By Elaine Mariner
If you are a manager in a nonprofit organization, the odds are good that you have recently been asked to produce a technology pan for your organization. Perhaps your board is requiring it to justify the purchase of new computers. Or maybe a potential funder has asked for a plan to support a request for operating funds.
The chances are goo that, as a nonprofit manager, you don't think you've even got the time to read this article, much less research, write, disseminate and approve an inch-thick, multiyear technology plan full of computer-speak.
Don't let that stop you. A technology plan doesn't have to start as a document at all, but initially can be the vision of becoming a "paperless office" or an "online organization."
Ultimately, you'll want a written technology plan that is derived from - an is a part of - your organization's mission, goals and strategies. But you might lose time, money and a competitive edge if you wait.
Becoming an online organization
I recently stumbled upon a list of "the 6 characteristics of an Online Organization," compiled by ONE/Northwest: Online Networking for the Environment.
Although I discovered many of these steps by the seat of my pants as we - The Colorado Council on The Arts - embarked three years ago on the journey to make our arts agency "paperless," I believe they are an excellent starting point for any organization's technology pan.
1. Provide e-mail addresses and desktop Internet access for every staff member.
Initially, we tried to share e-mail addresses, and we wasted more staff time sorting out whose message was whose than we saved in e-mail account fees.
And with today's free, internet-based e-mail services like HotMail, there is absolutely no reason each staff member shouldn't have his or her own direct address.
Which brings us to part two desktop Internet access. If your staff's e-mail is provided through the Internet, staffers need quick and easy access from their desktop.
Likewise, each staff member needs desktop Internet access if they are going to take advantage of the medium as a effective research tool and stay informed about your own organization's Web site.
Some tips: Provide a general email address - like ourstaff@hotmail. com - that you can use on brochures and stationery, so your print materials don't become obsolete when an individual leaves the organization.
And don't assume everyone must have a modem and their own phone list. Check into today's high-speed telecommunication services like ISDN, Fractional T-1, and the new DSL. You don't have to know what they are to start the conversation with your telecom service provider. Make them explain the benefits and costs of each, and then decide what's most effective for your organization.
- Elaine Mariner, Colorado Council of The Arts
2. Install a local area network, ideally with a stand-alone server.
Being paperless also means being "diskless," that is, sharing information via a general server - to which all staff has access to - rather than swapping floppy disks, which can be lost or destroyed and can transmit damaging viruses.
We were advised that purchasing a high powered stand-alone server would allow us to purchase less powerful (and less expensive) work stations, plus increase the speed of access.
We've also found that we can better protect our most valuable property - our member database - by having it located on the server, which has its own auxiliary power supply, back-up system and virus protection (see #5.)
More tips: don't assume you have to rewire your whole office to install a LAN. We found that our exiting phone jacks had the capacity to handle both our telephone lines and our LAN access.
3. Ensure you have the appropriate technical expertise available to keep the system going.
This will probably entail training some staff members to handle day-to-day problems like recovering after power outages and troubleshooting basic office software.
It will certainly require having some outside expertise you can call for major equipment upgrades, server problems, adding and deleting stations, and general advice.
This year we are budgeting for a monthly visit by our network specialist to install software upgrades and do routine maintenance on our workstations. We have also budgeted for at least one software training session for each staff member, with the goal that everyone is self-sufficient on our basic office software (MS Word and Excel.)
4. Start collecting e-mail addresses from all of your constituencies.
This not only requires adding a field to your database, but ensuring that you collect it from everyone who asks to be added to your mailing last.
You'll save money by communication with the media, your funders, and your members electronically whenever possible. Of course, you must be sure they agree to be contacted in this manner. For example, some media are still reluctant to receive press releases vis e-mail.
But with the recent postage increases and concurrent cuts in our operating budget, our agency is being forced to look for creative ways to stay in touch with our constituents. One solution is to e-mail our grant guidelines and use small mail by request only.
Aside benefit of e-mail: we've found our long distance phone bill has decreased dramatically.
5. Install virus protection software and implement a routine data backup system.
For many organizations, these are an after thought, or something they do when they have "left over" money in the budget. (And how often does that happen") To be honest, it took us a couple of budget cycles to prioritize these two items. But you ignore them at grave risk to the organization.
Virus protection software must be installed on the server and one on each workstation. And don't forget to perform monthly virus updates, or you won't be protected from new viruses, which are being created at an alarming rate.
Your backup system can be as simple as copying your documents and files to another computer's hard disk drive. But to be truly protected, you should store your backup copies off site. Initially, we use a Zip Drive to make a backup copy of our database on a weekly basis. Recently we've switched to a Jaz Drive which gives us twenty times the capacity on each disk. Now when we back up the server, we include the documents folders of each staff member.
6. The Long Term - Integrate Technology Planning Into Your Organizational Planning.
Now that you've got the basics in place , you are ready to start on a long term technology plan that is directly tied to your organization's goals. This still doesn't have to weigh a pound and be written in techno garble.
Kelly Barsdate, the I.S. guru from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, helped us to get started. She encouraged us to brainstorm as a group how technology might help us achieve each of our organizational goals. She then guided us through the creation of a planning matrix - for each goal we listed numerous "technology ideas for the future," and then performed an analysis on each idea:
7. The last step is to prioritize. We haven't completed this process yet, but ideally, we'll end up with a list of technology ideas keyed to reaching each of our six major goals. Because they have been prioritized, it will be easy to make a case for including the most urgent items in the budget. This is definitely the most time-consuming part of the planning process. But because we've already become an "online organization," we consider our technology plan as being well under way.
Editor's Note: This article is written from the point of view of Ms. Mariner's experience in setting up an online organization. For information but ONE/Northwest, and recommendations they have for both practical and strategic use of the Internet, please visit their Web site at www.onenw.org.
Elaine Mariner is deputy director of the Colorado Council o the Arts. She can be reached at (303) 894-2617.