A survey of staff in a Boston-based arts organization discovered that they routinely spent about 45 minutes a day waiting for computers to reboot, trouble-shooting software glitches, or attempting to recover information lost after crashing. In addition to the time consumed by futile attempts to coax work from their computers, staff frustration with the ancient equipment was provoking a significant morale problem. The resulting estimate of total program time lost was over 2,300 hours per year!
Weighed against the lost program costs embodied in lowered staff productivity and falling morale, the previous investment in technology had clearly produced little of value to the organization. In this illustration, a simplistic assessment of costs and benefits might suggest flipping a coin: heads, purchase new equipment—tails, dust off that Smith-Corona in the closet. As Beth Kanter of the New York Foundation for the Arts reports, leadership improved the odds of making the right technology decisions by engaging in a deliberate, organization-wide strategic technology planning process. In this case, a carefully weighed decision to install new computer hardware and properly train staff proved decisive in recapturing lost program hours, improving program effectiveness and staff morale—not to mention redeeming the organization’s confidence in its technology investment.
Assessing the relative value of a certain technology tool or strategy is complex. The nonprofits I work with frequently face difficult constraints on their human and financial resources. Most would agree that technology promises increases in productivity. That is the simple part. However, without a specific understanding of how technology can help your organization achieves its unique mission, it will be difficult to make the right strategic and purchasing decisions. In most instances, estimates of total value need to consider the organization’s needs and technology culture (see the August 2000 Nonprofit Quarterly article on technology cultures).
Experience tells me that the more you understand the total value of owning technology the better your decisions about technology use and strategies—you need to be thinking about value in concrete terms. Assessing the total value of ownership to your organization is one way to help you organize your thinking about technology. I propose you consider the following five questions to help you think more methodically about value:
• Has improved information and communications created new organizational knowledge?
• Has collaboration improved?
• Have efficiency and productivity improved?
• Have you noted an improvement in program delivery?
• Has program visibility increased?
These questions can help you articulate value to yourself, your board, funders and any other stakeholder groups. Use them when developing or assessing your Web site, making a major software purchasing decision or after installing a local area network of computers (LAN). Whatever technology strategy or purchasing decision you are considering, it will be easier to make and justify if you grapple with these types of questions. In the end, you’ll make better decisions, use your resources more wisely and enjoy better positioning should you decide to solicit additional funding support for technology capacity building.
Anti-poverty agency uses Web site to improve collaboration and service delivery: Until recently, health and human services professionals in the metro-Boston area depended on their personal rolodexes or printed organizational yellow pages—often dog-eared and outdated—for referrals to programs and services. An innovative Web site developed collaboratively between Boston’s anti-poverty agency and the city’s public health bureau, (BostonResourceNet.org), introduced a better information and referral tool to human services providers and advocates. Action for Boston Community Development, Inc. (ABCD) and the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) created this user-friendly Web site to provide comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date information about the array of health and human services organizations across the city.
The ResourceNet takes advantage of Internet technology in two unique ways to provide visitors with the information they need. First, an on-site search engine accommodates database requests customized to meet particular information needs. For example, you can focus on a discrete target population or a specific service area. You can factor in the type of provider, geographic location, and the provider’s translation capabilities or call up an alphabetical directory of some 2,000 agencies currently in the database. Second, and probably most importantly, the database is easily updated from any computer anywhere in the world.
Compared to hoopla typically accompanying the launch of for-profit (dot.com) sites, public outreach for ResourceNet has been conspicuously low-key. However, in its first six months, visits to the site doubled, with the average visit consistently lasting more than 12 minutes. The directory of organizations was viewed most often. Describing itself as a major nonprofit onramp to the information superhighway, the volume of traffic is one indication that ResourceNet has provided trustworthy referral information for members of the human service community.
The range and accessibility of information at ResourceNet has made it unique, not only in Boston but also nationally. Assessed from the vantage point of the five criteria, the potential value of this new technology tool to users is obvious. At the very least, greater confidence in making interagency referrals improves staff productivity, lays a foundation for coordination and increases program visibility.
ABCD and BPHC have also made the site more interactive. Frequent user surveys regularly lead to new functions on the Web site, such as information or mirror sites in languages other than English and a bulletin board where visitors can freely post announcements or event information from their own organizations.
“We think of ResourceNet as more than an information and referral tool,” Lesley Cayton explained. “We think of it as electronic community building, so we try to meet the multiple needs of our health and human service colleagues.”
Nonprofits using technology to coordinate staff around the world: Separated by thousands of miles, the strategic planning team of the Center for Environmental Citizenship (CEC) uses an e-mail listserv to share documents, prepare for conference calls and plan meetings. Individual team members share work electronically, cultivating collective knowledge about organizational strengths, weaknesses and needs. The organization recently completed a three-day planning retreat with staff and board members. Following the retreat, the Internet served as a principal vehicle for sustaining and deepening the conversation. “There is just no way we could pull off this level of planning work without using the Internet,” commented Susan Comfort, CEC’s executive director. “It saves us lots of money, but more importantly it actually gives us the chance to get more people involved in the planning process.”
A nonprofit organization focused on conflict resolution, Community Information Technology Innovators (CITI) of Washington, D.C., needed a uniform way to track and manage contact information with staff scattered in half a dozen countries. “In the past creating an e-mail list for a certain project would have taken about four hours’ time and involved three people over the course of about a week to coordinate,” reports Jennifer Keller-Jackson, senior consultant. “Now it can be created and sent by one person in less than five minutes.” Replacing the unwieldy paper rolodexes and spreadsheets, their new database application is at once powerful and simple, and, most importantly, it is used.
If you’re an inspired executive director, technology staffer or an “accidental techie” with a local nonprofit, you’re probably struggling to convince your board and co-workers that integrating technology into the workplace will be worth the time, attention and expense. Effectively communicating the total value of technology will help pave the way for strategic purchasing and decision-making. In addition, I advise that you assess the total cost of any technology tool or strategy your organization uses or considers. To determine the correct balance of value and cost for a proposed technology strategy or tool, I suggest you use the criteria offered here in combination with the total cost of ownership rubric introduced in the last issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly (April 2001). Ultimately, however, you must be able to describe the benefit to the organization in terms framed by its mission, strategy and program.
The author would like to thank the following people for contributing ideas or examples for this article: Tom Battin, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services; Lesley Cayton, Action for Boston Community Development; Gerry Thomas, Boston Public Health Commission; Joan Fanning, NPower; Beth Kanter, New York Foundation for the Arts; and Jennifer Keller-Jackson, Community IT Innovators.
Marc Osten is an Internet strategist, strategic planner, educator and writer. (email@example.com)