Five Reasons Your Nonprofit Organization Needs a Strategic IT Plan

If you work or volunteer at any organization these days, chances are you rely on IT to get the job done.  Whether we’re talking about electronic communications, document creation and management, or more complex systems such as financial, grant management, donor relationship management, and human resources systems or even software specially designed for delivering or monitoring your program activities, IT is a pervasive part of your work life.  This reliance on information technology make it important to have a well thought out strategic plan for your IT department.

While it’s tempting to brush this off, thinking “I don’t have time” or “It’s not that important for us”, here are 5 reasons you might want to think again.

1. To ensure IT will be able to support the organization’s long term goals and strategy

If the organization has a strategic plan (and I hope it does) that plan may make assumptions about information, systems, reporting or other capabilities that will be available in the future.  For example, the organization’s strategic plan might have a goal to deliver the current programs and services to a much larger number of beneficiaries, which would mean opening sub offices at different locations and hiring additional staff.  This would clearly mean delivery of additional IT equipment, perhaps re-thinking how desktop support is handled and negotiating for internet and potentially other services in unfamiliar markets.  It might also mean that the license levels of certain necessary software will need to be raised and that in turn may prompt a re-examination of whether that software is still the best, most economical solution to the problem.  There may be processes that are currently manual which cannot be done manually at the greater volumes and so need a new solution involving greater support from technology.  And linear growth is a very simple change – if the future plan includes offering new services, collaborating with new partners or working with new funders, the potential impact on IT becomes much more complex.

It’s critical that the IT function fully understand the future goals and have a plan as to exactly how they will be supported by appropriate hardware, software, services and skilled staff, or the goals of the entire organization are at risk

Since the IT team often will need to start work months or years before a capability is needed by the end users, understanding the “when” as well as the “what” is very important, and can uncover potential scheduling or resource conflicts.  For example if the development team is planning on switching to a new grant management system at the same time as the programs team is launching 3 new services with associated data collection and reporting needs, the IT team may find itself unable to support both efforts simultaneously and the effectiveness of the organization may be compromised.

An added bonus of preparing a formal strategic IT plan, aligned with the strategic plan of the organization, is the fact that it forces conversations about exactly what the organization’s goals are (necessary if an IT plan to support them is to be prepared) and this can help to clarify and crystallize vague or insubstantial goals.  For example, an organization may plan to “extend our reach into underserved communities”.  In order to prepare the IT plan, it will be necessary to ask and answer questions such as “How many new communities will be targeted?”, “Where will they be located?”, “What services will we plan to provide?”, “What reporting will we want to see?”.  This clarification can only be helpful to the organization.

2. To plan and prepare for large investments

Money is always tight in non-profits, and money for non-programmatic expenditures is hard to find and harder to justify.  A good strategic IT plan  looks at existing as well as future systems and identifies when equipment or systems will need to be replaced, upgraded or phased out and will allow those (sometimes significant) expenditures to be anticipated and planned.

Not only does this help prevent nasty surprises in the form of unbudgeted expenses, but it also allows for the burden of these expenses to be spread across multiple budget years (or at least to prevent them all hitting at once).  For example if a new software system requires a significant investment, this can be planned for a different budget year than the year when all the server equipment needs to be replaced because it is at end of life.

This is smart not only from a cash outlay perspective but also from financial statement perspective.  Significant expenditures in non-program categories (even necessary, well justified ones) can affect the closely scrutinized overhead rate (the percentage of total expense not spent on program related activity) and may cause unfavorable changes in charity watchdog scores such as Charity Navigator’s 4 star rating scale.  These scores are used by individuals as an indicator of a nonprofit organizations efficiency and therefore determines (for some donors) the degree to which the organization is deserving of their money.

3. To keep abreast of new technologies

Even if the organization you work for plans to do the same as it has always done, at the same size and in the same way, there is still an ever changing technology landscape that should be planned for.

New technologies arrive and mature at an ever accelerating rate and allow us to do things faster, cheaper, more accurately or just plain differently.  A thoughtful strategic IT plan will take a look at emerging technologies and trends and anticipate when these technologies may be beneficial or even necessary for the organization to adopt or embrace.

While your nonprofit may not have a desire to be a first mover in new technology, there will come a point when new ways of doing things simply HAVE to be adopted if the organization is to stay relevant (imagine a fundraising organization which still did not engage in email marketing!).  Some nonprofits have gained significantly from aggressively adopting new technologies such as text-to-donate, while others prefer to wait until technologies are well established and stable before adopting them.  Either way, they need to be on the radar and examined regularly to see if the time or technology maturity is right.

When looking at these future technologies, it is useful to have an agreement at the senior management and board level as to the appetite for innovation and tolerance for risk.  A written statement of guiding principles or a general philosophy regarding technology adoption can act as a guide when deciding whether to seriously investigate, pilot or implement new technologies.

4. To raise money for technology investment

All nonprofits struggle to find money to finance non-program activities.  The funding bodies (government agencies, individuals and foundations) rightly want to see that the majority of the expenditure is applied against providing the services in the organization’s mission.  However, there is a growing awareness among some funders that investing in operational efficiency and effectiveness can greatly improve the long term success of organizations.  This represents a potentially untapped source of revenue for organizations which can present a clear and cohesive long term plan, with business cases and rationales behind specific investments that need to be made.

For example, a clear and compelling analysis that shows a long term cost saving plus improved communications by implementing VOIP technology across international offices may convince a funder to finance the implementation project as a one-time investment.  Perhaps this would otherwise have been funded from general unrestricted operating monies, denying some other worthwhile project.

In all cases, a thoughtful and articulate strategic IT plan can help to paint a picture of a competent operating organization and increase general confidence, leading to greater giving.

5. To enable responsible IT governance

Oversight (or governance) of the IT function  to ensure investments are made and managed based on the best interests of the organization, is a central part of the responsibility of the officers and board.

The documented long term strategic plan, underlying guiding principles and a timeline for recommended/needed investment is a critical cornerstone of good IT governance, since this is the backdrop against which all tactical investment decisions will be made.  The guiding principles provide contextual answers to questions such as “How secure does our data have to be?”, “Do we desire to be cutting edge or barely out of the stone age in our technology usage”, “In the event of a disaster, how long can we stand to be inoperable?”, while the strategic plan is more action oriented and includes plans such as “Convert to VOIP phones in 2015”, “Implement grant tracking and management software in 2014”.

Without this long term backdrop (i.e. where are we trying to go), it is almost impossible for the officers and board of the organization to properly evaluate and steer technology investments.

Putting together a strategic IT plan isn’t the most fun you’ll ever have but it WILL make a lot of things easier.  The IT team will have a pretty clear and unambiguous prioritized list of what they are expected to achieve and therefore a good idea what they should be working on.  The stakeholders will have transparency into what the IT team is working on, and perhaps why they cannot respond to what seems like a small additional request.  Most of all the organization will have a much higher chance of achieving the long term objectives without nasty IT surprises or obstacles along the way.

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