Feb 24 2022
Digital Workspace

Q&A: How Nonprofits Are Emerging from Two Years of Crisis Management

After deploying stopgap technology solutions to muddle through the pandemic, nonprofits now have hard decisions to make, says NTEN CEO Amy Sample Ward.

For most organizations, the pandemic arrived as a crisis. For nonprofits, the crisis was existential: Many provided services to disadvantaged communities in person and relied heavily on live fundraising events. It was not clear how, or whether, these could be successfully transferred to online platforms.

How have nonprofits weathered the crisis? BizTech spoke with, Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, a leading technology capacity-building nonprofit, and one of 30 Nonprofit IT Influencers to Follow in 2021, who discussed where the industry is today on its digital journey and what more needs to be done. 

BIZTECH: We’re two years into the pandemic. What have those years have been like from a tech deployment perspective in the nonprofit world?

WARD: At the start of the pandemic, especially in the nonprofit sector, it was, “We’ll all just go home for two weeks and then everything will be fine and back to normal.” That feeling — that whatever we were experiencing was temporary — was very much tied to the conversation about technology over the past two years. Even after those two weeks, when it became very clear that it wasn’t over and we weren’t going back, the decisions for a lot of nonprofits were still Band-Aids, rushed, or moving to a technology because of a “pandemic special,” when technology providers were offering a lot of free and reduced-price deals on software.

Now that we’re two years in, we see so many organizations — honestly, of every budget size and every mission type — saying, “Huh, that wasn’t a sustainable decision” or “That wasn’t the best technology choice for us,” and now they have to go through that whole process of migrating tools again. It really shined a light on how many organizations were used to making technology decisions in that way: reactive, opportunistic and without a lot of robust decision-making.

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BIZTECH: Where is the industry now in its digital transformation journey?

WARD: We’re about to release our latest “Managing Tech Change Report,” which details results of a survey we put out to the whole community. We need to be able to print that sad trombone sound: One of the findings is that only 10 percent of respondents said that all people on their team even know what the decision-making process is when it comes to technology. Well, if you don’t know what the process is, I don’t imagine the process is going smoothly and getting you to the best outcomes.

Here’s an example: There’s an organization that, pre-pandemic, provided mental health support services to the local population. Enter the pandemic. Like many organizations they said, “We’ll just move to Zoom.” After a year or so, they noticed they’re no longer serving only patients in Queens, N.Y. Now they have patients in Wisconsin and Colorado. They said, “That’s not our mission to serve those people, but it’s not our moral standing to no longer serve patients we’ve taken on.” So, they created a world where technology decisions are to some degree deciding their mission. Zoom isn’t the problem, but the application of the technology was made without a clear understanding of what it would mean to move that service online.

Where are we at two years in? I would characterize it as still a bit messy, trying to be intentional, but still managing the reactive-type decisions that were made before and continuing to see the biggest pulls on our missions that we’ve ever had. There’s an incredible community need that organizations want to meet, and they are still struggling to find that breathing space in their staff time and capacity, or in their budgets, to do that kind of intentional planning around technology.

BIZTECH: With the understanding that nonprofits vary in size and scope, do they generally have qualified technology leadership, or do they have a people challenge?

WARD: At NTEN, we typically refer to the “technology manager” and “technology-responsible staff person.” When you look at a technology-responsible staff member, it’s common that technology is just a part of someone’s job.

MORE FOR NONPROFITS: Explore the industry tech trends to watch in 2022.

What’s interesting is that our research shows there are nonprofits of every budget size at the leading edge when it comes to tech, and organizations of every budget size at the very back. It’s not just about how much money you have for technology; it’s about how you use it. We see organizations with very small budgets putting that money to work very well.

In our survey, we asked people what the biggest barriers are to technology change. The perception is always that money is the biggest barrier, but in reality, the biggest barrier is staff time. Over 80 percent said that was a barrier for them, and that’s across budget size. Change is hard and it takes time, especially for technology that undergirds the entire organization’s mission. It takes every single staff member learning that new system.

BIZTECH: When it comes to technology, what do you see nonprofits getting right?

WARD: The most promising examples are those of organizations inviting community members into the decision-making process, saying, “You’re the ones that are the participants in this service. What do you actually need?” Sometimes, the needs and priorities from the community aren't on the organization's roadmap. Prioritizing users means those tech investments will bring better outcomes.

BIZTECH: What are nonprofits getting wrong?

WARD: A lot of organizations deployed technology tools because they worked for individual teams or programs, but those things are isolated and they’re not working together. How do these folks, who have tried to make good decisions about how to get the tools they need for specific purposes, now figure out how to get those tools to talk to each other? What does that mean for trying to use data to improve what they do and for the experience of the community members interacting with them?

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To be fair, I want to say that I don’t think there’s usually as much of a divide between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds as we tend to think. There are millions of for-profit companies that went out of business during the pandemic, and I think sometimes we think about big Fortune 500 companies versus the smallest nonprofit. There’s a diversity of lessons and innovations in both those sectors because there are so many different types and sizes of organizations.

BIZTECH: What are the major tech imperatives in the nonprofit space right now? Digital fundraising, service delivery, data management?

WARD: A really big challenge we’ve seen growing for years is rooted in data. It isn’t that organizations don’t have data, it’s that there’s not enough intentionality in the data that’s collected, and so there are limits to what you can do with the data.

Nonprofits are in a difficult position where a lot of the data they collect is determined by the funders they have at a given time. Every funder says, “Our mission is this, we’ll give you a grant, and we expect you to report in this way.” So, organizations are less often in a position to say, “What’s really meaningful to our theory of change? How do we evaluate that the way we want to and then collect that data?” Instead, they’re pulled to collect data in a way that those funders are asking for. Is it related to mission? That’s less of a priority, because it’s meant to be related to the funders’ missions.

There’s an existential crisis in the sector around data, because it’s not the funders’ data and it’s not the nonprofits’ data — it’s the constituents’ data. Where’s the constituent in the conversation? That’s really a similar conversation to the one happening in for-profit sectors: What is the customer data? How do we protect it? How do we allow people to see and know what we’re collecting on them? What are the privacy rights of the individual consumer?

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