The Cultured Approach to Technology Development in Nonprofits

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In the past many funders and technical-assistance providers subscribed to one-size-fits-all capacity building models. Extended to technology, the story might begin: “if all nonprofits had the Internet/local area networks/client-management software/their technology needs would be met.” As Trabian Shorters, president of Technology Works for Good in Washington D.C., explains, “We’d prescribe a blood transfusion without getting the blood type. Sometimes the solutions worked and sometimes they didn’t—and we really didn’t know what the variables were.”

“Technology change is more about how people and organizations handle learning and conflict than about how they handle computers and the Web,” Shorters continues. “If you are trying to help an organization think about technology, you have to understand how the staff and other stakeholders relate to technology.” Shorters observes that nonprofit organizations tend to reflect one of four cultures in how they look at technology: unnecessary, necessary evil, necessary good, and strategic advantage.

As you might guess, these categories correspond roughly to developmental phases. He and others started to understand these cultures as fields with which they had to reckon when helping organizations to develop technology plans. “If you try to prescribe a solution for the group that believes technology to be a necessary good, it will not work for the group that overall feels that technology is an unnecessary distraction. And when an ill-fitted recommendation or program fails, it will only reinforce the group’s belief system, making them even more bitter toward the use of technology in the future. They may, in your opinion, need a relational database for client management, but if they don’t want to spend the money on a Pentium class computer, it will just have to be addressed later.” In Shorters’ experience, you skip over the acknowledgment of an organization’s phase of cultural development at your own risk.

This group believes technology is generally unnecessary for the work they do. “We provide shelter for the homeless. We do after-school programming for kids. Focusing on technology inhibits our work.” They upgrade technology only when it’s broken and, even then, with a minimalist stance. They do not use e-mail even if they have it. They pride themselves on the ingenuity of doing so much with outdated equipment. They think training clients on old software is a valuable service. As a result, they can’t implement the most logical solution because they can’t envision, beyond the most rudimentary uses, how technology is relevant to their work.
The Challenge: These organizations need kindness. Resistance to change is healthy and it is a form of energy. Work with it! Affirm it. Ask what would be needed for them to truly engage with technology. Introduce them to reliable technology tools and provide support that recognizes that the beginning of the learning curve can be very steep. Provide tutorials with glossaries of terms for leaders so that they can think about concepts in private if they need to before stepping into the void. And, finally, provide relevant inspirational models. A good bet is for these types of organizations to catch a presentation or workshop by a charismatic “technologist” who doesn’t use “geek-speak.” Having a “specialist” articulate how technology helped a similar nonprofit to advance its mission in practical ways will be very helpful. Often in these organizations an upstart staff or board member has the pro-technology bug and gets things moving by doing something practical that makes people’s lives easier. One can always work with the momentum provided by these efforts.

This organization recognizes the need for technology but doesn’t know where to start, so introducing technology seems like an overwhelming hassle. Having probably made a couple of false starts at a plan, attempts at technological advances suggest change that will be uncomfortable and frustrating for them. They don’t want to deal with it. They upgrade as a last resort like the necessary-evil groups, but they do buy the most current levels. They don’t want to spend money to buy new software or to take the time out to learn new software. Their offices are filled with a mix of modern and out-dated equipment. This is the nonprofit mainstream.

The Challenge: This is a prime audience for a strategic-technology planning process. Harness the positive energy of existing attitudes and create a structured, deliberate approach to begin planning. This approach explores the inherent technology possibilities and establishes disciplines for future technology planning and evaluation. Through consistently raising technology issues in budgeting, program planning, outreach efforts, etc., participants will begin to achieve technological literacy. Integrating new technology into all aspects of the organization will help everyone become more comfortable with it.
Obviously, leadership needs to sponsor this level of attention. Pay particular attention to developing leaders’ ability to think and talk about technology and the role it can play to stimulate positive outcomes for the organization. A major infusion of training and technical support for these groups is a must for them to move up to the “Necessary-Good” category.

This group tends to invest in the latest software. They are networked and have e-mail that they happily use. They may still have difficulty finding software, technical support, and determining what constitutes a good purchase. They may be afraid of technology, but they’ve figured out how to use it well. This group tends to have a static, underutilized website.
The Challenge: This group of nonprofits could also benefit from a strategic technology plan. Since leadership is probably already on board, the focus here needs to be on integrating technology tools and strategies into programs and operations, so there will be a big bang for the buck. Create venues for active and energetic brainstorming sessions. Go interdisciplinary! Bring in stakeholders! Endow the technology team with a healthy portion of decision making for quick action, but make sure their work is being supported by broader stakeholders just mentioned. Aside from that, it will be important for these organizations to regularly evaluate their technology progress to identify areas for improvement. This group can absorb mistakes and learn from them instead of set back by them.

In all of their planning, this group seeks out the extra power, breadth, and efficiency technology offers them in fundraising, communications, and service delivery. They tend to need help in evaluating past performance and new ideas, as well as in making decisions about hardware and software. Training staff, supporting hardware and software, and further developing the organization’s capacity to use it are constants. This group is working on second generation issues—for example, how to make the current database more functional or editing the current website so it becomes interactive.

Dealing with organizational culture is nothing new for any good change consultant. Cultures grow up around any number of things in organizations—the identity of the founder, the field of practice and sources of support, and the attitudes of the community in which the organization is based, to name a few. Cultures are very powerful directors of behavior. This is why, in all capacity building, standardized interventions that do not take into account the group’s specific characteristics miss the boat. Shorters urges us to acknowledge the degree of openness and resistance in the organizations we work in as real fields of energy that we must acknowledge and work with, not viewing either as “bad” or “good” but simply as present, observable factors in the process of change.

Electronic mail is still the most powerful online application in use today. The sheer volume of e-mail is staggering and growing quickly. In addition to messages between individuals, e-mail is also used extensively for group discussions (listservs), for posting messages on electronic bulletin boards (newsgroups), and by organizations to communicate with large groups of people (electronic newsletters).

We suggest that you experiment with these uses of e-mail. Subscribe to a listserv to get a feel for how they work. Remember you can always get off a listserv if it isn’t useful to you. Also sign-up to receive a few e-mail newsletters so you can receive regular online bulletins on topics of interest to you. There are literally tens of thousands of newsletters, newsgroups, and listservs on every imaginable topic. Check out the websites of organizations you’re already familiar with to see if they offer e-mail newsletters. Usually you can sign up for one right from their website. For discussion lists and electronic newsletters of interest to nonprofit organizations, you may also want to check out the following Benton Foundation web pages. You’ll find a great list of choices with descriptions to help you choose: ( and (

You also should visit Jayne Cravens ‘Technology Tip’ sheet on Internet discussion groups. She provides one of the best descriptions and links to many nonprofit newsgroups and discussion forums (
And finally, you can check out the following websites to find directories of newsgroups and listservs on every topic from tornadoes to tarantulas: (, (, (, (
Happy connectivity!