Note: this post originally appeared on NTEN's blog on Jan 12, 2011, co-authored with the lovely and talented Marc Baizman, Owner, My Computer Guy Nonprofit Technology Consulting, and Simone Parrish, Knowledge Manager, Innovation Network.
"Let's talk about tech, baby
Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let's talk about tech"
While Salt-N-Pepa had something different in mind when they wrote those lyrics (well, almost those lyrics) in 1990, they captured the essence of how to talk about technology in nonprofit organizations. A close read of the lyrics provides a good framework for thinking about communicating horizontally (across departments or silos) and vertically (with everyone from senior management to interns) in your organization about technology.
Let's break it down.
Let's Talk about Tech, Baby
As simple as it may seem, making the commitment to talk about technology in your organization is a good start. In many organizations, technology is viewed as separate from the work the organization is doing. Technology is the unintuitive phone system, the frustrating donor management system, the computer that blue screens every time it has more than three windows open. In that scenario, nonprofit workers feel like technology is something they have to deal with to do the "real work," not something that can make their work lives and their organization better at meeting its mission (which is what NTEN believes, so strongly they wrote a book about it).
Our challenge is to elevate discussion about technology from the tactical (ensuring that the computers turn on, that the organization chooses the right content management system for its website) to the strategic (what is our social media strategy, how can we use technology to give our field workers immediate access to case information) so that technology can help make the organization more effective at combating poverty, saving wildlife, or whatever the organization's mission is.
The first step is to understand how your organization is structured, and how it views technology. From there, you can start to understand where to begin conversations. Start talking to folks who "get" technology--there are probably many of them who don't work in the IT department. Ask them what challenges they currently face in their jobs and talk about ways that strategically-implemented technology could help them.
Is your ED a technophobe? What about other senior management? How about your board members? Start thinking about success stories that you can share with your organization. Share how an organization similar to yours was able to strategically use technology to increase its impact. Ask on listservs (ProgEx, NTEN Affinity Groups, ISF Yahoo group, etc.) to get success stories.
Technology needs a seat at the table when your organization is doing its strategic planning. Technology can't be something that's added into the process once the plan is set; it needs to be an integral part of the process from the beginning. Start planting the seed now for including someone in those conversations who can bring a strategic technology perspective, whether it's you or one of your colleagues.
Let's Talk about You (and Me)
If this blog post were all about us (the authors), you would have stopped reading by now -- and rightly so. But that's the meta-message here: You can get your message across better if you keep the focus on your audience. That is, "Let's talk about You (and me)" -- mostly you, and a little bit me.
This approach works especially well for talking about technology issues. Many non-tech people (i.e., people who aren't responsible for the technical decisions in your organization; all humans are tech people) will only tolerate a technical discussion if they can see immediately how it helps them. Listen to what they need. What work issues annoy them most? Are there technical solutions to those issues, or can technology help address particular inefficiencies? Just remember that no amount of technology can fix a broken process.
Another important aspect of the "let's talk about you" is that your tech conversation will go a lot better if it's in terms your audience will understand. This is not the time for jargon -- save that for talking to your developers (or your NTEN listserv buds). We live inside the tech jargon bubble, so it's easy to forget that not everyone does. Using metaphors that relate to real life can be a big help.
If you burst into your Executive Director's office to tell her that "RHEL 3.0 is going end-of-life!", you're not going to get very far. She is just going to be alarmed, confused, and annoyed that you're wasting her time, because to her, you sound like Charlie Brown's teacher. On the other hand, explaining to her that, "The computer that runs our website has some really old software on it; we need to fix it. It's like coming home and finding the basement is starting to flood" -- now that, she'll understand. "Stopping the website basement from flooding" makes more sense to her than "RHEL 3 is going end-of-life, or even "Our webhosts are going to stop supporting the server's operating system". (Wa wa, wa wa wa wa.)
Let's Talk about All the Good Things And the Bad Things that May Be
It's worth your while to try to see things from the non-tech-person's perspective, and to make sure you understand what benefits they will see from a technology investment. They will be much more likely to listen to you if they can see the concrete benefits to their own work, in terms like "save me time" and "make these five tasks easier" and "get me out of doing pointless double data entry."
Another great approach is to go straight to mission: How is this tech solution going to get your organization closer to meeting its mission? For example, Simone works for an evaluation organization. Their mission is to provide knowledge and expertise to help nonprofits and funders learn from their work to improve their results. Over the past couple of years, they have been dabbling, and then wading, in data visualization techniques. Making the case for this -- for the professional development time and for the cost of various tools -- has been easy, because it goes straight to their mission. The case goes like this: We want to provide knowledge and expertise. Many people in their audience will absorb knowledge better from informative (and shiny!) graphics than from exhaustive (and exhausting) narratives or spreadsheets. Therefore, it's worth their while as an organization to devote time to learning how to present data visually.
It's also important to talk about the bad things, and acknowledging problems and failures can be very powerful (and scary!) for an organization. Nonprofits -- just like people -- are often leery of talking about mistakes, because of the fear that it could cost them funding. But talking about the mistakes and sharing that can be a wellspring of learning.
We hope this has given you an overview of how to talk to about Tech, baby! For more Salt-n-Pepa Lyrics, check out this Youtube video.
And for more fun nonprofit tech talk, check out our upcoming session at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference.