Technology planning is a process that takes time and resources in order to understand what is appropriate for staff and the organization. Program directors and their management staff may use this resource to further their understanding of what is involved in technology planning.
Effective technology planning is an involved process. It takes a commitment of time and resources from senior managers and other staff. In order to make good decisions, an organization also needs to understand key aspects of technology.
But through technology planning, organizations can make significant gains. Sound technology management leads to greater productivity, increased staff morale, and improved service to clients through having machines that work, networks that give access to information, and applications that are appropriate for an organization's mission.
Information can transform organizations by giving them the tools to understand the environment they're working in, to measure the effectiveness of their actions, and to counter opposing information from other groups and policy makers. Technology is uniquely positioned to harness the power of information.
Technology planning is a process. TechSoup has broken it down into seven phases.
- Establish leadership and support.
- Assess your resources.
- Define your needs.
- Explore solutions.
- Write the plan.
- Get funding.
- Implement the plan.
- Establish leadership and support. Setting up a technology team and ensuring management and staff buy-in will allow you to get started with the whole organization behind you.
A tech plan isn't written in a day. The process behind the writing is the most important part, and the process is all about how staff work together to find the best solutions.
- Technology Team. It is crucial that the technology plan be a product of the whole organization, not just one staff person's brainchild. Nonprofit technology experts all recommend that you set up a technology team to lead your technology planning process, if you do not have a team already. A technology team should be made up of a wide range of staff members. It is very important to have your executive director or another person in management involved. Your team might be composed of a board member, the executive director, a project manager, an administrative assistant, an accountant and a development director, as well as your system administrator, if you have one. Set up a regular meeting schedule to review progress on the plan. Make sure to distribute responsibilities and set clear expectations so that each person is involved in the process.
- Lead Person. It is crucial to have one person who is designated to lead the technology team and coordinate the whole process. That person need not be someone who is already in a management position, but should be someone with leadership capabilities and relative comfort with technology.
- Management Support. It is next to impossible to do a technology plan and carry it out without active support from management. Management is key to financial support and funding for the plan. It also makes a huge difference if you can convince your management to stand up and talk to staff about the plan. One strategy for convincing management is to describe the current costs of not doing a plan. Let them know how many hours of staff time are wasted, and how much money is lost trying to make the current system work. If your organization requires a major technology overhaul, management will appreciate a plan which is broken into implementation phases, so that they are not faced with funding the entire initiative in one budget year. For a set of general talking points, see the TechSoup article Why a Technology Plan? Even if management is reluctant, they should be consulted and informed at every major step.
Assess your resources. The first step in planning is to assess your existing technology. What do you have in place? How well is it working?
The first step in developing a plan is to assess where you are. Sound philosophical? The key is to spend some time asking yourself what is working, and what needs improvement. What technology do you have in place in your organization? What technology skills does your staff have? Who does your organization rely on for technology support?
One part of assessment is taking a basic inventory of the computers and software in your organization. A hardware inventory worksheet can give you a sense of the overall capacity and range of workstations in your organization. A software inventory worksheet can give you an overview of the software resources and how they are distributed on different computers.
By taking this step, you can help avoid buying redundant technologies or incompatible technologies, and you can help assess whether any of your current technology is obsolete.
In the hardware inventory worksheet, you will want to write down the following items for each computer:
- Serial Number
- Monitor type
- Processor type and speed
- Hard disk capacity
- Available hard disk space
- Operating system
- Modem or network card (if any)
- Ports available (USB, FireWire, SCSI, etc.)
- Floppy, CD, or DVD drive (Be specific: indicate the type of floppy drive or whether you have a CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD, DVD-R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, or DVD-RAM drive)
- Any additional equipment attached to the computer
- Other equipment such as network printers, switches, firewalls, modems, etc.
In the software inventory worksheet, you will want to mark down major software packages that you use, along with their version numbers.
There's more to an assessment than listing your hardware and software. For example, you need to document your network set-up, access policies, and protocols; document your services, including centralized databases, email, and groupware; and document your management practices, from staffing to written policies.
The most important part of assessment is to ask yourself some questions about how well your systems are currently working. The worksheet below will give you an idea of the issues to look at in different areas of technology assessment.
Define your needs. Why do you need technology? What will new technology help you do that you can't do already? Defining your needs will enable you to choose the most efficient solutions.
The trick to defining your needs is to describe what you want to do with technology, not what you think you need to buy. Consider the problems you might run into in your organization--new policies to institute, procedures you need to follow to find new funding, and new staff members to work into your organization's structure. Then consider all the potential tools, including technology tools that you might use to solve these problems.
Learning to think this way is a little like learning a different language. Start by thinking more abstractly, then begin to discuss how technology might help you solve your problems and help your organization better fulfill its mission. What might your staff members be able to accomplish with a new intranet? What new capability will make a critical difference to productivity?
Put together a good technology team, one that represents all the major program and administrative areas of the organization--including a decision maker who is involved in strategic planning--and technical staff. Remember that a team full of people who have technical skills is not necessarily the best equipped to think of technology in terms of your organization's mission. It also helps if the technology team gathers input from staff about their needs. You can get staff input through a survey, or through individual interviews.
As you define your needs, do not start out by saying, "We need a Windows XP Professional network with 10 Pentium IIIs." Windows XP Professional may or may not be cost-effective or feasible. More importantly, if you don't know why you are getting it, there is no way to know if it will accomplish what you need it to. Instead, a nonprofit might say, "We need staff to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently, and conduct research on the issues that are important to our organization." Once you have identified your needs in this way, you can start thinking about how technology might help you reach your goals. You may conclude, for example, that your staff needs email access, but consider which email programs are appropriate, whether your staff needs centralized address lists, and how much of a concern privacy is. Then you can start evaluating specific technologies that are available.
The more you can connect your technology needs to your larger mission as an organization, the better your plan will be. Its recommendations will be more useful and meaningful, as well as more convincing to potential funders. The following are two examples of the kind of language you might use:
- "We are a disability advocacy organization that does media campaigns and workplace training sessions to raise awareness of the needs of people with disabilities. We need to connect to the Internet in order to coordinate the planning of regional conferences and training sessions with our partners in other states who use email. We also need to communicate by email with corporations who are considering bringing us in to do training sessions."
- "We are a social service agency that provides training and referral services to local Spanish-speaking citizens. Our referral staff need to share information about clients with our job counseling staff."
As you define your needs, develop a sense of what your priorities are. What is mission-critical for the next month, and what can wait half a year? For instance, a nonprofit might decide that backing up all data takes first priority, while developing a website for funders can wait a few months.
Also look to other organizations in your sector to learn about best practices in technology. While you don't want to follow other organizations blindly, keeping abreast of changes in your field is essential to being able to take advantage of technology in a timely manner.
Explore solutions. The next step is to research existing technology options and decide on ones that meet your needs at a minimum cost.
Once you have assessed your resources and defined your needs, the next step is to make a concrete plan for how to meet those needs. This phase of technology planning requires the most technical knowledge. Web research and information from the other areas of TechSoup can help you get started. Most nonprofits, however, will need some type of expert advice to develop a full plan.
If you have not already been working with a consultant, you may want to hire one at this point. See the Getting Help with Your Technology Plan article for ideas on who can help you. Make sure any consultants you hire know what your budget range is. Tell them what support resources you will have available so they do not recommend a system that requires extensive maintenance if you do not have the staff time or expertise for it. For further suggestions, see the article Working with Corporate Volunteers and Consultants.
Deciding on concrete solutions that fit within your budget can be the most difficult part of technology planning. It's important to make sure that all the solutions you pick are compatible. For instance, if you want a new database, a new back-up system, and a new network, you will have to make sure that the database can be shared across the type of network you are getting, and the back-up system can copy the database when it is open, if necessary. Technology is interdependent and there are dozens of options with different price tags for each technology decision, so negotiating your priorities can get very tricky. The important thing is to go back to your original vision of how technology can help you accomplish your mission. What are the key new functions you want technology to fill? Consider price, of course, but don't get locked into an inexpensive technology that won't grow with you and won't work with future technologies.
Before you decide on a solution or defer to a consultant, make sure you have a solid understanding of the different options. TechSoup's content areas are a good place to start for background information and further resources to answer overarching technology questions:
- What type of network do you need?
- What hardware purchases or upgrades should you make?
- What software should you choose?
- What is the best way to connect to the Internet?
- How should you go about getting your organization a presence on the web?
- How can you take care of your database needs?
- What is the best way to train your staff?
- How can you take care of regular system administration needs?
Write the plan. Your written plan should document your resources, needs, and solutions, as well as your budget.
There are many different forms that nonprofits use to write their technology plans. No matter which form you choose, there are several key elements:
Who are you as an organization? How are you organized and what kind of services do you provide? Your technology plan should open with a short description of your organization that will set the context for your technology needs. A good organizational profile should include your mission and vision as well as practical details on your current work. This overview will ground the technology plan in your mission and will remind everyone, from your staff and board to potential funders that this isn't just about technology. It's about equipping your organization to better serve its mission.
The following are two sample organizational profiles:
The Immigrant Alliance
The Immigrant Alliance's mission is to empower the individual and community to improve the quality of life while enriching our cultural heritage. For more than 15 years, IA has provided a variety of opportunities and social services to more than 3,000 people annually. IA provides general employment counseling, staffs a general information and referral service, and provides individual counseling on citizenship and immigration issues. It provides several after-school and summer programs for youth. IA also houses satellite offices for other agencies that provide Social Security, housing rights, and medical services.
Women's Health Action
The Women's Health Action is an education and advocacy group founded and led by women who have survived women's health conditions. WHA's mission is to lobby for increased research and treatment resources devoted to women's health. WHA publishes a newsletter with a circulation of more than 5,000, responds publicly to misinformation in the media, pressures public policy makers to "do the right thing," and conducts public education campaigns through mainstream media.
Your organization's technology vision (together with a brief section about the current state of technology in your organization) can take the form of an executive summary. How will technology further your organization's mission? What is your long-range vision for technology use? While this isn't necessarily an essential part of the plan, this section can give an overview of your technology goals as they relate to your organization's mission.
If you include this section, it should draw heavily on the work you did early in the technology planning process to define your needs.
For example, a technology vision might include statements like the following:
"Our three departments serve the same client base, but currently have no mechanism to share client contact information, client history, and client needs. Sharing information is crucial to making accurate referrals and giving advice to clients. Sharing contact information will also dramatically increase efficiency. In order to allow staff from all departments to view all information about a client, we will develop a shared database that tracks information about each client. We will invest initial energy and staff time in data entry, so that the database is fully functional. We will also train all staff in the use of the database, so that all staff can document and research interactions with clients in one location."
"Our organization depends on AmeriCorps volunteers who serve for one year to deliver food to our homeless clients. Recruiting qualified volunteers is often a challenge, especially since it is difficult to publicize the opportunity to young people around the country who might consider moving to the area to work with us. In order to reach out to potential volunteers who use the Internet regularly in their colleges and universities, we will design and publicize a website which describes the program we offer and the application process."
The body of your technology plan is a description of the technology projects you will undertake. For each project, you will want to provide the following information:
Description: A brief description of what it is you plan to do. For example, if your project is "Establish a Local Area Network," the beginning of your description might read:
"Nonprofit A currently has 10 independent workstations, with no network connecting them. This project will set up a peer-to-peer, local area network for these 10 computers, using Windows 98 as a network operating system."
Benefits: What will this project enable your organization to do that you could not do before? It helps to describe the benefits up front, so that it is clear how much of a priority the project is. A description of the benefits will also be useful if you show your technology plan to funders, since it may convince them of the importance of the technology investment you describe. See the article on How Technology is Funded: The Basics for more information on writing a Technology Funding Proposal.
Two sample benefits of setting up a Local Area Network might include:
- A local area network will allow Nonprofit A to set up cost-effective shared access to the Internet and email. Nonprofit A's current usage of email and the web is limited to one-at-a-time use. The possibility of simultaneous, continuous access would allow staff members to use the Internet frequently for research and to use email as an efficient communication tool with colleagues in other organizations and with clients, members, and participating organizations.
- Nonprofit A has several departments that all keep data about the same clients. Currently, these departments have no way to access each other's records. A local area network would allow all staff to input and access data in one database which is shared across the network. Having one database will save time that is now wasted in multiple entries of the same data and will create one accurate source for all client information.
Tasks: What tasks will it take to complete this project? Listing the tasks will be extremely useful in establishing a timeline and beginning the implementation.
Three sample tasks associated with setting up a local area network might be:
- Lay down wiring
- Configure workstations
- Train staff to access shared files over the network
Cost: At the end of your description of a project, list the costs associated with each step. For instance, one cost associated with setting up a local area network might be:
Purchase five 10 Base T Ethernet Cards, at $45 each ...............$225
No technology plan is complete without a budget. Creating a budget is the only way to tell whether or not your plan is practical.
The budget should include estimated costs for all aspects of the projects you have listed. A common mistake is to include only hardware and software purchases in the budget. Actually, a good rule of thumb is that approximately 70 percent of your technology spending should go to technical support and training, and only 30 percent to technology purchases.
If you plan to hire a system administrator, factor in the system administrator's salary. If you plan to use a consultant for regular troubleshooting and maintenance, you should estimate the frequency and cost of the consultant's services.
Be sure to include staff assignments and time budgets. Although this may be harder to estimate than your other costs, it can help you determine when it makes more sense to hire outside help.
If your technology plan is divided into different phases, you may want to divide your budget into phases as well. This will allow you to distinguish immediate investments from more long-term projects.
Timeline or critical path
A timeline would include the phases of work and the deadlines for implementation of your plan.
For nonprofits that need to raise the funds before they can implement a technology plan, a critical path may be more appropriate; similar to a timeline, it would indicate the order in which the different aspects of the project need to be completed.
- Get funding. You can now use your technology plan as a key element in seeking technology funding. See the article on How Technology is Funded: The Basics for more information.
Implement the plan. Setting a timeline, assigning responsibilities, and evaluating your progress will make your plan a reality.
As the poet Robert Burns once said, "The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry." The sad truth is that many technology plans sit on a shelf and are never carried out. Implementation is not automatic. It requires conscious planning in its own right. Even if you have been working with a consultant all along to do your technology plan, managing the implementation is your organization's task. Only you can think through who can carry out different aspects of the plan and when they will do it.
The following elements are key to a successful implementation:
- Designate a point person. One person should be in charge of overseeing the process. This is not necessarily a technical role, but a management role. This person may also communicate with and oversee consultants who implement parts of the plan. They will report back periodically to the technology team and to management.
- Break projects into tasks. Make sure the individual steps are clear so you can monitor progress.
- Assign responsibilities. Make clear which staff member will carry out which task.
- Establish a timeline. Set milestones and target dates for different phases of your plan.
- Evaluate your success. Evaluation should be built into any planning process, and technology planning is no exception. Decide beforehand what indicators of success you will look for. Build evaluation checkpoints into your timeline.
- Update your technology plan. A technology plan should be a living, breathing document. As new needs and priorities come up, modify the plan accordingly! If one technology project does not help you as you hoped, you are free to go back to the plan to rethink and rewrite.
Technology planning is not quick or simple. There is no magic formula for success. In order to make informed decisions, you will need access to technology expertise. You may also want some guidance just managing the planning process. Whether or not you can do your planning on your own depends on the technology expertise you have on staff already. Most nonprofits do not have enough know-how to complete the whole planning process, including deciding which type of network they need, or how best to connect to the Internet. In most cases, TechSoup recommends that you do draw on outside resources.
However, you may be able to save money by seeking help on some aspects of technology planning while doing others on your own. For instance, only you can define what it is that you want your organization to gain from technology use.
Taking your hardware and software inventory may be the most well-defined part of technology planning. As a result, you have more options for how to get it done. If someone on staff has even a minimal knowledge of hardware and software vocabulary, you may well be able to do it in-house. Is there someone who knows how to find out the processor speed of a computer? How to find out the full version number of a software application? Have your most technical person look at the hardware and software inventory worksheets to see if she or he understands all of the columns. Your other options include hiring a consultant or finding a volunteer.
Planning technology solutions can require much more in-depth technology understanding. In some cases, if there is already an experienced IT person on staff, some nonprofits find that with web research and phone calls, a technology team can complete the plan on its own. However, if you do not have an experienced IT person on staff, it will be hard for someone to learn enough to make a reliable judgment call.
Whether or not you seek outside help, however, educating your own technology team is crucial to a successful plan. In order to understand the options a consultant presents to you, you need vocabulary and basic concepts. The content areas of TechSoup are a good place to start.
Ready to look for help? See Getting Help with Your Technology Plan.
Don't despair! Help is available. Technology planning is no simple matter, but it is a rich, powerful process. In the long term, it can reduce your headaches tenfold, and lead you to use technology to further your mission in ways you never dreamed of.
Last Updated: October 22, 2021