When Funding Windfalls Cause IT Problems for Nonprofits (and What to Do About It)
You run a mid-sized nonprofit. Suddenly, a funding source comes through big-time with the technology grant you’ve been waiting for. Time to pop the champagne?
Not so fast.
Technology funding windfalls can cause disorder and disarray at nonprofit organizations.
Staff: Nonprofits and their staff are accustomed to “running on a shoestring.” Employees have honed their skills to economize. Many IT staff have never been given resources and have no experience in even medium-scale system upgrades.
Legacy Systems: Networks, hardware and software inside resource-strapped nonprofits can often have a “duck-tape-and-chewing-gum” setup. Funding for brand new servers or tablets can be difficult or even impossible to deploy on top of cobbled-together system architecture.
Lack of Internet Bandwidth: Even medium-sized nonprofits tend to economize on Internet access, with insufficient Wi-Fi points and third-tier providers. This results in unreliable broadband access. But many state-of-the-art tools rely on good access. If your nonprofit is funded for distance learning or given a high-end digital assets management system, it may be uncomfortable to learn your access doesn’t support its use.
Limited Timeframe: Funding sources may require implementation within a certain amount of time. Also, some institutions—such as schools—have a fixed program year. Upgrades and installations need to happen in the two-month window of summer vacation.
Here are four tips to mitigate the problems above and get to the champagne popping.
1. Know Your IT Situation
This is good advice whether or not a windfall comes your way. What is the state of your network, equipment and staff? Before applying for technology-related funding, nonprofit managers should understand whether their existing infrastructure could handle a grant if they get it. Build in these costs to your funding requests.
2. Augment Staff
What if you didn’t plan ahead? You have 200 tablets arriving for your students, an IT director who graduated college last year and a duck-tape-and-chewing-gum computer network.
The very first thing you need is IT expertise. An experienced person or firm will be able to quickly analyze what you need to absorb your new tech funding and get the most out of it.
3. Identify Critical Path
Your IT expert will likely lay out numerous high-priority fixes. But, though everything needs to get done, it does not necessarily all need to get done now.
This is where “critical path planning” comes in. Critical path planning identifies the showstoppers and deal breakers. For example, if someone donates an Adobe Photoshop license to your organization, you need computers capable of running the latest version of Photoshop. Lack of those computers is a showstopper—absolutely high, probably number one, on the critical path.
Consider the tablet example above. In this real-world situation, the school did not have adequate Wi-Fi to support all 200 tablets. But, with some questioning of teachers, it was discovered that not all students needed to be on Wi-Fi at once. In fact, the teachers could coordinate amongst themselves, so that, at most, 20 tablets would get online simultaneously. This situation could continue for a semester.
Fixing the Wi-Fi immediately came off critical path. Other items, such as developing a process to set up, roll out and troubleshoot the new tablets, were much more important.
4. Case Study Your Experience
Networks, servers and bandwidth are not super sexy. It’s often hard to get administrations and boards to pay attention to such nuts-and-bolts elements of operations. Perceptions may be, “Everything seems to be working okay. So, what if we’re down a couple times a month?”
A new source of funding can be a great “aha” moment. Case study your situation to demonstrate how better-prepared IT puts your nonprofit in a nimbler posture to absorb technology investment.
Anna Murray is a technology consultant and the CEO of eMedia LLC. She is the author of the best-selling book in the Wiley CIO series, "The Complete Software Project Manager: Mastering Technology from Planning to Launch and Beyond."