Of all the activities required to launch a nonprofit – writing bylaws, organizing the Board and various committees, completing the appropriate paperwork, getting positive cash flow – IT strategy and planning understandably fall pretty far down on the launch checklist.
At the same time, decisions made during a nonprofit’s founding and first few years have an inevitable downstream effect, and for better or worse this also applies to IT planning. How many of us have had to unwind complex “systems” of spreadsheets, clean up years worth of data shoehorned into homegrown applications, or build workarounds to “integrate” databases that have grown organically and been passed down through the ages.
Recently, I found myself walking this tightrope between the short-term needs of a fledgling nonprofit and my desire to put a long-term foundation in place. (This and this are thoughtful articles on this balancing act.)
Here are a few initial thoughts based on long-term planning while your organization is still shiny and new:
Plan for Long(er)-Term Sustainability.
Long-term technology planning is always hard, but even more so when your enterprise hasn’t been launched, and might not yet be able to accept contributions. However, I’d encourage your team to think about the sustainability of your technology strategy (as well as all aspects of the overall organizational strategy) from the beginning.
For instance, how will your startup need to operate in 1-2 years? What systems will you need at that point, and what are the minimum viable requirements to get in place now? Who will be responsible for building your “systems” – whether that means spreadsheets, databases, or a vendor-provided solution – and will those individuals still be around to manage those systems in the coming years?
Consider IT Donations.
When in startup mode, build or buy decisions are often influenced by offers of donated work as much as actual requirements. A common scenario: a board member has a friend who works with computers, why wouldn’t we use their services?
We in the nonprofit world love donations, but let me offer you a word of warning: make sure that offers of donated services or materials will provide what you need. “Free” is an attractive price, but only if your requirements are met and the gift provides value to the organization.
Think about how to both obtain initial donations of time, hardware, and/or software, as well as secure this assistance in a sustainable way. That is, what can be expected from donated services – both in the near term and long term – in terms of service level, documentation, support arrangements, and maintenance? What about emergencies or busy seasons – will your organization have a committed and appropriate level of service during these times? Consider formalizing commitments through committee assignments, contracts, or other means, so your organization isn’t left in a pickle with undocumented and/or unsupported software.
Donors and volunteers are the lifeblood of any nonprofit, and the mission of the startup is often to secure the commitments of time, talent, and treasure from these constituents needed to get out of launch and into ongoing operations. In the short term, this often means recruiting volunteers, fundraisers, and committee members as well as foundational gifts.
With that in mind, what are the minimum requirements for your startup’s go-live? Based on discussions with a number of organizations, I’d suggest focus on revenue-generating activities that will help secure an initial base of funding to get out of the “keep the lights on” mentality. Whether that means a website, a spreadsheet, a simple database, a simple toolset for collecting donations…or something else entirely depends largely on your organization and its fundraising strategy and marketing plans.
Compliance and Security.
It goes without saying, but security-related considerations always apply. Make sure donors have a secure means of making donations, and work to build confidence in how you steward their information. Ensure that vendors guarantee data security and integrity.
All staff and volunteers should understand the importance of data sensitivity: Data integrity issues and related faux pas are magnified when working with a small pool of closely interconnected donors, and careless mistakes in this area (unsecured donation forms, checks “lost in the mail,” and unreceipted gifts come to mind) can spook constituents for a long time to come.
Finally, here’s a few resources for those interested in the topic. Good luck!
If you haven’t launched a nonprofit, but would like to:
Great list of resources for nonprofits by state:
Interesting piece about the crossroads between nonprofit and commercial enterprise. Not sure this applies to every organization but worth a read: