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Planning for the Next Generation of Nonprofit Technology

By Tom Watson on January 13, 2006No Comment
TelephonePlanning for the Next Generation of Nonprofit Technology

Technology is improving everyday, so how do nonprofits keep up with the changing times?  They have a technology plan. 

You might have heard of some of today’s hottest technical buzzwords and acronyms floating around your IT department, but do you know what RSS, XML, BizTalk, SOA, and MSMQ really mean — and more importantly, how they can impact your organization?  With the proper technology plan, nonprofits can work towards getting a single view of their constituents by using secure, open, integrated systems with easily accessible data. Unfortunately, most nonprofits want this view, but are not sure where to begin.

Most nonprofits have a fair amount of computer technology integrated into their daily operations, but they frequently cannot get the information out of their systems that they need to manage their organizations and fulfill their missions.  Their operations, in many ways, are not being supported by their data systems; instead, they are being constrained by those same systems. In order to counter the current technological issues and plan for the future, nonprofits should:

Foster relationships with technology
Integrate systems
Extend the reach of systems

Fostering Relationships with Technology
As organizations grew and technology advanced, traditional paper-based storage became inefficient and slow, so nonprofits implemented computer systems to handle key business functions. This migration from paper to computer brought tremendous advantages, but it created new challenges as well.  These challenges included duplicate data, high expenses from the migration, lack of personalization for constituents, and dependence on the system for the “right answers.”

As a nonprofit continues to improve its computer technology, it is important for the organization to focus on how such systems can help improve the level of personalization with which it shows its constituents. For example, a system can be configured to track every interaction an organization has with an individual. Sophisticated software can be used for campaign management, so constituents receive personalized and timely communication, while the organization can better target its prospects. The use of visitor-specific Web sites adds an additional layer of personalized contact between a nonprofit organization and its constituents. A computerized system can also streamline internal processes to allow for faster donation processing and acknowledgement. By planning for and understanding technology, nonprofits can still maintain higher volumes of constituents and streamline back office processes while improving the quality of their communication with those constituents.

Integrating Systems
Eventually the time comes to implement more sophisticated software. Many nonprofits will purchase best-of-breed systems from various vendors, each of which give one type of specialized functionality. However, this creates “data islands,” with information spread over multiple platforms and in different formats. Nonprofits are not able to get a single-view of the constituent, and, thus, relationships are thwarted.

Many leading nonprofits have integrated key systems — fundraising and finance, for instance — through custom-written integration software that can automate the exchange of information.  Other organizations have approached this challenge by using Business Intelligence tools to aggregate massive amounts of relational information into a single data warehouse, providing users with one-stop access to cross-system information.  In the future, look for increasing adoption of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) as an Enterprise-wide standard for transferring and translating information between systems.  This is the natural next step in the evolution of Web Services and is currently the hot topic in the for-profit IT world.

Extending the Reach of Systems
As data volume increases, nonprofits have begun to adopt larger and larger databases to store and analyze information and sophisticated software for interacting with that data. However, an organization can become too dependent on such information systems and may eventually be unable to function away from the computer. Within the organization, end users may avoid using the system because it is too complex or difficult to use.

Driving system adoption by making it easier for casual users can increase user satisfaction and reliability on the system.  System users can also use technology to access database information remotely through the Internet, via remote access technology (Citrix®, VPNs, terminal services), and using new multiple access devices (PDAs, wireless tablet PCs, BlackBerry® wireless devices, etc.). Nonprofits can also create new modes of access to improve workflow, including implementing online/offline applications.

These areas of emphasis — fostering relationships, integrating systems, and extending the reach of data systems — are key considerations for mature nonprofits when assessing their future technology needs, and they should be included as essential elements of an organization’s formal technology plan.

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