Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

"The nature of the model depends on the kind of animal we are."
--Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins, TED Conference, 2005

It's hard out there for a nonprofit that's trying to make decisions about what kind of computer systems to buy. Every nonprofit, ranging from local organizations with staffs numbering in the single digits to large, relatively well-funded international organizations such as the Red Cross, has unique technology needs. But the basic priniciples for making technology decisions are similar, as is the big challenge: keeping expenses as low as possible. Smaller organizations may simply not have very much money to spend; larger ones have to keep a close eye on the bottom line because donors want to know that most of their money is being spent on the mission, and not the machines.
That information -- usually couched in terms of how much is spent on programs -- is easily available through a variety of charity watchdogs that monitor the finances of both large and small nonprofits.

Once a nonprofit has determined how much money it has to spend on computer technology in a given time period, the best practices for selecting what to buy are very similar. The mistakes made look pretty much the same as well, says Holly Ross of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Ross, currently NTEN's director of programs, will become its executive director on Nov. 1.

"You have to make sure you're making technology decisions that serve your mission," says Ross. "A lot of nonprofits get talked into purchases by staff, consultants, and even volunteers, without thinking through whether the system or technology is useful." She adds that the most common error nonprofits make is not taking the cost of training and support into account. "You can have the best systems in the world, but it comes down to people," she says. Staff member have to know how to use the hardware and software correctly, which often requires both time and money. She suggests that organizations follow what she calls the "70-30 rule."

"Of your technology budget, 30 percent should be for hardware and software," she explains, "and 70 percent should be for support and training." Unfortunately, she says, "nobody does that."

But that problem hasn't gone unnoticed, either by companies who donate computers and hardware, or by San Francisco-based TechSoup, a nonprofit founded in 1987 specifically to help other nonprofits both procure and use technology intelligently. TechSoup is well known for its TechSoup Stock service, which works on a large scale to match technology companies, who donate computer hardware, software, and networking equipment, to nonprofits who need the technology but can only afford to pay a fraction of its true cost.

TechSoup knows that advice and support are crucial. "There's a major tech company that works with us," says TechSoup Sr. Communications Manager Franziska Marks. "Through their own program they once gave away some super-expensive switches and routers. And then a year later they showed up, unannounced, at the nonprofits and said, 'Hey, what did you do with it?' And they ended up as doorstoppers, because people knew they needed them, but had no clue what to do with them."

TechSoup spends plenty of time and energy soliciting and processing product donations from companies such as Microsoft, Intuit, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Lotus, and cash contributions from large foundations like the "Healthy & Secure Computing Workbook," which includes brief primers on commonly used types of hardware and software products and detailed worksheets for planning and keeping track of inventory. The focus, says Marks, is to help nonprofits build solid technology infrastructures. Sue Bennett, author of "The Accidental Techie: Supporting, Managing, and Maximizing Your Nonprofit's Technology " says that while each nonprofit has unique needs, it's important that each organization has a set of standards for what hardware and software it will accept as donations, setting minimum hardware requirements for things such as processor type or speed, amount of RAM, hard disk drive size, and so on, and not accepting software that is either out of date or can't be supported by the organization. She also recommends management practices that take into consideration the limited support that is available to most small nonprofits, where "the accidental techie" may function as the IT manager and the entire support staff -- in addition to the position they were hired for -- which usually has nothing to do with technology.

Bennett, who is the Projects Director for Compasspoint , a San Franciso-based consulting firm for nonprofits, emphasizes management principles rather than specific hardware and software tools. The key management requirements, she says, include:
  • keeping a hardware and software inventory;
  • keeping a user/skills inventory;
  • providing training;
  • having in place a formalized system of support requests; and
  • creating and maintaining decentralized support, including cheat sheets and written instructions.

Whatever computer system needs a nonprofit has, the key, those we interviewed agree, is to use some formulas that work for most organizations, and plug in your own variables. Because your organization will grow and change, and technology will speed ahead, but the fundamentals of buying, using, and maintaining appropriate, cost-effective hardware and software will remain relatively steady for years to come. Last modified on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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