The Technical Path to Better Non-profits

The Technical Path to Better Non-profits

I had the opportunity to sit down with Lance K. Russell to gain his insight on the state of technology in the not for profit sector. Lance K. Russell is an entrepreneur who founded and grew PointBridge into one of the top Microsoft consultancies in the United States, with nearly 100 employees and $20MM in annual revenue. He successfully sold the business in early 2012 to Perficient (NASDAQ: PRFT). He also led all marketing, finance, HR, recruiting and administration functions, and previously oversaw all sales and business development, including the relationship with Microsoft. He is currently serving on the boards of both The Cara Program and Chicago Tech Academy High School.

Connect with Lance on Twitter and LinkedIn!

Many non-profits are significantly under-invested in technology, so they are not making the impact they could be making.

The Risk of Not Investing in Technology

Non-profit boards often look at technology as an expense and not as an investment. It’s an error to put technology in the overhead bucket. Technology allows us to scale.

For instance, if a two-million-dollar-a-year non-profit, spending 3% of its budget on technology, reaching 200 stakeholders a year increases their spend on technology to 6%, that could very well be the difference that helps them reach 500 stakeholders a year.

It’s true that we’re currently in a climate where funding is getting harder and harder. But you can’t afford to not invest in this. More than a hundred non-profit organizations have closed, merged or consolidated back office functions in the last five years.

Those non-profits that invest smartly in technology will be in the best position to succeed in this tough funding climate.

Steps to Getting on the Right Path

  1. Get board support. Some of this comes with board selection. You have to make sure you have the right board members, or at least a handful of people in your board who understand technology and the kind of business impact that it can have. If you don’t have those kinds of people in your board today, you may have do your part by educating them.
  2. Allocate for technology as a part of your capital budget. You have to have a small portion in your technology budget every year that goes into advancing the cost from a business impact standpoint.

Most non-profits have a network administrator or help desk person on staff. They’ve got enough money and budget to replace the computers that are five years old, but that’s simply not enough.

What are some of the Best Uses of Technology in a Non-Profit?

There are two places where technology is the most helpful:

  1. Use technology to make your people and your team more productive. Use collaboration technologies, instant messaging and mobile voice capabilities. At the end of the day, we’re only as good as how much our people can get done in a day, and how many great ideas they can come up with. Non-profits can’t pay the highest salaries, but we can still empower our people through technology.
  2. Deploy technology at the places in your organization where you touch your stakeholders. The project management software that we use for collaborating with our clients is critical. With this tool, we’re able to give them a customer experience that they can’t get in other places.

Technology is More than Social

I see a lot of non-profits for whom technology means social media, and there’s no question that it should be a part of an overall outreach program. But it is not a marketing, fundraising or branding strategy. Social media is just one more tool in the toolbox.

From our standpoint, it’s probably far down the list compared to collaboration tools, marketing automation tools, business intelligence tools and web tools. I want to encourage non-profits to stop looking at social media as a silver bullet solution for engagement with stakeholders.

A Great Example to Follow

The CARA Program has done a phenomenal job of wrapping their arms around their metrics and key performance indicators. They have one of the most sophisticated databases for tracking outcomes that I’ve seen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these guys have tripled their size in the last eight years, and that they have achieved a 4-star rating in Charity Navigator for four years in a row. They’re one of the smartest organizations I’ve seen in either the for-profit or not-for-profit sector.

How has your organization used technology for the better?

A Measurable Impact

Initial placement rate:
Industry retention rate:
College attendance rate:
Alumni actively engaged in their communities:
Average 12-month earnings before program:
Average 12-month earnings after program: