This book is about the application of information technology (IT) in the not-for-profit sector. IT is now a pervasive part of the not-for-profit sector for all size of organisations - large, medium-sized, small and tiny. This point was brought home during the writing of this book by the transformation of a friend, outlined in the case study below.
In this introduction, we aim to set the scene in two ways:
- Outlining a number of themes on how not-for-profit organisations can maximise the benefits from their application of IT.
- Sketching some trends in IT which we think will affect the not-for-profit sector within the foreseeable future.
Benefiting from the use of IT
The five themes outlined below, which recur throughout the book, summarise some of the key advice contained herein.
- Planned use of IT. Set priorities, separating needs from wants. Most not-for-profit organisations have limited budgets and all not-for-profit organisations are guardians of money that is intended for beneficiaries (not IT per se).
- Objectives and scope. Agree objectives and scope of any proposed IT related project. Poorly defined objectives and creeping scope are among the most common reasons for IT implementation failures (real and perceived). Stated more positively, be clear about the benefits you seek from the project, be clear what the project is and then strive hard to achieve those goals;
- Choosing solutions. Even if you are a small not-for-profit organisation, you should follow the key steps set out in this book. Scale the level of detail and effort you apply but do not disregard the essence of sensible processes for making good decisions.
Mini Case Study For Introduction - The Pervasiveness of IT Today
Mike Ward runs a small charitable organisation primarily for the benefit of young people, the Actors' Workshop in Halifax. He is the only employee, there is a board of trustees, a dedicated group of volunteers and a small army of eager young people. Mike, until recently, was one of the least technically minded people we know. Naturally there is some sound and lighting gadgetry at the workshop, but Mike distances himself from that side of things completely - the youngsters know about it and deal with it admirably. In fact, the most "high tech" device we had seen in his office was the telephone answering machine, followed closely by the electric pencil sharpener.
One day Mike asked about the world wide web because his youngsters were insisting that the workshop should have a web site and e-mail. Further, a local web design company was prepared to help out with a gift-in-kind. What did we think? We told Mike what we thought. He went off looking perplexed. A few weeks later he dropped us a note suggesting that we look at the web site and would we kindly comment on it. We did that. A few weeks later, Mike proudly announced that some kind soul had donated a computer and that he was now on e-mail.
A few months later Mike dropped us another note. The workshop had been burgled just before a show was due to open. The workshop had struggled against all odds (successfully) to beg and borrow enough equipment and facilities ahead of their insurance claim to put on the production. The show had gone on, to fine reviews. But Mike's computer had also been stolen. "It's terrible", he said, "I can't get my e-mails until we get a replacement. People keep phoning me and asking why I haven’t replied to their e-mails. My only consolation is that the thieves didn't take my electric pencil sharpener."
Within the space of a few months, Mike had transformed from self-confessed Luddite into a not-for-profit person whose working life depends heavily on the use of IT.
- Communication, contribution, consensus, commitment. Ensure that people who are concerned with (or going to be significantly affected by) an IT related project are consulted and involved at appropriate stages. You might be using outside help for the project, but ultimately it is your organisation that has to live with the solution. Ensure that you have planned for sufficient training and skills transfer in the project. Keep people informed.
- Risk/reward management. Risk/reward management treats all organisational problem solving and decision making as attempts to minimise risks and maximise rewards for the organisation. This risk/reward philosophy pervades the book. We constantly urge the reader to minimise risks (e.g. avoiding bespoke IT solutions if at all possible) and to maximise rewards (e.g. define tangible benefits sought from the IT project and measure results as best you can to ensure that those benefits are achieved).
21st Century trends in IT
While this book is not really about the technology per se, it is helpful to understand the trends in technology which are likely to be important to not-for-profit organisations. Chapters such as 'E-verything' and appendix A cover these aspects in a little more depth. We have grouped our thoughts into five main trends:
- Smaller, faster, cheaper. Technology has consistently doubled in power and halved in price every eighteen months since the mid 1960's. Even the old, donated computer referred to in this introduction's case study has as much or more computing processing power than all the computer processing power used to put the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon in 1969. This trend in improved power is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The trend increases possibilities for the not-for-profit sector. As a technology becomes commoditised, and therefore affordable to most people, even the tiniest not-for-profit organisation can consider whether that technology could help them.
- Ever widening world. As computers and networks become ubiquitous, the application of IT for not-for-profit organisations moves away from the office and into the field. For example, expect to see more and more demand for field workers, activists and volunteers to use hand-held devices and/or short text messaging devices to communicate with your offices and with each other.
- IT as a utility. Commercial offerings are starting to focus on service provision and reliability. The web enables suppliers to deliver services to organisations in new ways. For example, application service providers can offer IT applications on a pay-as-you-go basis. This can help not-for-profit organisations with limited capital budgets and/or uncertainty with regard to expected growth.
- Relationship management. Commercial organisations are increasingly using IT to manage their relationships with their customers. Again, the development of models for trading over the world wide web have hastened the development of such recording, profiling and tracking systems. Not-for-profit organisations should expect to see parallel developments, for example in beneficiary relationship management and donor relationship management.
- Human-machine interface advances. Speech recognition has been steadily improving in quality and reducing in price - anticipate seeing this technology really take off in the next few years in the not-for-profit sector, both for management and service provision work. New interface areas are still more in the laboratory than the not-for-profit organisation, but the curious should look out for holograms, smell interfaces, direct brain connections, wearable computers, whole-body sensors and the like. Expect also to see increasing emphasis on 3D visualisation and predictive modelling. While this paragraph might seem mostly "in the future", we expect to see several of these technologies having real, practical case studies illustrating uses in the not-for-profit sector in future editions of this book. So keep an eye on the trends.