As our reliance on technology grows, so too does our need to plan for it. But technology planning is seldom on the “to do” list of nonprofit organizations and grassroots community groups. If the subject does come up, it could generate lots of kicking and screaming (speaking metaphorically, of course) from busy individuals. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In a nonprofit organization or grassroots community group, technology planning isn’t just about deciding if it’s time to replace your computers or upgrade your software; it’s about connecting your technology needs to your organization’s mission. Typically, the steps involved in preparing a comprehensive technology plan include assessing your existing technology infrastructure, determining your future technology needs, identifying the available resources, and establishing a time line for implementation. Ideally, this type of planning process starts with a team that includes board members as well as staff, and concludes with the drafting of a written plan to guide implementation and possibly also help your organization secure the necessary funding to implement the plan.
There are many useful online resources to help nonprofits plan for their future technology needs. In the section below we introduce some of the tools that organizations can use to prepare a technology plan and summarize the steps involved in creating a plan, gleaned from a variety of online resources as noted.
What Is Technology Planning?
TechSoup defined technology planning as “the process of determining how your organization can best use technology to further your mission. The process of technology planning involves assessing your existing resources, defining your needs, and exploring solutions. A successful planning process will draw on management support and the leadership of a technology team made up of a range of staff members to provide input. It will help you budget for technology and make cost-effective purchases. The first outcome of the planning process is a written technology plan which outlines the phases of technology development, and can also be used as a key tool to advocate for technology funding.”
Assessing Technology Resources
Before you begin the planning process, it’s a good idea to assess your existing technology resources. It’s well worth the time to work through an entire assessment–of equipment, people and skill sets. Documentation of all technology resources is key to understanding your starting point.
Strong leadership encourages enthusiasm about using technology to further an organization’s mission, contributes to buy-in from staff and board, aides in credibility with potential funders, and can counter the negative responses of technophobes within an organization. Ideally, an organization’s executive director provides strong leadership, but it can also come from program managers or Board members.
The Planning Team
Technology planning should be a team activity. The team’s responsibilities include assessing current technology, identifying technology needs and priorities, drafting a technology vision statement, preparing a budget and timeline, drafting the technology plan, monitoring the plan’s implementation, and ensuring stakeholder buy-in. Ideally, the team includes the executive director (or another manager), a project manager, administrative assistant, bookkeeper or accountant, development director, system administrator or tech consultant, and Board member. But not all organizations have sufficient resources for this, and even those that do face numerous challenges: lack of time, lack of technical knowledge, frustration with technology and a lack of interest in planning, among others. There are also some logistical issues to consider, including when and how often the team meets, how the team communicates internally and with other staff, and whether or not an outside facilitator is needed.
Technology Assessment Tools
There are many useful tools to guide you through the assessment process. Google will provide an array to choose from if you search “online technology planning tool.” Different organizations will have varying needs, and A-Z Techs can help locate the right tool for you.
Identifying and Prioritizing Technology Needs
After you’ve assessed the current state of your technology, the next step in the planning process is brainstorming to identify your organization’s future technology needs, and to prioritize them. At this point the planning team will want to go back to the rest of the staff for a brainstorming session. Every organization will have its own specific needs, but the possibilities may include:
- Purchasing new software or software updates
- Customizing current software to better meet users’ needs
- Providing general training for the staff
- Focused training on a specific piece of software or skill
- Replacing or customizing a database
- Establishing an Internet presence
- Developing an email action alert list
- Improving online marketing and outreach
- Designing a new web site, or redesigning an existing site
- Developing policies and procedures for using computers
- Implementing backup systems and other security measures
- Replacing obsolete hardware
- Hiring a technology manager
Since your brainstorming session will most likely identify more technology needs than your organization can address, the next step will be to prioritize your needs. What are the three most important items on your organization’s list? Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and set priorities accordingly.This part of the planning process is likely to generate some lively discussion!
After you’ve identified your priorities, it’s time to draft a technology vision statement. Start by reviewing your organization’s mission statement. This should get you thinking about what you need. Key questions to consider include:
- How will technology help your organization fulfill it’s mission?
- How will it improve organizational effectiveness?
The next step in the process is developing a technology budget. This will require some research. It’s not unusual for organizations to narrowly define costs as the price of a new computer or software package. You might even remember to include the cost of hiring a consultant to install the new equipment. But there’s a good chance you won’t consider what some experts refer to as the “total cost of ownership.” This includes many costs that aren’t obvious, such as:
- Staff time to learn new software programs or attend training classes
- Backup hardware and software
- Monthly updates to anti-virus software
- Frequent security patches (especially for computers running on Microsoft’s Windows operating system)
- Creating and updating an operations manual (or having to explain the same thing half a dozen times because you don’t have a manual)
- Network connectivity costs such as an ISP for Internet connection, and routers and cables for internal networking
- Application service provider costs such as secure servers for credit card donations, or email list services
Including realistic costs is crucial. Make sure you’ve considered all the costs in your budget.
Timeline for Implementation
The final step before you actually start writing your technology plan is to establish a timeline for implementation. Ideally, you’ll be working on a plan that can be implemented over a period of a year or more. (The planning process isn’t useful if your server just died and you need to replace it.)
As you develop your timeline, ask and answer these questions:
- What are the first things you will need to do?
- How long do you estimate it will take to complete those tasks?
- Once those tasks are completed, what are the next steps?
- How long will it take to complete those tasks?
- What are the next steps, etc.
Timelines should be flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen events, but rigid enough to maintain momentum. You will most likely want to segment your timeline into phases of three to six months. Be sure to include the time you will need to secure funding if you’re going to have to apply for grants or undertake other fundraising activities to raise the money you’ve budgeted to implement your plan.
Writing the Plan
You have assessed your existing resources, identified and prioritized your needs, drafted your technology vision statement, prepared a budget and created a timeline for implementation. You’re finally ready to write your plan. Fortunately, much of the work you’ve already done will be incorporated into the plan.
The written plan should include at least these four key elements:
- A technology vision statement
- A description of the strategy for implementing that vision, which is where you identify your technology needs
- A timeline
- A budget
More detailed plans might include:
- An organizational profile
- A mission statement
- An inventory of current technology and/or staff skills
- A breakdown of benefits, tasks, and costs of implementation
- A breakdown of long and short-term goals (useful for plans covering longer periods of time)
- Evaluation criteria (this may be important if you’re seeking a grant to implement your plan)
Funding for Technology
With luck, the effort that goes into preparing a technology plan will help you get the plan funded. That’s why it’s so important that your technology vision statement describes how technology will help your organization fulfill it’s mission. While there are a few foundations that specifically provide grants for technology, most are overwhelmed with requests. Your best option may be to approach funders and donors who are already supporting your mission, and use your plan to demonstrate how technology is necessary to carry out your mission. If your technology plan budget is based on “total cost of ownership” principles, you may be able to fund a portion of your technology by including those costs in the program budgets you submit with grant applications. If you’re a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, you may qualify to purchase discounted software from Microsoft, TechSoup, and other non-profit friendly vendors.