Greater Cincinnati nonprofits gather to learn how technology can help them innovate

Experts: Technology can help agencies do more

CINCINNATI - Business leaders have heard time and again how technology can help them innovate. Now Greater Cincinnati nonprofit leaders will hear that message, too.

More than 150 nonprofit executives, fundraisers, board members and staff will gather Tuesday for the 12 th annual Securing the Future conference, presented by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

The event at Xavier University's Cintas Center will feature keynote speakers Randal Moss and Amy Sample Ward. Moss is author of "The Future of Nonprofits," and Ward is membership director of Nonprofit Technology Network, known as NTEN.

Moss will discuss ways nonprofits can nurture entrepreneurial employees and build on their own innovations. Ward will talk about ways that nonprofits can use technology to help change the world.

Both speakers answered questions from WCPO Digital via email to discuss how nonprofits can use technology to better serve their clients and supporters.

Q: What do nonprofits do right and what do they do wrong when it comes to how they use technology?

Moss: Nonprofit Organizations (NPOs) do not necessarily use technology right or wrong but seem to primarily be timing challenged. Historically, and for good reason, NPOs have been very intentional and even resistant to bringing on new technology into their practice until that technology has been proven and is matured in its lifecycle. What is wrong in this approach is that by the time the NPOs can create strategies and tactics around the technology, the NPOs have lost a first mover advantage. While it will most certainly deliver value if used properly, the cautious organizations lose years of productivity due to their risk-averse stance. 

Ward: There are many nonprofits doing many things right. Some of the mistakes I see organizations make come from a fear that adopting new technologies will mean taking up more staff time or otherwise create "more work" to do. Instead, technologies like social media and email marketing tools actually help organizations scale conversations and make communications more efficient. 

Q: How could better use of technology by nonprofits improve services for their clients?

Moss: There really are too many ways to name, and the benefits are only limited by the creativity of the NPO. Social service NPOs can use technology to better match and even predict client's needs for services. Technology could reduce cost of service deliver and improve client outcomes through more robust consumer record management (CRM) systems. NPOs can drastically increase fundraising by tapping into technology based online communities. In the last decade digital communities have proliferated as neighborhood communities have deteriorated. Social networking technology can help constituents feel more connected to the organization. Moreover the organizations can use technology tools to more efficiently train staff and fundraisers. In the same way that NPOs can train their staff, they can also empower their fundraisers to more efficiently connect and engage their networks. 

Ward: On one side, there are the communications pieces: more information that is more readily available and accessible. This helps people find out about services in the first place and helps get more people that need your services connected to them. On the other side, there are the user experience pieces: using data informatively to track clients and identify opportunities to serve them better, while also using the data collectively to evaluate your services and improve them for everyone.

Q: Should nonprofits be investing more in technology? Why or why not?

Ward: This is a difficult question to answer in aggregate like this. Organizations have all different budgets, needs, current technology and training and so on. Instead of saying that all nonprofits need to generally invest more, I would say that organizations need to evaluate how they are investing in technology. Is technology a clear component of the organization's budget (or is it lumped in with other office supplies and services)? Is technology allocated for in grant proposals? Is technology evaluated as part of the organization's annual report or other impact review?

Moss: More technology is not always the solution -- the key is to make deliberate investments in technology that supports the NPOs strategy. NPOs need to do a better job of looking at technology as a tool and not as the solution. With the rapid evolution of technology NPOs should be careful in making capital technology investments and do their best to find virtual solutions that serve the same purpose without the major upfront investment. In a sense – more can be less. With cloud based services NPOs have the flexibility to use more services and need less capital technology.

Q: How would improved technology at local nonprofits benefit the community as a whole? Or would it?

Moss: Improved technology usage would have a tremendous impact on the local community. Proper technology usage would effectively multiply the effectiveness

of every NPO in Cincinnati. Every dollar raised could deliver incrementally more services to  those who need them. In the social service arena we could realize an increase in individuals served, in environmental services  it could translate into one more mile of river cleaned, and in community building we could see one more block of city restored. Technology is the tool that can lead to greater efficiency, and that will translate to greater effectiveness.  

Q: If I'm a donor to a local nonprofit, should I be pleased if my money is being spent on technology? Why or why not?

Ward: Yes! Technology should serve the entire organization and help ensure that services, programs, communications, and general engagement are as effective and efficient as possible. When donations are put towards the operating expense of a dynamic database, data tracking, or impact evaluation, that's certainly an important donation.

Moss: As a donor you should be informed about your NPO's investments in technology. Your personal pleasure or displeasure should come from the kinds of technology they are investing in and their plans to use it. 

Q: What's the biggest challenge nonprofits face when it comes to their use of technology?

Moss: I think the biggest challenge NPOs face is to stay nimble and agile. NPOs have a tendency to find a strategy and tactics that work and then stick with them -- doing the same thing year after year. Technology is constantly evolving and developing a culture that supports innovation and exploration is the most challenging and most critical thing for NPOs to address. The technology will only be useful if the organizations are able to use them in the most effective ways possible. 

Q: What's the biggest take-away you would like to leave with people on this topic?

Ward: Everyone in an organization is using technology -- it's 2013, after all. We can no longer think about technology as something that the IT director takes care of as the development staff are the ones using the database the most, communications staff using the email marketing tools, and program staff looking for usable impact data out of their systems. As such, technology needs to be reflected in the organizational budget, training should be part of all staff positions, and our evaluation of different tools should be considered just as strategic as our programs and initiatives. 

Moss: An NPO's results from an investment in Technology is dependent on the quality of technology, they way it empowers them to carry out their strategy and tactics, and how their culture encourages their employees and supports to leverage said technology. Organizations that successfully implement technology solutions typically have great strategies and cultures enabling that success.

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