A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Why to Support Nonprofits’ Technology Needs

Adapted with permission from Idealware’s “A Funders Guide to Supporting Nonprofit Technology.” Idealware helps nonprofits—including funders—make smart software decisions by providing thoroughly researched, impartial, and accessible resources about software.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single type of funding that could positively affect all your grantees? There is: support for grantees’ technology needs. But few funders support technology, and many nonprofits are reluctant to directly ask for that support.

Investing in your grantees’ technology infrastructure—whether purchasing actual hardware, helping them choose software, or building technology skills—has a direct impact on their important work.

For example, the new database you fund—or the training you fund that helps an organization find the right database—enables a nonprofit to manage constituent information faster and more reliably than its old Excel spreadsheets. They can now spend less time searching for information and more time directly serving constituents, and serve their clients better because they know more about them. They also can more effectively reach out to possible partners and funders to substantially scale the number of people they serve.

Technology grants are particularly powerful for the many nonprofits that are understaffed and underinvested in technology. Nonprofit staff often have deep mission-specific passions and skills, but no specific technology skills. They may be missing out on simple ways to more effectively and more efficiently do what they do best.

Technology Is a Multiplier for Your Mission

It’s important to think of technology not just as computers and software, but as a toolkit to help grantees make the most of your support.

But you may say, “We’re not familiar with technology and need to stick close to our mission. We’ll leave the technology stuff to the funders that specialize in technology.” Unfortunately, few funders do support technology, and the only way most nonprofits can fund their technology infrastructure is to convince funders that are passionate about their missions to provide funds in ways that can be used for technology.

If you think of technology as a multiplier that increases the effectiveness of your grants, it fits within any funder’s mission.

Understanding Grantee Needs

Before you can effectively provide technology help, you need to know where your grantees are struggling.

Consider technology as a pyramid: a hierarchy of technology needs. At the bottom is a functional and secure infrastructure. It doesn’t make sense for a nonprofit to think strategically about technology if staff can’t share files or reliably access the Internet. Beyond infrastructure, it’s also important for nonprofits to think about how they manage data on clients, donors, and anyone else important to the organization. Higher on the pyramid is communications (e.g., website, broadcast e-mail) and, finally, social media—including Facebook, Twitter, or blogs—that allows nonprofits to move from simply talking to their clients and supporters to talking with them.

An assessment of your grantees’ technology needs can help you evaluate how to make a real difference. This doesn’t mean you should send a staff member with a clipboard to visit every grantee, of course. In addition to taking a lot of time, that would also be intimidating.

How can you get honest feedback? One way is to contract a third party to survey grantees and recommend projects that would have the most impact. It’s also quite possible to administer an anonymous survey yourself using an online tool like SurveyMonkey. For example, you might ask the following questions:

  • Does each full-time staff member have reliable access to his/her own computer, with Internet access?
  • Do you have a file server to help staff share files?
  • Can staff update the text on your website without knowledge of HTML?
  • Do you have a database (not Excel) where you can easily track and manage your donors?
  • Can you easily create lists of constituents for programs or outreach?
  • Can you track metrics to help you evaluate the success of your programs?
  • Can you measure how well you are reaching intended audiences and achieving other goals using online communications tools?
  • Do you know who to go to when you have a more complex technology issue?

Your assessment may uncover needs at all levels. Although it’s not necessary for nonprofits to work from the bottom up, an organization is likely to get more “bang-for-the-buck” by addressing the bottom levels first.

Tactics for Supporting Technology

Convinced that technology can make a world of difference for your grantees? Here are some ways to offer help.

  • Connections to existing resourcesConsider linking your grantees to the vast number of existing technology resources. Look to organizations like Idealware, NTEN, or TechSoup for tips, blog posts, books, reports, or upcoming online or in-person trainings. You might create a virtual resource library on your website that points grantees to helpful online resources. You could buy a specific book or set of books to distribute to all your grantees. Or you could include a set of technology tips as part of a regularly scheduled e-mail. Facebook and Twitter also can be useful channels to share technology resources, allowing grantees to discuss the resources you share.
  • TrainingTraining empowers grantees to make good technology decisions on their own. Let grantees know about upcoming trainings provided by other organizations, or purchase seats and invite grantees to attend for free.Or consider hosting your own trainings. Whether simple hourlong webinars or multiday conferences, training events can be great ways for grantees to learn from experts, foundation staff, and one another. Expect an expert trainer to cost only a few hundred dollars for an online seminar or up to a few thousand for a daylong workshop.
  • Peer conveningsYour grantees have some things in common: All do work that relates to your mission, and all struggle with similar technology issues. Some are sure to have insights into these problems, and they have a lot to gain by talking with one another about their experiences. By providing a space for your grantees to have these discussions, you’re building their technology capacity while also helping them to create a support network.
  • Technology as a proposal line itemIf you decide to fund technology, you don’t necessarily need to create a new type of “technology grant.” Simply allowing grantees to include technology costs as a line item in proposals will encourage them to think about and share their needs in this area.
  • Technology capacity grantsMost nonprofits have trouble securing funding for technology. In practice, many rely on earned income, individual donations, or general operating grants to cover technology expenses. Even a small grant could mean the difference between implementing a new constituent database and continuing to use an inefficient (or nonexistent) system.If you’re concerned that your grantees won’t use a technology grant effectively, it can be helpful to ask them to cross some sort of threshold before they can be eligible. For example, at the conclusion of a technology training program, participants could be invited to apply for a grant to put what they learned into practice.
  • Funding technology capacity providersBy funding the nonprofits that exist specifically to provide technology expertise to nonprofits, you can raise the technology savvy not just of your grantees, but of the whole sector. Learn more from Aspiration, Idealware, NTEN, NetHope, and TechSoup.

Related resources

Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on technology 

Nonprofit Social Media Decision Guide (Idealware)

 

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