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Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.
A year ago, Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civil Society Studies published a document titled, "The Nonprofit Technology Gap - Myth or Reality." The authors of the publication were curious to find out how accurately the widely held assumption that nonprofits are at a technological disadvantage reflects reality. Their findings were somewhat mixed. They reported that the majority of nonprofits rely quite heavily on technological solutions in their day-to-day operations. However, despite the fact that nonprofits seem to utilize technology more than may be expected, the majority of respondents expressed a discontent with their technological status. An official press release for the study reads:
The survey ... found that most nonprofit managers believe there is still considerable room for improvement. Less than half of respondents noted that they are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their organization's current level of information technology. ... What is more, a significant proportion of nonprofit organizations remain well behind the curve.
While these findings are undoubtedly true, it is important to note that nonprofits are far from helpless in this area. I have been impressed with how many tools and resources are out there to assist the many nonprofits who want to improve their information technology portfolio. Many of the best nonprofit technology resources are provided by other nonprofit organizations with the express mission of bringing the nonprofit sector out of technological obscurity.
One of the resources I have been most impressed with is the "Technology Literacy Benchmarks For Nonprofit Organizations," created by NPower. It's the best guide for helping nonprofits establish a technology strategy that I've seen so far. It's a few years old now, but I still think it is excellent for helping organizations determine where they are, and where they need to go. My favorite part is the "Technology Planning" section. They point out the fact that "many nonprofits find themselves reacting to technological problems and developments on an ad hoc basis." They strongly urge all nonprofits to establish a "two- or three-year written technology plan that is integrated into [their] overall strategic plan and/or annual program plan." This is especially important for young nonprofits who are just starting out. The benchmarking tool gives great advice as to what kinds of technologies should be given priority in such a plan.
Another great tech resource for nonprofits is the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Earlier this year they released the results of their "2010 Nonprofit IT Staffing & Spending Survey," which can also serve as a benchmarking tool. NTEN is a great resource for best practices information and resources. It is my go-to place for all nonprofit technological information. I love getting their newsletter and quarterly journal, "Change." The most recent edition includes an article about databases that especially resonated with me because we are currently in the process of converting to a single database here at the Lodestar Center. I found the wisdom and advice in the article to be timely and helpful. They suggested several things that I had not previously considered. I was especially impressed with the fact that they gave several case scenarios with different solutions for the many and varied sizes and configurations of nonprofits out there.
TechSoup and Idealware are another couple of wonderful websites with suggestions and resources for bringing your nonprofit up to speed with computers, software, knowledge resources, and training opportunities. They are powerful resources that can help organizations obtain hardware and software at steeply discounted prices (or even for free).
Idealware recently published their 2011 Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits, an exhaustive resource for discovering the best software solutions for your organization. It isn't a free publication, but the cost is fairly negligible ($19.95) - especially when compared with the potential cost- (and headache-) saving benefits.
I know I've just listed a lot of information and resources, but if you take some time to sift through, unpack, and then implement what you learn, I think you'll agree that these are indispensible resources for the nonprofit community. I honestly believe that with these kinds of tools at our fingertips, the biggest obstacles to bridging the technology gap are more related to current paradigms than an actual dearth of resources. While it must be acknowledged that funding is scarce and funds simply may not be available right now, I'm convinced that the "work smarter, not harder" adage is definitely true for nonprofits. There are plenty of options for even the most strictly budgeted organizations. You might be surprised at what can be accomplished with a combination of donated tech, opensource/freeware, and a little creativity.
Have an opinion on this topic? What are some of your greatest technological challenges and/or successes? Did I leave out an important resource that you think should be shared with the world? Leave a comment and let us know about it!
Travis Butterfield is a Project Coordinator, Marketing & Communications at the ASU Lodestar Center. He has been with the Center for over three years and enjoys working with the websites and doing graphic design/marketing projects. He is currently going back to school for a second bachelor's degree, this time in Graphic Information Technology. He enjoys reading nerdy books, eating PEZ, and inserting movie quotes into everyday conversation.
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