How to use IT Strategically to Drive Your Nonprofit Mission

Why is an IT Strategy Needed?

If the typical executive director was asked, “do you need an IT Strategy?” you would be hard pressed to find anyone answering no.  So, why is it then that so many nonprofits fail to create an IT Strategy to follow?

One of the reasons IT Strategy is often ignored is because there is not a clear understanding of why it is important.  Many don’t realize that IT Strategy helps create value in the organization.  In other words, it helps maximize the return on IT investments. By ensuring that IT is aligned with the business vision, and across all departments throughout the organization, a better return will be provided.

What Could Go Wrong Without a Strategy?

Most organizations will not develop a clear IT Strategy and seem to get along just fine for a period of time without one.

Often a nonprofit or charity will start out with a mission to bring good into the world and IT is the last thing on their mind.

As the organization is formed, the financial person will choose the accounting system that best meets their needs.

The head of fundraising needs to track donors and sets up a donor management system for tracking donations.  This works well for some time, but the organization needs to get the word out about their cause and hires a marketing person.

This marketing person sets up a website and CRM to track new potential leads.  With all the success the funding team can no longer mange which group gets funding on spreadsheets, so a grant management system is created.

All noble efforts, and each group has the system they need, but this is where the challenges start.

While the donor management system tracks donations, the information about the bank account activity needs to be copied over to the accounting system for reconciliation.   Often this is done through some sort of export and import, but details are lost and reconciliation every month becomes very time consuming.

The marketing group has a list of potential donors, but when they donate, there is no match between the person on the donor system and the one on the marketing system. Lots of additional work goes into figuring out which campaigns ended up leading into donations.

Without an overall IT Strategy the organization has many systems not talking to each other.

Another problem that often occurs is the misalignment of the technology with the mission of the organization. 

An example might be an organization that’s mission is to help cure a particular disease that create a great donor database to raise funds but provides no system to award funding and track the effectiveness of the research.

In this way funds are received, but potentially ineffective and wasted. If IT is not aligned with the mission, then low return will be made on the investment.


How Does an IT Strategy Get Implemented?

Now that we see all the issues that can arise without a clear IT Strategy, how does one go about creating it?   

First and foremost, there must be a clear business strategy and vision to follow.  Business should lead technology, not the other way around.

With the business vision created, an IT vision can be developed, and the following 5 steps can be used to create the IT strategy:

Step 1: Development IT Vision: Answer the questions like where are you headed?  What does the end state look like?

Step 2: Identify the current IT capabilities: What people, processes, technology are currently in place?  How do these operate together?

Step 3: Document the future IT capabilities: What people, processes, technology are needed to accomplish the vision in step 1?  How do these operate together?

Step 4: Determine the IT capability gaps: What people, processes, and technology do not exist in the organization that are needed to reach the future state described in step 3?

Step 5: Create a migration plan: What are the steps needed to fill these gaps identified? Who is responsible for each? What are the deliverables and timelines?

With the plan in place, work can start to implement the IT Strategy in the organization. 

However, this is not a set it and forget it activity.   Every 1 to 3 years the IT Strategy should be reviewed and revised.  Additionally, quarterly check-ins are needed to ensure implementation is going as per the initial plan.

How Big is an IT Strategy Effort?

While many envision an IT Strategy that involves a digital transformation of the entire organization, it doesn’t not have to be that exhaustive. 

An initial IT Strategy could be as simple as just getting systems to a modern baseline level. This is often done through a technology success review (IT Audit) performed by a managed service provider and would take 3-4 weeks. This nice part about this is that it’s standardized and there is a lot to gain just by using the experience of the MSP to just get up to best practices.  It is also true that a more comprehensive and ambitious transformation to reinvent the organization can be taken on.  These efforts tend to be larger with a 6-12 month range for the timeline.