, raising money online, and donor management systems.
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 tweeting."
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,, 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 overall.

"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 ( in collaboration with Petaluma Bounty and two other nonprofits. As we're going to press, this application is moving from beta testing to product release.
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 registration.
"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 way."
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 says.
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 at
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. (
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 for nonprofits.
"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 do that?'"
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 ongoing basis.
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 us all.

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 Bounty


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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