Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Technology Growth in Youth-Serving Organizations

It's a bumpy road, but the journey will make you stronger.

By Alexandra Krasne

"Any youth-serving nonprofit that attempts to grow so that it can serve more young people should be prepared for a roller coaster ride that at times might lead management to question why they started down this path." So says a recent Bridgespan study of 20 youth-serving organizations. The study concludes that although the road may be bumpy, organizations willing to navigate the path of growth will emerge stronger and better equipped to achieve their missions.

To most people's dismay, technology doesn't just spring forth and start working. For effective technology growth, an organization needs a clear vision of its goals, an understanding of its constituents, and, most importantly, a technology plan.

A technology plan provides a roadmap for growth, but unless that plan is represented in your organization's budget, it doesn't stand a chance of being implemented. A budget that includes technology also helps to codify buy-in from your organization's executive management and your board.

Smooth growth means having all the pieces in place. It means your desktops run properly, your servers don't crash, and your databases don't spit out cryptic error messages. But getting to that point is another matter entirely.

Now that you're sufficiently scared, know that with proper planning, budgeting, and a little creativity, your organization can come out of the growth process stronger and relatively unscathed.

Budgeting for Growth

Technology growth typically happens in three different stages: tactical, mid-term, and long-term. What's involved in each stage varies depending on your budget, staff, and organization size.

Tactical planning is designed to meet immediate organizational needs and responds to direct problems you're experiencing. 1 Mid-term planning spans around 18 months of growth. Long-term planning includes the overall long-term vision of your organization and the technology you'll need to support that. 2

Although it's impossible to know which operating system, productivity software, and database or online tools you'll be using in five years, it is possible to invest in a strong infrastructure, training, systems, and other set-ups that will allow you to position yourself to take advantage of what will be available to you later. Typically, all of this involves robust documentation and training--items frequently left out of nonprofit technology budgets.

By developing your technology plan and breaking down your technology needs into bite-sized pieces, you can move forward with the fluidity of a ballerina instead of lumbering along like a hippo with indigestion.

To start your planning process, decide which technology components you want to upgrade, identify ways to improve programs, set goals and costs, and create a grand vision for technology use in your organization. If you have long-term funding, plan to build out as far as your funding will stretch, and keep a longer timeline in mind.

Most nonprofits don't have the money to fund their own growth, but fundraising software can help keep track of donations and manage your relationship with funders. 3 To help map your growth, TechSoup offers an assortment of Technology Planning worksheets as well as articles on the subject.

Npower, a national network of independent local nonprofits that provide technology assistance to other nonprofits, offers technology-planning resources on its TechAtlas site as well.

Hardware Costs

Whether your organization has two employees or 200, dedicate your first steps to fixing and replacing existing computers and swapping out old parts that don't work with new ones that do. Whether your IT department is in-house or consists of paid consultants, budget staff time for upgrades and maintenance, or budget the cost of an outside consultant to do the work.

Typically, Windows desktop systems need to be replaced every three years. Many computer manufacturers sell entry-level Windows PCs for as little as $300-$400, not including a monitor. Apple sells inexpensive, all-in-one machines that include a monitor starting at $500. On the other end of the spectrum, Apple's more advanced workstations include a tower and flat-panel monitor and cost about $2,000; these machines are geared more for multimedia applications. Remember, too, that depending on your needs, you may be able to find recycled hardware that works for some situations. (See TechSoup's Recycling and Reuse section.)

Whether you're a Mac or a PC shop, you'll need to budget for regular upgrades and maintenance. 4 For each workstation, set aside either 20% of its cost for maintenance and repairs annually, or set a total amount--say $1,000--over a system's lifetime.

Another thing to remember when purchasing new systems is that your software needs will dictate your hardware requirements. If all you're doing is word processing, you can purchase inexpensive machines and use the same systems for five or six years. If you regularly use your computers for video editing, Photoshop, database work, or other memory-intensive tasks, you'll need more memory, a faster processor, and a powerful graphics card.

Software, Media, and Web-Related Expenses

Software costs can creep up on you if you're not careful. You'll need to budget for the cost of antivirus software (with subscriptions that let you download updates for the latest virus fixes), accounting software (at about $200 per license), website and e-mail hosting (which starts around $20-$30 per month), an Internet connection ($65 or so per month for DSL), domain name registration renewal ($25-$100 for the year), printer supplies (toner, ink jet cartridges, and so on), and back-up media (tapes, CDs, and DVD-rewritable discs).

Luckily, software discounts for nonprofits are common, and you can find great deals on the Web. TechSoup Stock offers plenty of titles for small administrative fees. On the site, qualifying organizations can acquire an upgrade to Windows XP for an administrative fee of $8, the Windows edition of Office 2003 for $19, or the Office 2004 Mac version for $20. Many other deals are available, too.

If you're looking for free software, OpenOffice doesn't cost a thing to download. Another place to look for free software is TechSoup's free downloads section.

More specific to youth-serving organizations is client management and outcomes tracking software, sometimes referred to as analytics. This software can go a long way toward managing information, but be prepared to set aside a good chunk of your budget for it. Small organizations can expect to spend $10,000 to $50,000 for basic packages--and that's without customization. 5

The bottom line when it comes to software and hardware is to budget for what you can afford.

"Smaller organizations should focus on tools that are relatively inexpensive and easy to deploy within their organizations," says Simon Moloney, Director of Services at NPower New York. "Medium and larger organizations should think about more sophisticated applications that may merge a number of different functions or integrate with other systems or databases."

For medium to large organizations, the range of applications is much broader, as they're looking for solutions that will integrate with their operations and are flexible enough to be tweaked and configured to their needs. Moloney says organizations of this size should expect to spend between $100,000 to $200,000 for case management and client tracking software.

Building Infrastructure

Consider your organization's plans for growth, and accommodate that in your technology planning and budgeting. Concentrate on providing a strong, supportive infrastructure. Without training, adequate equipment, and support, staff can't achieve their potential and meet their goals. Plan not only for today, but also for three years from now.

For instance, you could spend $5,000 on a new network for 20 people, or install a network that supports 30 people and spend $6,000. The marginal increase in initial cost is worthwhile, because it's easier to plan for growth than to proactively grow after you've already installed everything.

It's unwise, from an organizational perspective, to begin to work on intense back-office applications--such as databases for case management or fundraising--without a strong core infrastructure in place.

It's much better to build a reliable system that won't soon need to be replaced than to daisy-chain systems, creating an infrastructure by cobbling together a variety of small components. Look beyond sticker-shock to consider your organization's long-term costs rather than the immediate out-of-pocket expenses.

For complex programs such as databases, plan for regular improvement cycles, as your needs, partners, and funders will likely change over time.

Budget Black Holes to Avoid

One common budget hole organizations fall into is budgeting staff time and training. Do you have a new content management system that you need to train your staff to use? Maybe you've just installed some new client management software, and staff members are scratching their heads as they try to figure out how to input data. Whatever the case, be sure to build hours into your budget for staff training. For new systems, allot at least $1,000 per person for training. You may want to budget more, though, depending on the complexity of your systems and software.

Another key element that's largely overlooked is the overall cost to the organization as it adopts a new solution. For example, factor in lost staff productivity, time rewriting procedures, and time in training. Small organizations can be more flexible about training, but be sure to take into account time to implement process changes. Medium to large organizations may need to spend more--up to two or three times the cost of the system. Any support services that are outside the scope of your IT department should be budgeted for as well.

Making IT Happen

Navigating growth and arriving at your final destination doesn't have to be painful. An organization's growth can only be as strong as your plan for growth. With a little help and a lot of hard work, youth-serving organizations dedicated to growth can reach their goals--one step at a time.

Alexandra Krasne is Associate Editor of TechSoup.org. Additional information for this article was provided by Simon Moloney, Director of Services, NPower New York. Adapted by permission from an article originally published on TechSoup, August 19, 2005. As originally published, this article was supported by a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. (c) 2005 CompuMentor. All Rights Reserved.

For More Information

See the online resources referenced in this article:
  1. For more details on addressing your immediate technology needs, read TechSoup's article, Technology Triageback

  2. Read more about the planning process in TechSoup's Technology Planning section. back

  3. For more information on fundraising software, see Donor Management Softwareback

  4. To learn more about upgrading your IT equipment, read Upgrading Your Computer Componentsback

  5. Read more about Client Management and Outcomes Tracking Databasesback

About TechSoup

A registered service of CompuMentor, one of the nation's oldest and largest nonprofit technology assistance agencies, TechSoup.org is a one-stop resource for the technology needs of the nonprofit sector. Visit www.TechSoup.org for free technology information, support from nonprofit experts and your peers, and access to donated and discounted products provided by corporate and nonprofit technology partners.


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