Many community groups spend hours, days and weeks preparing a strategic plan, fundraising plan, marketing plan and financial plan but often overlook the need for a technology plan. The tech side of running an organisation needs just as much planning but it suffers because it tends to be a specialist area and we often only replace or upgrade our technology one piece at a time when it breaks down.
If it works, we often don't spend too much time wondering if there was a better way to operate or an improvement we could have made that would cost money up front but save money in terms of efficiencies or ability to do other tasks.
A technology plan can save money by helping you to make good decisions, not spend more than you need to meet present and future needs, and make better use of staff and volunteer resources. It works to match what you have to do with the tools you need to do it. And it helps you avoid both hurried ad hoc decisions when something breaks down and has to be replaced and long inefficient periods when you're getting by with equipment that doesn't really meet your needs. You need that kind of perspective whatever the size of your organisation and whatever the size of your budget.
In formulating a tech plan you need to involve:
- The people who are using the equipment
- The people who are setting the goals
- The people who are working on the budget.
You'll need a small group that brings together hands-on knowledge, a feel for the management context in which these technologies will operate, and an openness to new possibilities. And you'll need to nominate one person to co-ordinate it.
Even if you're a one-person office you're going to need a sub-committee - including the treasurer, say, and someone else from board/committee. It's not just a matter of task analysis - looking at what the office does, and then seeing what machines are needed to run that most efficiently (though that's certainly an important element). We're talking here about your organisation realising its full potential, and that means you need to consider not only what you're doing now but what you could do if certain things were different, and what you want to become in the future.
Depending on the complexity of your organisation, its computer system needs and whether you have inside tech support, you may need to call on outside help or consultants, but beware: this can be expensive. If you do need help from consultants, make sure they either have experience in the not-for-profit world or are prepared to think in these terms - there is no point installing a great system if it needs 24-hour-a-day tech-support, is 10 times more powerful than your current or future needs require and the staff would need to spend 12 months learning how to use it effectively.
Another good pointer for small organisations is to seek help from volunteers such as high school or tertiary students (they are often unbelievably IT clever and looking for experience for their CV).
You will need, of course, to inventory your equipment, work out how long you can expect it to run and how long you can expect it to be useable. That's not the most important thing, however; your plan should be founded on what your needs are, not what you have now, or what you're doing now.
First stop must always be your strategic plan. What are you trying to achieve over the next five years? In what ways can technology help you to achieve your goals, either directly or by raising funds or relieving your human resources of other duties?
Computers are already cheap enough and powerful enough to do much more than you do now. Technology moves very quickly. Things that just a few years ago were owned only by large corporations are now virtually everyday objects. Is this explosion of invention going to carry you forward, or leave you stranded behind the pack?
- How can new technologies help your clients?
- How can they personalise your fundraising?
- How can they streamline your administration?
- What can you do yourself that you now outsource, and vice versa?
Most of us only use a small fraction of the power of our software. Programs like Word and Excel have immense untapped potential, and before deciding you need new software for, say, desktop publishing or database work, it's certainly worth checking to see if you can do what you need to do with what you've got. Once you've done that, analyse your shortfalls.
- Would you be better off with a new accounting package?
- Would you be better off with a new database (commercial, or not-for-profit freeware such as e-base)?
- In what areas are you falling behind the pack?
- What office operations do you particularly hate, or take up most of your workers' time?
- What areas of business can't you enter without new tools?
- Do you need to transfer your old records to new storage?
This is the area where you are most likely to need outside or expert help to identify the best possible solutions that cater to your needs at the lowest possible price. Keep in mind, of course, that you want equipment that is compatible with what you already have.
Capital costs of computer equipment are falling in comparison with the cost of peripheral services - for example, the cost of your internet service can easily come to more over the year than the computer you run it on. The real trick here is to be able to estimate how much your work and your fundraising can be strengthened by the internet and your web page and your email newsletter. The costs come immediately; the benefits you have to work at, and you have to do better than average to get those benefits. Increasingly, though, you'll find you have little choice - it's going to be part of the basic cost of doing business.
Once you've got some vision of where you want your technology to take you, you then have to start setting out the plan - the steps and the stages that will get you from here to there. At this point you'll start tying your goals in with the forward budget plan.
- Set out a schedule of costs. What is urgent? What is foundational? What shouldn't be attempted until you've learned more?
- Prepare a business case for your expenditure schedule, showing where new technology can save resources or increase productivity (particularly in fundraising).
- Build your technology skills needs into your position statements, your performance reviews, and your training budget.
Writing the action plan
Your action plan is where you include:
- An organisational profile that reminds everyone that the technology plan is there to further the aims and missions of the organisation
- A review of the current technology
- The needs assessment that defines your technology and professional development requirements
- A vision of how the new technology will benefit your organisation, detailing what you will be able to achieve through each new technology advancement
- A timeline that includes tasks or each new project along with the detailed steps needed to undertake the tasks
- A budget that corresponds with the timeline, broken down to cost for each project
- The goals and outcomes for the use of technology
- Plan for ongoing maintenance and technical support
- Policies and procedures for training staff and volunteers.
The main drain on your resources in the future is increasingly going to come from people, not objects. Training the people who are going to use the equipment is extremely important. You have gone to incredible lengths to get your technology right. Now the next step is to ensure people exploit the technology to the maximum benefit of the organisation.
It is important to look at the technical skill of your staff and volunteers and review the possible training methods. What has worked in the past? Can you stagger introduction to ensure everyone is trained and then move straight onto a new system? Is it better to run small workshops or work one-on-one or send people to outside agencies to train? Should you train each staff member in one program so they can advise everyone else, or should everyone get an overview?