Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.
Here's how technology projects work: plan, implement, support, plan, implement, support. Ad infinitum.
Sure, that's the best practice. And those three words stand for a heck of a lot. They stand for technology asset inventory, needs assessment, and gap analysis. They stand for testing, QA, and bug fixes. They stand for troubleshooting, adding new users, reconfiguring workstations, and updating software. And they stand for doing it all over again.
So what happens when your printer is broken? Or when two users have been having a problem getting onto the Internet? What happens when you know your technology isn't working as well as it could for your staff, for your mission, or for your constituency? Do you always have to start at zero and work your way through a file cabinet full of best practices?
I'm a consultant, I do this for a living, and I'm going to say it again: You don't have to do it all every time. You can't. Project management, planning, implementation and support take a lot out of your organization. They take time and money. And then they take more time and money. It's not that this isn't valuable work. It is. Best practices are important and useful. However, many best practices work well in an ideal world, and that world may not be the world of your organization.
You may not have the time, resources, assistance, or expertise to start from scratch and plan, implement, and support your technology. You may be — and so many organizations are — struggling to keep your technology going from day to day. The possibility, and resulting futility, of doing an exhaustive and expensive planning process only to find that implementation is years — and many technology changes — away is very real. One alternative is for organizations to think in terms of technology triage. What is mission-critical for your organization? What technology supports those functions? Those pieces of technology are the ones on which you should concentrate your resources.
Take Inventory of Your Technology Assets
Any technology decision making starts with two essential questions: Where is your organization now, and where would you like to be? There are many good reasons, even if you can't answer the second question, to keep an updated answer to the first.
Maintaining a current list of your technology inventory, both hardware and software, as well as the technology skills of your staff saves you invaluable time when hiring consultants, looking within your organization for specific areas of expertise, or replacing computer equipment. In addition, having a current inventory positions you to begin a technology planning process when you are ready.
To determine the scope of your resources, your technology assets inventory should include a complete list of network hardware, such as routers, switches or servers; printers; and technology services providers, including consultants, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and e-mail�and Web host information. To prevent losing this information in a broken system or computer, be sure that you have printed copies stored in your office. Belarc is a good tool to help you inventory your technology assets to help you in your triage process.
Stabilize Existing Systems
Once you have a technology inventory, bring together a core group of people to identify the technology systems that are critical to your organization. This group of people should be able to identify and decide on what are key elements of your organization and answer questions such as: Does your ability to receive funds depend on accurate case management records? Do you need to be able to send and receive e-mail? Is your Web site a prime mechanism for reaching your constituency and achieving your mission? Do you have field staff who need to be able to access your office network from remote sites?
If there are existing problems with any of these systems, get them fixed. Emphasize to your tech support team — whether they are volunteers, consultants, or in-house staff — that you are interested in stabilization and not interested in an outlay of cash on new and improved systems. Be sure that you are requesting replacements necessary to your organization's stability, and hold off on things that can wait.
As a part of this stabilization process, you might find yourself buying new hardware or software. This can be a part of preventative maintenance: supported software (that is, software that is not seven versions old) is often necessary so that you can protect your systems against various worms, hackers, or persistent crashes.
Keep Track of Issues
A troubleshooting log allows you to record problems, resolutions, and associated costs. Keeping track of the technology issues you face will allow you to identify training, hardware, and software issues. It can also be an excellent tool for building up your technology know-how. If the first step in resolving a technology challenge is looking through the troubleshooting log, you may be able to follow the resolution notes and avoid having to call a contractor.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Consultant
Once you have done your triage and gained a broader overview of your systems, it's easy to just let it hum along as an unnoticed utility. However, there are routine tasks you should do to ensure that your systems stay stable.
Backup Your Data
Backups are like flossing: everyone agrees that it's a good idea but no one does it until they lose something. Backups are essential to guard against data loss. While finding out that it will take two weeks to fix a computer is bad, losing crucial, unique data — think accounting information or grant proposals — inside that computer is even worse. Having an appropriate backup system means that you know who is responsible for the backup and restore processes, a general idea of what data is necessary should there be a data disaster, and the frequency and schedule of backups.
Secure Your Infrastructure
Updating your operating system, office productivity tools, Internet browser, and other frequently used tools helps to ensure that you're protecting against known vulnerabilities, receiving bug fixes, and, in rare cases, receiving feature enhancements. Moreover, understanding the latest online threats such as spyware, viruses, and spam will ensure that catastrophic IT failures won't happen frequently, and that you can manage your systems in the most time-efficient manner.
The Limits of Technology Triage
It's possible to function in triage mode, keeping your system stable through the mechanisms described above (augmented by judicious software and hardware purchases), but there are some technology projects that demand a commitment of organizational resources — time and money:
- Database design and selection — A database provides your organization with a thoughtful way to track, use, and reflect on the information that is available to you in the course of doing your work. This may mean donor tracking, case management, or client surveys. It is important that you are willing to devote the time, and potentially the money, to a system that works for your organization. This may even involve multiple systems and applications.
- Web site design and development — It's easy to think of a Web site as a cheap thing: get a volunteer and slap something together. But a Web site is often the first encounter individuals have with your organization. It may be a primary means of engaging donors, volunteers, or even your constituency. If you're investing resources in putting up more than a brochure site — a simple explanation of what your organization does — ensure that you are implementing the tools that will allow the Web site to grow and reflect your organization over the long haul.
- Network infrastructure overhaul — Your network infrastructure�forms the foundation of all your communications. Once its capacity has been reached, or if your equipment is becoming unreliable, you need to do some strategic planning to ensure that your present and future needs are met. As these hardware expenditures tend to be higher, careful consideration should be made in order to make the most appropriate purchase for your organization.
There's no way around it. At some point, you need to engage your organization's staff, board, and other partners in a discussion about the vision of your organization. That discussion can lead to another about the role technology has in achieving that vision. In the meantime, triaging your IT infrastructure and prioritizing the projects will allow you to use your time more efficiently. While time and money is always hard to come by —�and nonprofits are no stranger to working with a paucity of both —�being flexible and innovative with resources has always been an asset we can take pride in.