My in-laws have an unused laptop, and I'm currently in the process of getting them connected to the Internet to encourage them to use it. The plan is for them to keep in touch with grandchildren at college, but the learning curve is going to be huge. Their connection goes live later this month, and I can already imagine the phone calls to my daughter with her responding patiently: “Did you switch it on, Nanny?” or “You’ve lost what?”
I’ve decided the best way for them to keep in touch is to use Facebook — it’s where the grandkids are, and it handles photos and instant messaging as well. But there’s a problem: Facebook is actually quite hard to understand. How many times have you seen new members post wall comments to friends, believing they were having private conversations?
We might move on to Skype after that. They’re smart people, my in-laws (I have to say that), but the learning curve is going to be steep because the technology has emerged mostly since they retired from work and isn’t mature enough yet to be easy to use.
As you know, my in-laws and their contemporaries are who many nonprofits have depended upon as their core supporter base for years: older people with a concern for the causes and a little disposable income. The demographic sands are shifting — there will be an increasing number of older donors with more disposable income as the baby boomer generation matures, and those donors are going to have to use technology to support their nonprofit organizations of choice. With the likely long-term demise of checks as a method of payment, nonprofits are going to need to make sure their technology is incredibly easy to use so anyone can utilize it.
But won’t tomorrow’s older generation be well-versed in the use of technology? Not necessarily — there’s the physical side to consider. Smartphones are fiddly to use, and screens can cause eyestrain. Plus, you have a strange device called a mouse to get used to, and if you use a PC, you need basic knowledge of how Windows works when things don’t quite go as planned. It’s like when my dad taught me to drive: I just wanted to get in the car and drive, but he came from the generation when you had to have basic knowledge of how a car works in order to drive one, just in case you needed to fix it.
However, recent developments are simplifying things. I admit that I didn’t get it at first, but the iPad might just be the device that opens up accessibility to the net for anyone. The hardware and the operating system are so unobtrusive they’re almost invisible. You use the Web instead of operating a computer — there’s no mouse to get used to, the touch keyboard is reasonably usable, you can adjust font sizes and it’s surprisingly easy to read without eyestrain. Better still, software developers have realized that you can’t and shouldn’t attempt to pack all the features and settings into an app that you can on a PC. That makes the apps easier to use and more affordable. Facebook on the iPhone or iPad is much easier to understand than the full website.
Now imagine the new generation of donors whose experience of technology will be the iPad and whatever follows. These donors won't be exposed to the complexities of the operating system, and they’ll drive the technology on the basis that it just works somehow. If it goes wrong, they just call the "garage" for help. And that’s what will open technology for the traditional support base of older people.
So to get my in-laws to support your nonprofit, you’re going to have to make your website very easy to use and accessible. And I might need to convince them that, having bought that laptop two years ago, an iPad might be a better idea now.
Robin Fisk is a senior charity technology specialist at Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit software provider Advanced Solutions International (ASI).