Apr 14 2015

Nonprofits and For-Profits: Same Technology, Different Worlds

There are both philosophical and practical differences between the two sectors.

While nonprofits and for-profit businesses have lots of differences between them, both do rely on technology to grow, innovate and operate on a daily basis.

However, the two kinds of organizations use and purchase technology differently, writes Peter Campbell, CIO of Legal Services Corporation, on the NTEN Blog. NTEN was recently named one of BizTech’s Must-Read Nonprofit IT Blogs.

Campbell writes that nonprofit technology is "both a class of software and an approach to technology deployment.”

Nonprofits might use technology similar to for-profits, such as CRM software, but they utilize other terminology and processes within those systems, Campbell points out in the NTEN post.

In some cases, the same systems that salespeople and marketers use can suffice, as evidenced by the popularity of Salesforce in the nonprofit space. But the nonprofit sector has its own terminology around revenue processes, so, if commercial software is used, it's modified to address that. In the Salesforce case, a nonprofit will either use a fundraising application that was developed for the platform, such as Roundcause or Blackbaud's Luminate.

Because nonprofits run lean and mean, deployment of that technology also takes a different approach.

Deploying it is the challenge, with little IT staff and less time to focus on how systems should be implemented, technology rollouts are often done on the fly. Where a for-profit might invest significant time up front analyzing the business processes that the system will address, such as evaluating products and training staff, these steps are a hard sell in an understaffed environment where people always have at least five other things to prioritize.

In this regard, nonprofits are like startups or small businesses, which often boast one-person IT shops. Even though the industry is regulated and bound by very strict rules, people who work in nonprofit technology must be flexible, accommodating and collaborative.

In the nonprofit world, IT certifications are nice, but people skills, Campbell says, are more important.

“The soft skills matter even more than the tech skills, because you will likely be reporting to people who don't understand what tech does. If you can't justify your projects in terms that they'll understand, they won't consider funding them,” he writes.

Having a small IT department may present a challenge when it comes to implementation, but not having a large IT department also means organizations can try creative solutions without asking for permission.

“If you're a tech strategist, you can try things that a more risk-averse for-profit wouldn't, as long as the risk you're taking isn't too costly,” Campbell writes.

So it’s safe to say that working in nonprofit technology isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.

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