A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Are You an Accidental Techie?

By Maru Willson, Exponent Philanthropy

Are you the go-to person for technology in your office, but “technology” isn’t in your job description? Then you’re an accidental techie, a common role in small offices.

computerExponent Philanthropy member Rachel Ayn Pickens, program officer at the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, became an accidental techie because she was young and had prior experience with social media.

“Everyone assumes Millennials will know what to do because we grew up with technology,” says Rachel. “Age may have something to do with finding yourself in an ‘accidental techie’ role, but it’s not everything. It has more to do with wanting to learn and being willing to teach yourself what you need to know.

Adopt this mantra early and use it often: Technology is a partner in achieving our mission. Technology can be a game changer for small organizations, helping to drive your mission further, faster. Connecting new tech to your mission is vital in gaining buy-in from stakeholders in your organization.

Think about your organization’s needs. Rely on your organization’s needs as a guide. It’ll help you avoid the trap of purchasing the latest technology just because it’s new, or because someone else insisted you should.

Not sure what your organization needs? Here are just a few common needs and the technology that has evolved to meet them.

  • Meetings—From shared calendars to videoconferencing solutions to online survey tools, advances have made it simpler than ever to schedule events, engage remote participants, and evaluate outcomes afterward.
  • Recordkeeping—Software and electronic storage are saving organizations time, money, and space. Almost every process to run a grantmaking organization can be fully automated and secured in a database or other software program; no real estate needed.
  • Networking—A vast amount of networking happens via social media and more rapidly than ever. According to McKinsey Global Institute, whereas radio took 40 years and television 10 years to reach an audience of 50 million, Facebook took just 1 year and Twitter just 9 months to reach an audience of the same size.
  • Telling your story—Today’s video options (YouTube, Vimeo, Skype, Google Hangout) not only allow you to host meetings with remote participants, they also allow you to tell the story of your work—and the work of your grantees—in your own words. Hear from members of Youth Philanthropy Connect, a project of the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, or Exponent Philanthropy’s member “selfie” video

Position yourself for success. Taking on an unfamiliar or “accidental” role can certainly feel risky. My advice? Look at the strategies you already use in other aspects of your work and expand them into a successful techie role.

  • Know your organization. The most successful technology adopters are adaptive organizations, a group of people who overcome obstacles and manage change by asking questions, challenging assumptions, and generally communicating well. This certainly sounds like a good grantmaker; does it sound like your organization?
  • Consider costs carefully. Be sure to carefully evaluate the costs involved in maintaining your status quo versus those involved across the lifetime of short-term or long-term solutions. Inexpensive, short-term fixes may be just what you need, or may be terrible (and terribly costly) in the long term.
  • Call for backup. A little professional help can go a long way in minimizing your time away from other duties. Rachel calls on a technology firm to assist in the maintenance, backup, and security of her foundation’s network and database. “I save my organization money,” she says, “because I do as much as I can with what I know, and then call the firm to supplement when more expertise is needed.”
  • Stay current. Join a peer network of others who use technology in their work (see NTEN). Register for a course from a vendor or a capacity building organization (e.g., Idealware, NTEN, TechSoup). Benefit from conversations happening online by subscribing to blogs and online magazines, or following interesting people on Twitter. And, of course, talk with others about the tools they find useful. Three ways any funder can use Twitter

As Rachel and many accidental techies demonstrate, there is very little that is accidental about the care with which they bolster their staff, board members, grantees, and communities through technology. 

Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on technology

Maru WillsonMaru is our technology evangelist. She is responsible for ensuring that we use technology effectively to inform decisions, develop strategies, and promote and deliver value to those we serve. Maru encourages staff, makes recommendations, and manages the implementation of technology. Her experience in various industries has afforded her an intimate knowledge of how technology can transform an industry, including most recently medical records and health data systems.

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