If it was a snake, it would’ve bit us?

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If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs. —Peter Medawar (1915-1987)

All research begins with a question. Though considered most valuable when introducing new ideas, research contributing to a deeper understanding of existing social practices is also useful. Finally, research insights should speak to issues of broader social significance—findings sometimes elicit an aha response, at other times an of course.

A recent report on Technology Use by Nonprofit Organizations in Southwestern Pennsylvania prepared by the Pittsburgh-based Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris College offers both kinds of insight.1

Published last September, the regional assessment of nonprofit organizations concluded that, “effective use of technology does not occur spontaneously.” Indeed, the Center’s findings further substantiate the correlation between a deliberate organization-wide attentiveness to technology needs and the organization’s capacity to employ it effectively. “Technology should occupy the minds of executive directors and other leaders,” the report asserts. Moreover, this “focus must be brought to… strategic planning, human resources practices and board governance.”

The Center examined the patterns of technology acquisition, use and maintenance in 178 participating nonprofit organizations in the City of Pittsburgh and five neighboring counties. The study, conducted during the summer of 2000, surveyed a sample drawn from a pool 1800 nonprofits in the Pittsburgh area. Half of the participating nonprofits fell into three broad mission categories: human services, education, and arts, culture and humanities. In addition, half of the sample had annual budgets of less than $500,000 and employed fewer than seven full-time employees.

The survey itself was a two-part, self-administered questionnaire with 25 items ranging from a general organizational profile to specifics on technology management policies to an inventory
of existing technology resources.

Data initially generated through self-reporting was later validated by on-site technology assessments.
The resulting report provides a detailed profile of responding organizations and some useful observations on patterns of technology use and resource needs, but, as we noted from the outset, many of the findings fall into the of course category. For example, we already know that most nonprofits are connected to the Internet, but that only a fraction have broadband access; that most program staff do not use the Web or e-mail as part of their normal work; that most nonprofit organizations use some kind of database software, but fewer than half use it to manage their mailing lists, volunteers or donors.

For most of us, there are few surprises here, the report’s numbers affirm what we know.
On the other hand, in addressing the current state of nonprofit technology planning and management, the Center’s report reaffirmed the salience of a number of fundamental lessons gleaned from other areas of nonprofit management practice.

The Center confirmed that only 28 percent of respondents had a formal technology plan, though this number rose to 43 percent among organizations employing 20 or more full-time staff. Indeed, because so few nonprofits had formal structures for technology decision-making, the function routinely defaulted to the executive director or “to the most technology-savvy staff person.”

The authors introduced two familiar sets of benchmarks worth noting: one pegs technology spending at six percent of overall annual expenditures; the second, called the “70-20-10 rule,” states that the lion’s share of tech-spending should cover staff training, support and maintenance, followed by hardware purchases, with software bringing up the rear. (See Mark Osten’s article on estimating the total cost of technology in the July 2001 Nonprofit Quarterly.)

Accordingly, 89 percent of responding organizations identified training as their most critical need, followed by purchases of software (70 percent) and hardware (68 percent). Yet only 23 percent of staff employed by Pittsburgh-area nonprofits actually received any kind of formal technology training in 2000. Notably, less than a third (31 percent) of the sample even cited technology skills as part of an employee’s job description or criteria for performance evaluation. Those organizations that did include technology skills in job descriptions were more than twice as likely to provide technology training (on average, 33 percent, versus 15 percent for those that did not).

Where the organization’s board of directors was actively engaged in technology decisions (for instance, maintaining a technology committee), the likelihood of a formal planning process was almost double the average, at 50 percent. Similarly, board involvement often correlated with the existence of specific budget line items for technology expenditures. When the board had a technology
committee, 63 percent of the organizations tracked technology expenses, versus only 40 percent where the board was not involved. Finally, organizations with technology committees tended more to incorporate technology requirements into job descriptions (40 percent versus 29 percent). Unfortunately, this level of board involvement was limited to a mere 17 percent of the responding organizations.

And while the fact of board involvement says nothing about the quality of planning, the adequacy of budget allocations, or the appropriateness of job descriptions, it speaks volumes to the notion that the active sponsorship of top leaders remains essential to implementing any organizational change strategy—including using new technologies in telecommunications.

Given the accelerating pace and uncertain direction of technological change, the notion of taking up a strategic planning process for technology acquisition, upkeep and use seems daunting indeed. In its concluding remarks, the Bayer report urges nonprofit leaders to begin seeing technology as a significant investment, central to achieving their missions. Underscoring the strategic advantages offered by technology, the findings further suggest that examining current board structure, patterns of technology spending and content of job descriptions are appropriate places to begin.

Ultimately, the goal is to integrate technology-related budgeting, staffing and purchasing decisions into broader, ongoing efforts intended to enhance organizational capacity—an approach so steeped in tested nonprofit management practice that, if it were a snake…

1. Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris College. 2001. Technology Use by Nonprofit Organizations in Southwestern Pennsylvania. September.