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Technology Planning for Nonprofits

What is technology planning and why is it important? Learn why this is one of the most neglected aspects of operating a nonprofit and how to avoid common pitfalls.

Karen GrahamKaren Graham Consulting

Karen is a speaker, trainer, writer, and consultant with expertise in technology leadership and innovation, nonprofit software, and digital strategy. Her consulting work includes strategic technology roadmaps, development of knowledge resources, and leadership coaching. Karen was the Executive Director of the national nonprofit Idealware, and has held leadership roles in capacity building, arts, and human service organizations as well as a software startup. She holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management from the University of St. Thomas.

Email: karen@karengrahamconsulting.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/karentgraham

Assessment Links:

●      Specific blogs/webinars on the topic:


Karen Graham 00:00:00:00

What you might think of as technology problems are really people issues.

Tammy Tilzey 00:00:07:01

Hello and welcome to our found in Connected Philanthropy Podcast. Today we are privileged to have Karen Graham of Karen Graham Consulting as our guest and we will be talking about technology planning for nonprofits. Karen brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this topic and has such a rich history and passion for helping nonprofits with their tech. Her organization trains and coaches, individuals and other nonprofit organizations that are looking for guidance in this area.

Tammy Tilzey 00:00:39:02

So she pulls from a lot of real experience. We are excited to have Karen back. She’s been a guest speaker on our nonprofit educational webinar series and we are excited to have her on our podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. Karen Yeah.

Karen Graham 00:00:55:16

Thanks, Tammy. I as you know, I love sharing what I’ve learned over the years working in this field. And if if people can get just one little tiny nugget of wisdom out of this or if it sparks a new idea, then this will be a success. So thanks for having me.

Tammy Tilzey 00:01:13:04

That’s great. Yes, I agree. So I’m excited to be talking about nonprofits and technology planning with you today. And so I have lots of questions. But before we dive into that that topic, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how did you get to where you are today?

Karen Graham 00:01:34:06

Sure, I’d be happy to share that. I, I was thinking that you were going to ask me this, right. And could I tell some great conversion story about how I first became excited about technology? And you know what sparked that interest? And I really don’t have that kind of story. What I’ve always been more interested in is as people and and technology is just sort of a tool, I guess, for me to make people’s lives better.

Karen Graham 00:02:03:13

Hopefully. And and what started me being interested in nonprofit organizations was that when I was one of my very first jobs, I was a summer camp director for United Cerebral Palsy Summer camp. And I saw what a huge difference that made in the lives of the campers as well as their parents getting a little week of respite from being a caregiver.

Karen Graham 00:02:29:18

And that was kind of the first thing that that got me thinking, like maybe this is the kind of career that I want. And it was actually much later that I started to learn how much technology strategy can make the difference between a thriving nonprofit that is really making a difference in their community or in the world or a nonprofit organization that isn’t quite reaching its potential.

Karen Graham 00:02:56:22

So that’s, you know, kind of like what started me on this path. Since then, I have worked in a variety of different settings, including a software company that I worked with for about nine years that made fundraising and advocacy software for nonprofits. Still does. And I also ran a number of different capacity building programs on the regional and national level that help nonprofits make good decisions about technology.

Karen Graham 00:03:25:17

Do effective planning be well-informed about technology trends and the products and services that are available to them and so that’s that’s where I’ve learned a lot about about like trends and best practices in the sector. And then I’ve also been a consultant for maybe ten or 15 years now. I can’t remember exactly when my first consulting engagement was, but I’ve done that formally as as part of my employment and then also kind of as a side hustle and just recently became a freelancer 100%.

Tammy Tilzey 00:04:01:25

That’s exciting. And speaking of the the trends and experience that you’ve seen on technology planning and looking back over the last several years, can you speak to how it’s evolving as this critical need for nonprofits?

Karen Graham 00:04:18:02

I, I don’t know if the planning process itself has really changed that much, but people’s attitudes about it sure seem to have changed. And it used to be that if I wanted to make the case for technology planning, I would talk about things like, for example, let’s say that you don’t have a plan. You wait to replace a computer until it breaks and it’s completely not functional anymore.

Karen Graham 00:04:42:20

Well, then all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of lost productivity while you’re waiting for a new computer to arrive and be set up, you’re probably spending way more for that new computer than you would have if you had planned ahead and waited for a sale. And, you know, so there are a lot of kind of practical reasons just for for purchasing and and efficiency and cost effectiveness that people should do planning.

Karen Graham 00:05:05:26

And those really haven’t changed. But I think what has maybe helped people’s attitudes to change toward technology planning is that they’re starting to realize that without a good digital strategy, they’re missing out on things. They’re just they’re missing out on opportunities to do their work at a completely different scale than they ever could have imagined before to deliver products and services remotely, to have like better data that helps them really understand the people that they’re serving, their constituents and and understand what works and what doesn’t to make the case for it, like providing evidence of their effectiveness to funders, for example.

Karen Graham 00:05:49:17

And so there are just so many reasons why technology is like a I think, of more important strategic input to organizations than it ever has been before. And so that’s why having a plan is also more, more important than ever.

Tammy Tilzey 00:06:06:29

Yeah, because I, I could see as organizations do their strategic planning and they have these goals and how they’re going to get there. Having the right technology to support that effort is has got to be thought about. So given that scenario, why do you think it’s why do you think it is that so many nonprofits may not have the type of technology plan, if any, at all?

Karen Graham 00:06:38:03

Yeah, I mean, I think there are a lot of reasons. And one of them is that most nonprofit organizations are quite small. I mean, there are there are some big ones that are household names and they’re multimillion dollar organizations, but vast majority of nonprofit organizations are quite small. And so they likely don’t have an AI professional on their staff.

Karen Graham 00:07:00:06

And the staff that they do have are pulled in a lot of different directions. And, you know, I’ll give you a scenario like let’s say that on my I’m an executive director and on my to do list today was to do some research on artificial intelligence and kind of think through like how I might incorporate that into my program delivery.

Karen Graham 00:07:21:08

And then somebody walks in my office and it’s a refugee who has just been evicted from her apartment. And she really needs my organization’s help. And I mean, my instinct is to drop everything and help that person. Right. But I mean, that’s what our hearts would guide all of us to do. And that I think that happens just on a daily basis with with nonprofit leaders, that there’s sort of their hearts pulled in one direction and then their heads pulled in a different direction, thinking like, what is going to just like help my organization make a quantum leap forward and be able to serve ten times more people more effectively.

Karen Graham 00:07:59:18

You know, those those kinds of things just so often get put off because there’s this critical problem right in front of you and resources are limited. And, you know, so that’s part of it. But also the lack of expertise and just kind of the pace at which we’re all working right now and the fatigue that a lot of us have from doing a lot of problem solving and just kind of like adapting to a lot of change over the last few years, I think that maybe factors into it as well.

Tammy Tilzey 00:08:28:15

If someone was really wanting to break through that and and make steps towards putting together a plan or whatever, working forward on the steps to develop a strategic tech plan, what would you recommend as, as a planning steps that they look at taking?

Karen Graham 00:08:49:16

I actually teach a class on this so I can I can rattle this off pretty easily with by glancing at some visual aids that help me to remember all the details. You know, I think one of the things to do early on is to actually be clear on whether you’re making a tactical plan or a strategic plan for your organization.

Karen Graham 00:09:09:04

A tactical plan is is more about like, you know what, what do we need to purchase in the next year? What sort of risks are we taking that need to be addressed right now, that sort of thing. And sometimes it’s actually critical to just do that first before you get into the headspace where you’re able to do more strategic long term planning, that that might result in more guiding principles rather than really specific actions or purchases.

Karen Graham 00:09:35:22

Right. But for planning steps, if you’re doing a strategic plan, um, I would start by being clear about your purpose and the context and the goals and think about, you know, the overall goals of the organization, what environment you’re operating in, that sort of thing. Not just not just like limiting it to technology, but widening your lens a little bit.

Karen Graham 00:09:59:06

And then instead of like going right to solutions, spend plenty of time on understanding your current situation, really listening to people about what their needs are and what and how technology might make their lives better, make their work more satisfying or more effective, and then come up with a really clear definition of what your desired state is. And then you can work backwards to say like, okay, in order to get there, we need to change this policy, we need to implement this CRM.

Karen Graham 00:10:32:29

You know, whatever. One more thing to add about technology planning is that the plan isn’t finished. Once you write the plan document and present it to your board of directors. Right. Then you have to implement it and you need to tend to change management. You need to think about monitoring that plan and keeping it up to date over time.

Karen Graham 00:10:57:06

And that’s something that people often overlook.

Tammy Tilzey 00:11:01:21

Yeah, I could I could see that I love the the space that you gave for, you know, you may have some tactical things that need attention right off and and the difference of what a strategic plan may be. How does implement any new piece of technology fit into the picture that I guess that could be something that you need to do immediately, tactically.

Tammy Tilzey 00:11:29:12

But if you plan in your strategy of of when you need those, how do you get all of that success that you want when you implement a piece of technology?

Karen Graham 00:11:46:12

It’s hard. I mean, you you probably talk to some of your customers about implementing your software, right? And I, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but, you know, I wonder how often you’d be able to say it was a fantastic success, like home run implementation. Everything went great. You know, even though the the software provider or the the vendor service provider might offer a fantastic level of support for implementation, we’re just I don’t know, we’re bad at it.

Karen Graham 00:12:19:21

I think I think not just in nonprofit organizations, but all over the place. I’ve seen some some numbers about software implementation projects and the failure rate on them. And, you know, I’ve seen a lot of different numbers, but I think we can safely say it’s probably like more than half don’t really go that well. And so but there are things you can do to improve your chance of success.

Karen Graham 00:12:44:08

Right? And it’s it’s really all about change management. But but one thing on a really practical level that I think people could do to help it go better is just to have a better handoff between the people who are involved in the sales and decision process and the people who are actually doing the implementation, because sometimes those are two completely different teams, both on the nonprofit side, like the customer side and on the vendor side.

Karen Graham 00:13:11:07

And I see, you know, sometimes communication breakdowns there and knowledge not getting transferred very well. So like that’s one place I would focus on. Another thing I would really focus on is user adoption. And I think you might want to ask me more about that. So I won’t say too much about that right now. And then a third thing is just about communication and the mistake that I’ve seen many organizations make over and over is to say, like, we’re going to be doing this like, say, it’s CRM, we’re going to be doing the CRM implementation and it’s going to take about six months and then everything’s going to change for you and you’re going to

Karen Graham 00:13:50:20

have to learn this new system. And then six months go by with utter silence, like the end users aren’t hearing anything about it. All this work is going on in the background, but they don’t know that they know this is going to affect them. Right? And so they’re building up all this anxiety about it. And then when it comes time for them to actually start using the system, they’re sort of bringing a lot of like negative feelings of loss of control and and loss of transparency and that sort of thing into it.

Karen Graham 00:14:19:17

That doesn’t really help anybody. So having a lot of communication with people and kind of continuing to build up positive feelings and expectations about it and and a sense of progress can be really helpful in the implementation process as well.

Tammy Tilzey 00:14:35:18

Yeah, I love that advice. And, and you are right, talking to our clients, we’ve seen some that smaller implementations if you will, with a grant hub where there’s one person who’s using it, the majority. So those implementations, they’ve been involved in the trial of it and are the main person using it. So there isn’t, like you said, that handoff between, you know, the decision making and the actual implementation, but organizations that really understand that the importance of that continuity of keeping track of of what was planned and and communication throughout that I could see that it very much affects the success of our clients as well that change management is is that the stage that

Tammy Tilzey 00:15:36:26

you see most often commonly trips up nonprofits as they as they bring out a new project, a technology project?

Karen Graham 00:15:47:25

Yeah, I think that’s the place where people are most likely to assemble. And it’s interesting because if I had shows just at random, ten nonprofit executive directors or CEOs and and kind of asked them about their change management skills or evaluated their change management skills, I think overall, you know, maybe eight out of ten of them would be really strong on that.

Karen Graham 00:16:12:07

But yet their ability to apply that to a technology context is is not always there. And I’m not I wish I could understand better kind of why that breakdown happens, but it just seems like all the things that we know about change management tend to kind of go out the window or get ignored when it comes to technology projects.

Karen Graham 00:16:32:21

And and that shouldn’t be the case.

Tammy Tilzey 00:16:34:22

If it could be that technology just plugs in and then life is better and there isn’t really a change. But if you see how it’s not just the technology, but it’s your processes that also need to adapt to a new technology, then there’s, oh, there’s so many places where you can relook at your processes to streamline them, perhaps rather than trying to fit your old processes that were basically developed around the previous generation of technology perhaps.

Tammy Tilzey 00:17:09:24

And then you’re trying to keep things the same while you get new technology. And changing everything at once is uncomfortable for a lot of people, unless you communicate often and and really take them along that journey.

Karen Graham 00:17:24:18

Yeah, yeah. And it stirs up feelings again. You know, people feel a sense of maybe loss of value or loss of control when they have to give up a process that is familiar and that they’re good at. And now they’re learning something new there. And it definitely helps upstream of that, if you can include those people in the decision making process, in the planning process, you know that that’s one thing that helps pave the way for user adoption.

Karen Graham 00:17:55:06

But yeah, it’s a it’s a tricky one. And I think that’s something that that we as a sector need to figure out how to get better at.

Tammy Tilzey 00:18:04:20

Yeah, Yeah. As you know, our our podcast community consists of both funders and nonprofits listening in. So now as I think about this, how important is it for funders to consider the tech needs of their nonprofit partners? Do you have any advice for for funders on that?

Karen Graham 00:18:28:28

Yeah, I mean, obviously I’m not going to say no. They don’t need to pay attention to technology. It doesn’t matter. Yeah, it’s I mean, I guess if I was if I get the microphone to just talk to funders for a moment, I would say like if you’re if you’re making investments in nonprofit organizations without making sure that they’re equipped with the technology to actually make the most of that investment, then like, that’s just that’s just a foolish strategy.

Karen Graham 00:18:58:24

You know, it seems like it would be undermining the the grant making that they’re doing if they don’t make sure that nonprofits especially have the data systems to be able to not just evaluate their work and provide evidence to the funder that they are being successful. But but even more importantly, to make the day to day decisions that those organization funds need to be truly effective and to be adaptive, to be responsive to changes in their communities.

Karen Graham 00:19:30:07

That’s that’s what really matters. And so how can funders do that? Well, that’s a little more difficult to answer. I, I do think it’s important for every program officer, everyone who is reviewing a grant application to have enough of a basic understanding of how technology is used in nonprofit organizations that they can spot when it’s missing or when it’s being underinvested in and and kind of break the cycle of organizations not really asking for the technology that they need because they’re afraid that it’s going to be a, I don’t know, like a negative for them or something, or the funders just kind of say no.

Karen Graham 00:20:16:23

And and then it just kind of perpetuates the cycle of underinvestment. And and so I think that program officers can sort of interrupt that by saying like, wait, this is a place where technology investment could be really helpful. Let’s have a conversation about that. And for them to also be able to sort of evaluate not the technology itself, but maybe the process, the planning process that the organization has has gone through.

Karen Graham 00:20:41:11

I mean, I’m delighted if there are if there are funders listening in to this that that you all want to learn enough about technology planning that you can not just do it for yourself, but also kind of uphold good practices among your grantees and support their capacity to do good planning.

Tammy Tilzey 00:21:00:08

Yeah. Now that’s to be able to to see and have that conversation proactively where where you may see that a lot of pain and effort and extra resources are here whereas technology might this might be a good place for that and not that Oh, since you’re asking for technology that bumps you out, but how can that be included?

Tammy Tilzey 00:21:25:04

I love that. Well.

Karen Graham 00:21:26:27

And I want to keep it really focused on opportunity and not on risk, too. I think a lot of funders that I’ve interacted with have had this mentality that like we need to just make safe investments, we need to make grants where there’s a really good chance of success. But like we talked about before, a lot of technology projects don’t actually go great, but they might have a great upside, like a tremendous upside.

Karen Graham 00:21:53:02

And so I love it when I hear funders talking about grabs that they’ve made to support innovative technology projects that more likely than not are not going to work out. But they’re experiments that help us learn. And if they do work, wow, it’s going to be a great leap forward.

Tammy Tilzey 00:22:13:02

Yeah. What what advice do you have on the other side of of nonprofits approaching funders?

Karen Graham 00:22:20:28

I say this in my class and and I actually kind of borrowed this idea from from a colleague that I worked with before. But my, my best advice to start with is just like, get rid of the idea that there’s some magical funding fairy out there that is going to, like, fund your technology there. I mean, you can you can dig and dig in.

Karen Graham 00:22:43:20

You’re probably not going to find an organization that is just waiting for your proposal for some kind of technology investment. And so your best bet is probably the organizations that the funders that you already have a relationship with who understand your programs and and can be helped to understand how critical technology is to your success. And just take that in and, you know, make sure that technology is a line item in your budget.

Karen Graham 00:23:11:16

Make sure you have a technology plan that you can make available to them. If they would like to see that to kind of substantiate you know, that you’re prepared, that you you understand how technology connects to your mission delivery. And that can make a really compelling case.

Tammy Tilzey 00:23:29:10

And and having that technology plan available again, that shows that you’re thinking about the whole picture and you’re going to be a good steward of the money that you get. And, you know, you’ve thought through, you know, where you get the budget for for your technology in advance as well. What type of resources and services and advice or even blogs that you’ve had that may be helpful for audiences on on either side on this?

Tammy Tilzey 00:23:59:07

What what would you have available?

Karen Graham 00:24:02:06

Well, I do have a website that has blog posts on it, and I have a link to a newsletter that people can subscribe to if they want to. That has sort of my thoughts on these kinds of topics. I mostly write about technology strategy, and it’s about half and half for for funders and for nonprofits, for those different audiences.

Karen Graham 00:24:21:06

So we love to have our followers there. Other I mean, I guess there are some obvious ones that anybody who has worked in nonprofit technology will already know these. But if you’re new to it, I think it’s worth introducing you to Tech Soup. They have great educational resources at Tech Soup, Dawg and ten and Teen dot org is another one.

Karen Graham 00:24:43:04

That’s a membership organization for people who work in nonprofits tech and my former employer Tech Impact also has a technology learning center with hundreds of of learning resources about these kinds of topics as well. So those are good places to start. And and I would say like if you do join some kind of community, whether it’s ten or or maybe a technology thread and some other sort of organization that you’re part of that’s in your professional field, if you really do some digging on there and and take time to also be generous about sharing what you’ve learned, then that that can be some of the best one of the best sources of information like listservs

Karen Graham 00:25:29:14

and discussion groups and Slack groups and things like that are where I have gotten some of my best tips.

Tammy Tilzey 00:25:38:02

Yeah, so many people have traveled the path that you’re on and are so willing to help as well as hear what you can bring to the table as well of your experience. I, I really second that recommendation and I know we’re going to put all of the links to all the resources and tech assessments, tools that that Karen just read off.

Tammy Tilzey 00:26:04:23

So we’ll put those in our show notes.

Karen Graham 00:26:07:16

All right. That’s that’s maybe worth mentioning that I shared some links with with you, Tammy, in advance for three different assessment tools. And if you’re thinking about technology planning, each of those tools is is a good option for kind of understanding what your starting point is and identifying which facet of technology you might want to focus on.

Tammy Tilzey 00:26:29:04

Yeah, which one’s connected to the biggest return priorities and being able to help articulate the importance of that technology going through that assessment really does help organize your thoughts and see the connections there to your strategic plan. Overall.

Karen Graham 00:26:50:02

It gives you something good to share with your boss or your board of directors as well, to say, Look, I did this assessment, here’s the print out, and it just helps structure the conversation.

Tammy Tilzey 00:27:00:10

Yes. And I see also that one of the links you shared was a sample simple strategic tech plan template. I know that templates really help you get past that blank blank page as well. So thank you for doing that. Well, I there has just been so much that you’ve shared and common pitfalls and what to think about and how important technology planning is.

Tammy Tilzey 00:27:28:20

Do you have any other thoughts to throw in here before we wrap up.

Karen Graham 00:27:34:28

I guess I’ll share one more thing, which is that a lot of people think that technology problems can be solved by having all the right tools and and that’s another example of, you know, sort of this magical thinking and in real and and similarly, they think that user adoption problems can be solved by training people. And both of those assumptions are wrong.

Karen Graham 00:28:00:19

It’s much more nuanced than that. But if you are a leader, if you understand some things about about human behavior and change management and user centered design and and things like that, I think that’ll take you a long way towards solving what you might think of as technology problems, which are really people issues.

Tammy Tilzey 00:28:23:04

Good point there. And I really encourage everyone to follow along with the blogs that you have coming out, connect with you on LinkedIn and see all of that great thought leadership that you have that you are putting out for both funders and nonprofits. Really appreciate your work there. And if if our community, if you have learned something from today’s Connected Philanthropy podcast, please share it with others who might also enjoy and benefit from it.

Tammy Tilzey 00:28:55:13

We look forward to connecting in our future webinars, podcasts and community discussions, and we wish you all the best success. And again, thank you for all that you do for.

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