The Virtual Activist

A Training Course


Part 6: Technology Planning

As our reliance on technology grows, so too does our need to plan for it. But technology planning is seldom on the "to do" list of nonprofit organizations and grassroots community groups. If the subject does come up, it could generate lots of kicking and screaming (speaking metaphorically, of course) from busy individuals. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In a nonprofit organization or grassroots community group, technology planning isn't just about deciding if it's time to replace your computers or upgrade your software; it's about connecting your technology needs to your organization's mission. Typically, the steps involved in preparing a comprehensive technology plan include assessing your existing technology infrastructure, determining your future technology needs, identifying the available resources, and establishing a time line for implementation. Ideally, this type of planning process starts with a team that includes board members as well as staff, and concludes with the drafting of a written plan to guide implementation and possibly also help your organization secure the necessary funding to implement the plan.

There are many useful online resources to help nonprofits plan for their future technology needs. Some of our favorites are included in The Virtual Activist Reader. In the section below we introduce some of the tools that organizations can use to prepare a technology plan and summarize the steps involved in creating a plan, gleaned from a variety of online resources as noted.

What Is Technology Planning?

TechSoup defines technology planning as "the process of determining how your organization can best use technology to further your mission. The process of technology planning involves assessing your existing resources, defining your needs, and exploring solutions. A successful planning process will draw on management support and the leadership of a technology team made up of a range of staff members to provide input. It will help you budget for technology and make cost-effective purchases. The first outcome of the planning process is a written technology plan which outlines the phases of technology development, and can also be used as a key tool to advocate for technology funding."

Assessing Technology Resources

Before you begin the planning process, it's a good idea to assess your existing technology resources. Technology Literacy Benchmarks is a comprehensive assessment tool for evaluating your organization's technology savvy. It covers all aspects of technology in nonprofit organizations, including a section on technology planning. It's well worth the time to work through the entire assessment, but it's also useful if you just complete the section on technology planning benchmarks. If you don't already have a plan, it will give you a peek at what's in store. If your organization does have a plan, you can see how your organization compares to the best practices.

Leadership

A great deal of attention has been paid to the need for leadership in technology planning. Marc Osten wrote an excellent article on Technology Leadership for TechSoup. Strong leadership encourages enthusiasm about using technology to further an organization's mission, contributes to buy-in from staff and board, aides in credibility with potential funders, and can counter the negative responses of technophobes within an organization. Ideally, an organization's executive director provides strong leadership, but it can also come from program managers or Board members.

The Planning Team

Whenever possible, technology planning should be a team activity. The team's responsibilities include assessing current technology, identifying technology needs and priorities, drafting a technology vision statement, preparing a budget and timeline, drafting the technology plan, monitoring the plan's implementation, and ensuring stakeholder buy-in. Ideally, the team includes the executive director (or another manager), a project manager, administrative assistant, bookkeeper or accountant, development director, system administrator or tech consultant, and Board member. But not all organizations have sufficient resources for this, and even those that do face numerous challenges: lack of time, lack of technical knowledge, frustration with technology and a lack of interest in planning, among others. There are also some logistical issues to consider, including when and how often the team meets, how the team communicates internally and with other staff, and whether or not an outside facilitator is needed.

Technology Assessment Tools

There are many useful tools to guide you through the assessment process. See Section V of the Virtual Activist Reader for links to additional tools that are available online. Here are a few of our favorites:

OneNorthwest's Organizational Infrastructure Assessment Form, which is available as a downloadable PDF file, is a good one to start with. It's comprehensive enough for most purposes and will probably lead to some useful brainstorming. Strategic Technology's Components of Tech Assessment & Readiness is a much more detailed set of documents which can be downloaded individually as PDF files. NPower's Tech Surveyor and Tech Atlas are interactive online tools. TechSoup takes a different approach to assessment by providing a series of worksheets listing questions on specific aspects of technology.

Identifying and Prioritizing Technology Needs

After you've assessed the current state of your technology, the next step in the planning process is brainstorming to identify your organization's future technology needs, and to prioritize them. At this point the planning team will want to go back to the rest of the staff for a brainstorming session. Every organization will have its own specific needs, but the possibilities include:

Since your brainstorming session will most likely identify far more technology needs than your organization can address, the next step will be to prioritize your needs. What are the three most important items on your organization's list? Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and set priorities accordingly.This part of the planning process is likely to generate some lively discussion!

Vision Statement

After you've identified your priorities, it's time to draft a technology vision statement. Start by reviewing your organization's mission statement. This should get you thinking about what you need. Key questions to consider include:

Budgeting

The next step in the process is developing a technology budget. This will require some research. It's not unusual for organizations to narrowly define costs as the price of a new computer or software package. You might even remember to include the cost of hiring a consultant to install the new equipment. But there's a good chance you won't consider what some experts refer to as the "total cost of ownership." This includes many costs that aren't obvious, such as:

Including realistic costs is crucial. See Marc Osten's So What's the Real Cost of Technology? for helpful advice on how to make sure you've considered all the costs in your budget.

Timeline for Implementation

The final step before you actually start writing your technology plan is to establish a timeline for implementation. Ideally, you'll be working on a plan that can be implemented over a period of a year or more. (The planning process isn't useful if your server just died and you need to replace it.)

As you develop your timeline, ask and answer these questions:

Timelines should be flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen events, but rigid enough to maintain momentum. You will most likely want to segment your timeline into phases of three to six months. Be sure to include the time you will need to secure funding if you're going to have to apply for grants or undertake other fundraising activities to raise the money you've budgeted to implement your plan. See the timelines in Strategic Technology's examples of completed plans.

Writing the Plan

You have assessed your existing resources, identified and prioritized your needs, drafted your technology vision statement, prepared a budget and created a timeline for implementation. You're finally ready to write your plan. Fortunately, much of the work you've already done will be incorporated into the plan.

The written plan should include at least these four key elements:

More detailed plans might include:

Funding for Technology

With luck, the effort that goes into preparing a technology plan will help you get the plan funded. That's why it's so important that your technology vision statement describes how technology will help your organization fulfill it's mission. While there are a few foundations that specifically provide grants for technology, most are overwhelmed with requests. Your best option may be to approach funders and donors who are already supporting your mission, and use your plan to demonstrate how technology is necessary to carry out your mission. If your technology plan budget is based on "total cost of ownership" principles, you may be able to fund a portion of your technology by including those costs in the program budgets you submit with grant applications. If you're a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, you may qualify to purchase software from CompuMentor's DiscounTech at greatly discounted prices.