Let's Talk About Tech, Baby

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.

dahna goldsteinmarc baizmansimone parrish


"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.

No, really.

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.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 20, 2011, 06:21 PM

B Corporations Help Nonprofits Align Spending with Mission

BCorp logo

Note: this post originally appeared on GuideStar's Trust Blog on January 18th, 2011.

Nonprofits in the U.S. spent $1.3 trillion in 2007, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.  That money was spent delivering needed services, providing salaries and benefits to employees, and paying for tools and professional services.  

Nonprofits now have a way to align their spending with their missions: B Corporations for Nonprofits.

B Corporations are a new kind of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.  Certified by a nonprofit called B Lab, B Corporations must achieve a passing score in a comprehensive survey that evaluates social and environmental responsibility.  There are over 365 B Corporations in 30 industries, and several of them are specifically dedicated to serving the needs of nonprofit organizations.

A group of B Corporations has joined together to raise awareness among nonprofits of the services that B Corporations can offer and the benefits of working with suppliers that, while structured as for-profit businesses, are dedicated to social and environmental responsibility.  

At a press conference at Busboys and Poets (also a B Corporation) in Washington, DC on Tuesday, January 18, representatives from Care2, PhilanTech, PICnet and Better World Telecom announced the formation of B Corps for Nonprofits and the launch of the www.bcorpsfornonprofits.com website.

B Corporations for Nonprofits are Certified B Corporations that earn more than 50 percent of their revenue from nonprofit clients, and/or that have a client base that is at least nonprofit organizations.

In addition to Care2, PhilanTech, PICnet, and Better World Telecom, B Corps for Nonprofits includes Mal Warwick | Donordigital, Free Range Studios, Green Retirement Plans, The Soap Group and Social K.

There are three things that make B Corporations that serve the nonprofit sector different:

  1. B Corps are not like other companies. They are social entrepreneurs with "do-gooder missions" similar to – and complementary with – the vital missions of nonprofit organizations.
  2. B Corps for Nonprofits proudly focus on serving nonprofits as their primary clients. Nonprofits are not a "sideshow" to these organizations – they are the "Main Event!"
  3. B Corps have committed to "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk," of social responsibility. They do this by meeting or exceeding a set of specific, measurable B Corporation standards, including workplace diversity, carbon neutrality, recycling and waste reduction, donating a portion of profits to good causes, etc.

Nonprofits frequently want to know that their vendors are “good” companies.  B Corporations are values-driven companies.  They are dedicated to pursuing social and environmental bottom lines while also being sustainable businesses. They have been independently vetted and verified by a third party as beneficial companies.  As such, nonprofits can feel confident that the money they spend with B Corporations has positive social and environmental impacts.

Next time you’re looking for a new website, social action network, grant management system, phone network, benefits plan, or a number of other services, remember that the company you choose can be one that is aligned with your organization’s mission and values.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 18, 2011, 05:26 PM

The State of Grantseeking 2010

grantseeking report cover

PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of The State of Grantseeking Report.

Between August 7 and September 7, 2010, PhilanTech and GrantStation conducted an online survey to take a snapshot of the state of grantseeking in the U.S.  The 839 respondents ranged from volunteer-run grassroots organizations to large national nonprofits.  

Other surveys and studies published in the last several months have reflected the challenging state of fundraising in the current economy.  Donations across the sector, regardless of the source, have been reduced as a result of the economy, and many nonprofits continue to struggle.

Our survey results were consistent with other findings.  Nonprofits face challenges in grantseeking: organizations spend a lot of time preparing grant requests, submit many applications, and may only get a few small grant awards as a result:

  • 42% of survey respondents said that in comparison with the first six months of 2009 the grants awarded were smaller;
  • Small nonprofits seem particularly challenged; 26% of nonprofits with budgets under $50,000 had not submitted a grant request in 2010, while 95% of respondents with budgets over $250,000 had;
  • Many of the grants awarded were under $10,000, including 161 under $1,000;
  • A “typical” nonprofit in this survey is receiving grants between $7,310 and $50,000;
  • The good news is that the majority of the organizations that submitted multiple requests received at least one grant.

While it’s still tough going out there for many grantseekers, we hope the results of this survey will be useful for grantseekers in thinking about how to prioritize their grantseeking activities, and we look forward to following up this research with the next State of Grantseeking survey in early 2011.

Download the full State of Grantseeking Report.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
October 12, 2010, 09:12 AM

Resources for Nonprofits - Tax Relief for Non-Filing Nonprofits

There has been much discussion in the nonprofit sector - at least in certain circles - about the number of nonprofits that risk losing their tax exemption because they failed to file tax returns for three years.

Apparently, there has not been enough talk.  As of May 2010, there were up to 300,000 organizations at risk of losing their tax exemption, according to the National Center for Chariable Statistics.  While some of those organizations have since filed returns, there are still thousands of nonprofits at risk.

A bit of backstory: most tax exempt organizations have always been required to file returns.  The type of return required depended on the size of the organization, but some sort of return had to be submitted.  The IRS did not really enforce this, particularly for small organizations.  Once the exemption ruling was given, the organization generally remained exempt so long as nothing dramatic caused a revocation.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 changed that.  A provision in the Act required most organizations to file a return (again, the type of return differed) annually.  Those that failed to file for three consecutive years would automatically lose their exemption, and not necessarily be able to get it back.

The original deadline to meet the three-year filing requirement was May 17.  The IRS has created a one-time filing relief program for organizations that had filing deadlines between May 17 and October 15. 

In an interesting social media/web 2.0 move, the IRS has created a widget to help organizations identify if they are at risk of losing their exemption.  Check it out to see if your organization -- or another organization in your community -- is at risk, and file your organization's return to avoid losing tax exempt status!

Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 28, 2010, 05:51 PM

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