Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Replacing and Upgrading Technology

This article was adapted from TechSoup's MaintainIT Project, an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers.

When you're lacking time and money, it's tempting to wait until a computer breaks or a piece of software becomes obsolete and then think about how you'll replace it. Even in smaller nonprofits, this approach leads to unscheduled downtime, inconsistent service, and potential funding problems. In larger organizations, it's completely impractical.

When you replace a batch of computers or upgrade a major piece of software, your budget takes a hit, you may want to do testing, your staff may need training, and you'll spend a significant amount of time installing and deploying. In other words, you need to prepare for major disruptions like these. Migration, upgrade, replacement, and technology refresh are some of the terms that signal a change you need to prepare for. Many of these events occur regularly (for example, hardware replacement), and whenever possible they should be addressed during the annual technology planning process.

Some of the questions you should ask yourself every year include:

  • What upgrades and replacements do we anticipate during the next year and beyond? How much money and staff time will they require? Will anyone need to be retrained? Are there any dependencies and side effects we should be aware of?
  • How often do we replace our desktop computers? Are we wasting money by replacing them too often? Are we wasting staff time by keeping our PCs around so long that they become a drain on productivity?
  • How often do we replace laptops and personal handheld devices? Servers? Mission-critical software? Again, have we chosen the optimal replacement cycle?

Key Actions

Make refreshes a part of your technology plan. If possible, make the technology refresh a part of your strategic planning and technology planning conversations. It can have a major impact on your budget and your services, so you want feedback from techies, frontline staff, the management team, and board members.

Use TechAtlas to plan a hardware refresh. Use >TechAtlas or another IT asset management tool to help you determine which computers need to be replaced. If you've completed an inventory of your technology with TechAtlas, you can run a report that lists all the PCs you own with less than 256 MB of RAM. You can run a report on the PCs that are more than four years old or the ones that haven't been upgraded to Windows XP. Whatever your criteria, that list is the starting point for your technology refresh project. It also helps you to make your budget requests. If you can see that fifteen computers will enter their fifth year of service this year, you should budget for at least fifteen replacement machines. Other asset management tools have similar features.

Use TechAtlas to plan a software refresh. You can also use TechAtlas when you're considering a software refresh. For example, if you want to upgrade your computers to Microsoft Office 2007 Professional, your PCs need at least 256 MB of RAM, 2 GB of free hard-drive space, and a 500-MHz processor. Go to the Tools and Reports tab in TechAtlas, click the Reports sub-tab, and then click the Report Generator. You can easily whip up a list of computers that don't meet the requirements listed. These PCs will need upgrading or replacement, or you may have to delay your rollout of the new software until you have faster machines. Again, other asset management tools will also generate these reports.

Communicate with staff. Let them know well in advance if you'll be replacing their computers or installing new software. Ask them if the upgrade will have any unforeseen consequences on the way they do their work.

Train your staff. Rollouts of new software and upgrades of existing software usually require some staff training.

Avoid the landfill. Finally, be conscientious when you dispose of old equipment. For more information on refurbishing and recycling used computers, see TechSoup's Recycling and Reuse page.

Deciding When to Refresh

There are no hard-and-fast rules about when a refresh should occur. In general, desktop systems and servers are replaced every three to four years, while laptops, cell phones, and PDAs are swapped every two to three years. Printers and networking equipment may last five years or more. Software and operating systems vary widely, depending on your organization's needs and vendor support. However, these are all just guidelines. Factors unique to your organization will drive the final decision about when to refresh.

What's in your budget? Can you afford to buy new computers or new software?

How much are your old computers really costing you? "Hang onto those PCs as long as possible! Squeeze every last dime out of those computers!" That sounds reasonable enough to a cost-conscious executive director. However, old computers often have significant hidden costs. Your IT staff will spend much more time supporting a five-year-old computer than a newer machine. Frontline staff will waste time waiting for software to load or find that some programs aren't compatible with their older setup. That can cost productivity and significantly cost you more in lost time in the long run.

How long are the computers under warranty? Some nonprofits purchase a three- or four-year warranty for their computers and start to look into replacement machines once the warranty runs out.

Does the vendor still support the technology? Often, a vendor will no longer support a particular operating system or software. From that point on, it gets harder to keep the software secure and operational.

Are your old computers delaying other upgrades? For example, are you waiting to upgrade your donor management system because your servers can't handle the latest version of the software?

Selecting a Computer Refresh Strategy

Big bang: In this approach, you switch out all of the computers in your nonprofit at the same time every third, fourth, or fifth year. This is a risky strategy, since your funding sources could dry up just as you're about to replace everything. Furthermore, this "all at once" approach puts a big strain on your IT staff since they have to deal with a large influx of new equipment every few years. On the other hand, your IT department will always have a standard hardware configuration because all the PCs were purchased at the same time. Also, you might save some money by buying in bulk.

Phased refresh: A lot of organizations swap out a fraction of their computers each year. For example, if they're on a four-year replacement cycle, they'll replace 25 percent of their PCs each year. This makes their budget requests more uniform and spreads out the impact of hardware rollouts.

Modified big bang: If your financial situation allows it, you can set aside a chunk of money each year for new computers. However, rather than spending it as it's allocated, you can wait and make one big purchase every third or fourth year.

Developing a Training Plan

Software upgrades and rollouts can cause a lot of frustration and lost productivity if staff haven't been trained properly beforehand.

How much money and effort will you invest in your training program? "Training" might consist of a few handouts if your new software only implements minor changes. It could consist of a month-long class with multiple sessions if you're upgrading mission-critical software.

Who conducts the training? You can assign the training to internal staff or outside contractors. Developing an effective curriculum takes a big chunk of time, so nonprofits occasionally bring someone in from the outside or send their employees to classes held at other locations.

When do you schedule it? If you train your staff too far in advance of the software installation, they'll forget everything they've learned by the time they actually need it. If you wait until after the installation, staff will have to support software that they don't understand.

Being thoughtful about how much time and energy you invest in training can help ensure that your staff is up to speed on refreshed software or hardware and that your organization can get on with the real mission-based work that matters.


Technology replacement is much less agonizing when you have money. If you're flush with cash, it rarely makes sense to scrimp, hoard, and push that five-year-old computer into its sixth year. Resuscitating that old machine repeatedly costs you more in real dollars than a $900 Dell or a $200 refurbished PC. However, since "flush with cash" and nonprofit don't turn up in the same sentence very often, we have to make do longer than we'd like. If you plan for technology replacements and upgrades and discuss your needs with funders, you can minimize the impact of outdated equipment.

Copyright � 2009 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.