Technology Planning: Are You Navigating without a Map?

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Dmitry Saparov

By overcoming the internal and external obstacles to forming a technology roadmap, you can better integrate tech into strategic planning to more effectively advance your mission. However, despite the benefits of technology planning, many organizations fail to do it. In its most recent annual survey of the nonprofit sector, NTEN found that 55 percent of respondents have a formal technology plan, the first time that a majority of nonprofits have said that they do technology planning since the firm first surveyed the field in 2007 (not surprisingly, there is a clear correlation between those organizations that have a formal technology plan or strategy and those that rate themselves as having high levels of technology adoption). The flip side of the coin is that nearly half of respondents did not report having a technology plan.

Technology planning means that your organization has put some thought into its tech needs beyond the present moment. A good tech plan grounds technology decisions in the mission of the organization to increase operational efficiency and effectiveness. The planning process assesses the current state of technology within the organization, defines key objectives and strategies, gets buy-in from decision makers and tech users, formally codifies the plan, and then revisits and adjusts the plan as needed. The resulting document maps technology considerations (such as networking, hardware, software, cloud-based services, data management, social media). It does so across key organizational functions (finance, operations, communications, etc.) to achieve a set of strategic objectives (engage supporters, increase revenues, track clients, foster collaboration, and so on).

Having a formal, organization-wide technology plan, or including technology as part of the overall organizational strategic plan, is critical to using technology more intentionally. But internal obstacles can often make planning ahead difficult. By anticipating the common challenges to tech planning and addressing them head on, you can increase the likelihood that you will develop a useful technology strategy.

Overcoming Tech Fear: There’s a Map for That

One of the common obstacles to technology planning is tech fear. This is the understandable worry that organizations don’t know what they don’t know and will thus make poor decisions or costly mistakes. Participating in workshops and training sessions on topics of relevance to the organization is a good way to alleviate that fear. Another tactic is connecting with peers. “Before migrating to Google Apps, we did quite a bit of research,” says Mariam Hosseini, director of communications at Asian Law Caucus. “We reached out to other like-minded organizations with similar size and scope to discover their experience and that helped inform our plan.”

Often a technology roadmap itself can alleviate tech fear. “Within any organization there is a hesitancy to adopt new technology,” says Hosseini. “We helped to curb people’s anxiety by letting staff know our plan very early in the process, months before the actual switch. We let people know what was going to happen at each phase, when training sessions would be held, who to contact for support, how to access their old information.” As a result, Asian Law Caucus not only improved how staff members collaborate with one another, but also rolled out these new tools with minimal disruption to ongoing operations.

Meet the Mapmakers: Engaging a Planning Partner

Many organizations become frustrated with the planning process due to a lack of a framework for evaluating their own technology capacity and benchmarking that against similar organizations. Nonprofits can find online resources to help guide technology planning. Some of these resources offer broad sets of benchmarks, but there isn’t one simple formula that one can plug variables into to make a detailed technology plan emerge.

Finding the expertise to help with tech planning can be a challenge because it requires skills in both nonprofit technology and strategic planning. My own organization, ZeroDivide, is one such strategic partner, and there are others in the field, like TechSoup and Idealware, along with a myriad of individual consultants. A good way to identify a valued technology-planning partner is through referrals from organizations that have had a good experience in successfully integrating tech planning into their overall strategic planning.

A Roadmap Only Works If the Driver Uses It

Effective technology planning requires leadership buy-in, but understanding the role that leaders must play in the process is often misunderstood. While the executive director can delegate the development and deployment of certain tactical aspects of a technology roadmap to IT or communications staff, leadership must retain the authority to direct employees across the organization to provide input into the plan and adopt the plan once in effect. In other words, a leader can lean on techies, digital natives and other early adopters for inspiration and advice, but ultimately, he or she must be the one who authorizes the technology plan, leads by example in adopting the technology plan in his or her own work, and directs the rest of the organization to do so as well.

”Unfortunately, when it comes to strategic planning, technology is often put into this specialized category and is seen as costly and complex,” says Patrick McWhortor, president and CEO of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits. “I advise nonprofit leaders not to think about the technology, but to think about the key that tech provides to achieve some strategic goal.” McWhortor says that tough economic times require nonprofits to be creative in how they operate and technology “is just one of the tools in our toolbox to do so.” According to McWhortor, whether you’re using technology to deliver a new service or taking existing processes and making them more efficient, the key is that technology “should be put in the same strategic context as any other resource.”

Finding the Time and Money for Strategic Tech Planning

Planning requires a commitment of time and money, which, as we all know, most nonprofit organizations lack. Many organizations are integrating technology capacity building into their fund development plans, just as they would fundraise to build operational or financial capacity. And many philanthropic entities are becoming more strategic in how they approach technology capacity building in their grantmaking initiatives.

For example, take the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, a 10-year, multi-million-dollar effort to develop communities where children and youth are healthy, safe and ready to learn. Melissa Kelly-Ortega, hub communication specialist at the United Way of Merced County in California, credits the initiative’s technology planning process with increased community engagement in the program. Kelly-Ortega says that the Merced hub continues to fine-tune its plan as partners and staff recognize what works or doesn’t. Something that has worked well with the community’s Spanish speaking residents is a text-based messaging platform that wasn’t envisioned in the original plan. “It’s important to have a plan in place, otherwise you’re all over the place,” says Kelly-Ortega. “You keep the big picture of your mission at the forefront – what is it you’re trying accomplish. You have the technology plan in place, but you understand that if it’s not working, you’ve got to be flexible enough to switch it up.”

While a number of grantmakers offer resources to assist with technology planning, a large amount of capacity building fails to fully integrate technology, leaving a good deal of our sector behind the tech curve. Given our reliance upon all things digital to achieve social outcomes, the intersection of technology, philanthropy, and organizational strategy is a worthy destination for all of us to pinpoint.


Author’s Note: Special thanks to Amro Radwan, director of technology at ZeroDivide, for his assistance with this article.

John Hoffman is director of business development at ZeroDivide, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development with the high-tech and nonprofit sectors.

  • Judy Alnes

    Readers might be interested in the work MAP for Nonprofits has done with Idealware to understand how nonprofits can use technology for service innovation. Access our research report here

  • michael

    A huge problem when dealing with tech planners is asymetrical information. Even a seasoned Executive Director can get nudged into some expensive and time consuming tech plans. The smaller the organization the bigger the risk because their mangement is probably less sophisticated and the resulting expense is a larger % of the budget.

    One word missing in this piece is “Board”. A tech plan is a major strategic undertaking and require some savvy capability at the top.