Mission-Driven Technology Planning

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Most nonprofit organizations need, but do not have, a concrete and visionary technology plan. Often leaders are simply unaware of the need, or they are unsure how to handle technology deployment within their organization. The key to success may simply lie in effective technology planning. Technology planning used to mean some ‘techie’ would count computers, look at software used and then decide what kinds of machines and software to buy to help ‘upgrade’ the system.  Today a more strategic and effective brand of technology planning is beginning to gain increasing attention. To help nonprofits take full advantage of the transformative possibilities of technology, this article features leaders describing their experiences to help illustrate some common elements of strategic technology planning and concludes with an outlined planning guide from the Progressive Technology Project.

Ideas regarding what constitutes appropriate organizational planning have changed significantly over the past decade. Once, the assumption was that all organizations should have a comprehensive strategic plan covering a period of three to five years. This plan provided the basis for interim objectives and goals and created the tasks and timelines to be implemented.
Now, with change coming at an ever-increasing pace, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to plan for a three- or five-year block. This constant uncertainty has led people to shift to “strategic thinking:” the process of continuously reorganizing toward our goals, while ensuring that the efforts of the organization as a whole do not become fragmented. Keeping an entire system moving in the same direction requires effective information and communication systems both within and around the organization.

Strategic technology planning is an effort to move an organization’s use of technology into alignment with its mission. As a process, it tracks how tasks are done and how communication and information flow within an organization. The focus is not the technology itself but the possibilities that the technology has to improve efficiency, leading to greater organizational effectiveness.

Until recently it was difficult to find consultants who could help meld an understanding of technology with an understanding of organizational change processes and the realities of the nonprofit sector. These resource specialists are becoming more widely available as local and national (technology support) networks emerge. (See the enabling network article and the websites listed at the end of this article).

But as the following stories illustrate, an organization must have an internal champion or champions willing to push the change process forward; this tenet holds true for all organizational change.

Catherine Peterson is executive director of Arts Boston, a marketing and audience development nonprofit serving 165 performing arts groups in the greater Boston area. Upon assuming the directorship, she made Arts Boston’s technology infrastructure a top priority.

“As we got started, we had received a lot of pro-bono help that was not consistent or objective enough and decided to have an outside consultant come in to help. What I really loved was having the consultant come in and say, “I’m not going to do the work for you; I want you to learn to do this for yourself.” She documented where we were both in a written form and pictorially. It was a very deep organizational audit in terms of our current needs were and what we needed to realize our future dreams. She facilitated a series of meetings with the key staff members to understand our current programs and what we want to do to better service our member organizations and our constituents. Key to the success of our collaboration was her really understanding our work.

“She also set up a technology team that included three colleagues across the organization, representing one very technologically astute person who runs two of our programs, a support staff person who also has some expertise, and someone from our Bostix ticket booth to represent that part of our team. The team circulated to all of us which helped fill out the details of our vision. It gave us the chance to really think about results.

“To ensure the plan was on the mark, we spent a lot of time talking to our prime constituents, which are 165 performing arts groups. We also connected with audience members through a series of surveys and one-on-one interviews. We wanted to know more about how technology is affecting the way people make their entertainment decisions. Our goal was to understand best practices and apply them ourselves. We also made it a point to talk with our fifteen or so counterpart organizations across the country to learn from them. We did a lot of sharing of information and ideas.

“To continue  to track our progress, we are in daily contact with our membership, and we hear when stuff works and when it doesn’t. That’s number one. We conduct written surveys, such as our annual surveys in Arts Mail, which is our written publication and also do biannual intensive evaluations of our Bostix audience. We plan to build something onto our website as well to gather feedback.”

The initial step in strategic technology planning taken by Maine Coast Artists (MCA), located in Rockport, was to examine all of their activities and assess how these activities were done. They looked at what worked well and what didn’t, and where efficiencies might be found. They then inventoried all their equipment—absolutely everything they were using.
MCA then formed a committee that included staff, board members, and some technology-savvy community members. Sheila Tasker, MCA president and CEO, wanted board representation to help integrate the technology plan with the long-term strategic plan and to ensure board support. She also chose people from the artistic site of the staff for programmatic input. The outcome of the work done by the committee was a ten-page document detailing Maine Coast Artists’ vision, direction, where they are today, and what steps might take them where they want to go. For five months Tasker and a strategic technology-planning consultant worked on refining the document. Then the technology committee went through it again leading to the next phase, which is analysis of every staff position, assessing needs and knowledge levels, and forming a time line and a budget.

The main obstacle Tasker faced was resistance to change. Some of the staff felt technology was just one more thing to do and an enormous investment of time. “It was very difficult for some staff to see that the work on the strategic technology plan would ultimately pay off by making their jobs less cumbersome. Most of the staff, however, was very receptive.”

Tasker’s advice for organizations contemplating strategic technology planning: “In terms of resource allocation, it’s best to chop it up and just deal with a little bit every week. If you look at the whole project, it looks far more overwhelming than it really is. Find the next step you need to do and do it. Also, strategic technology planning makes an incredible difference in the professionalism of the organization, and all of us in nonprofits need to enter that realm of professionalism.”

The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), located in Albuquerque, NM, is a network of about 70 affiliate organizations. SNEEJ completed an organizational assessment in 1998 and then decided to develop a strategic technology plan.

Rather than trying to plan for the entire organization at once, SNEEJ developed a phased plan with a three- to five-year time horizon. Phase one focused on the capacity of the central coordinating office to support the affiliates. The next phase was to build the capabilities of the affiliate and campaign leadership, which involved as many as 200 people. Phase three targeted building capacity at the affiliate level. Each phase was designed to be a self-contained unit to be completed before the next was begun, as each phase built upon the previous one. The consultant working with SNEEJ, Marco Paz, notes that this approach is useful because it provides a good grip on the situation at any level, which allows quick implementation of solutions. He says this is critical to keeping stakeholders tightly involved by showing progress.

In each phase there were assessments by project teams and meetings to put everything into perspective. The discussion was not centered on technology but focused on mission, program objectives, organizational culture, personnel skills, relationships, and all the things that really make up how a nonprofit organization works. They discussed how things are done currently and mapped out business practice areas to examine and reengineer. Only then did they look technology alternatives.

According to Paz, one of the obstacles in strategic technology planning is that funders do not always understand it. They may be interested in funding assessments, but they often do not want to pay for implementation. Some key points SNEEJ learned through the process were: 1) Stay focused on the organizational vision, then brainstorm solutions. 2) Look at the whole picture, not just the technology package.  3) Think of the process as a life cycle, rather than just embracing “the newest thing.” 4) Communicate as much as possible to keep people involved.

As you may see from the examples above, there are a number of ways to approach and structure strategic technology planning. A skilled guide should be able to help you develop an ongoing process that can be integrated into your organization. A poor process that does not meet organizational needs will only increase resistance to change. To avoid such problems, be certain to check the consultant’s references for a proven record as a capacity builder, just as you would for any other organizational consultant.

A good technology plan, like any other good plan, ultimately serves the mission and vision of the organization. It has a set of goals in its sights and helps to organize players along a logical path from current reality to the desired future. It is never considered to be a finished product but allows for continuous creative development as you experiment and test approaches and as technological tools advance.

A growing cadre of technology planners recommend a strong multi-disciplinary team to guide the process and engage people across the organization in gathering information or making key decisions.

1. This guide is from the Progressive Technology Project, (PTP) located in Washington D.C. Established in 1998, PTP seeks to strengthen grassroots social change efforts by supporting the development and use of information technologies to build strong grassroots leaders, sustain effective organizations, and empower communities to act on their own behalf. PTP exists to help these organizations build the best possible applications of technology tools, support their use by real people, apply them to meaningful work, and share experiences so the entire field benefits from the results. This guide has been informed by the good work of many other individuals and organizations. (www.progressivetech.org/resources/AP/Planning.pdf)

• Artswire (www.artswire.org/spiderschool/
workshops/planning/101/resources.html)
• Compumentor (www.techsoup.org)
• OneNorthwest (www.onenw.org/assess/)
• Summit Collaborative
(www.summitcollaborative.com/resources.html)
• TeamTech San Francisco (www.ncccsf.org/ teamtech/toolkit/toolkitplanning.html)

Framework for Technology Planning: These steps are provided to help you build a technology plan. Every organization plans differently. Use the following as a framework: change it, add to, and adapt it. Technology planning moves an organization from assessing its mission to using technology to strengthen the organizing work. Strategic technology planning can be part of a larger organizational strategic planning process.
Characteristics of a Strong Technology Planning Process
• Strengthens the organizing work, not the technology
• Develops members and staff
• Oriented toward people and skills

1. Develop a committee. Involve a group of members, staff, and leaders in creating the plan—specially seek representation from the entire organization and people with and without technical know-how.
2. Review assessment. The assessment should frame the planning process at the beginning and be used continuously throughout.
3. Review organizing goals. Goals are the most important aspect of the plan; technology should help achieve these goals and augment other efforts.
• Use the assessment to help develop technology strategies to achieve your organizing goals.
• To develop each strategy ask: “What do we want to achieve using technology to strengthen this component of our work?”
4. Solicit technical know-how and conduct research. Allows you to link needs and opportunities with the technical know-how and skills to address them.
• Identify members and staff with technical skills.
• Identify local volunteers with knowledge.
• Consider hiring a technical assistance provider.
• Talk to other organizing groups interested in using technology in their work.
5. Develop strategies and objectives. The actual activities and methods you plan on using to achieve your goals.
• Identify actual applications or uses of technology that improve your ability to reach your goals.
• Identify opportunities for members and staff skill building and training.

6. Prioritize strategies. Identify which activities will push you closer to your goals.
• Determine what strategies and objectives are most important based on which goals are most critical.
• A prioritized list will help facilitate decision-making.
• Other priorities can be implemented when time, skills, and financial resources permit.
7. Timelines. Create a timeline for each objective.
• Be realistic: Technology projects can often take longer than you expect.
• Base your timeline on your priorities.
8. Budget. Can include training and skills development, hardware and software, operating costs, personnel costs, and others.
• Base your budget decisions on priorities.
• Consider outside help when developing the budget.
• Develop a budget for the overall plan and for pieces of the plan.
9. Implement. Start trainings, make purchases, and begin to implement your new strategies.
• Start with small projects or parts of your plan, and build as you go.
• Consider starting with pilot projects to check out your success.
• Use your plan to help secure funding.
10. Evaluation. Be conscious of how your plan is improving your organizing work.
• Document lessons learned from this process.
• Evaluate movement toward a goal six months after implementation and regularly thereafter.• Connected to the organization’s overall strategic plan

Marc Osten works as an organizational development strategist and advisor to foundations, management support organizations, and networks of nonprofit organizations. He specializes in the strategic use of technology and the Internet to help nonprofit organizations improve their effectiveness and meet their mission. He is the principal of Summit Consulting Collaborative, which develops innovative solutions to technology planning and management challenges facing the nonprofit sector.