It’s Time We Stop Treating Tech As Overhead

tech as overhead

I’m moderating a panel at an upcoming conference sponsored by Salesforce. They have some serious star power at this conference. Dr. Jane Goodall, Leslie Odom Jr, Amal Clooney.

And me.

Trying to squelch my imposter syndrome I recorded a panel last week with some fabulous nonprofit leaders. I was asked to moderate and we talked about tech.

We talked about what the nonprofit sector learned about tech in 2020 and what leaders need to do with that lesson in 2021.

In a prep conversation, I told the panelists about a client who, pre-pandemic, saw tech as being under the Director of Operations on the org chart along with HR and Finance. But as he moved through 2020, he saw that virtual learning was a vital part of his programmatic offerings and always should have been. By year end, his young and creative tech guy was a member of the senior team.

Time for a rant and a call to action.

We have pigeonholed tech as an operations function for way way too long. And because of how we have seen it, funders have seen it that way. Under that four letter word that is actually eight letters, OVERHEAD.

So today, let’s talk about one of the biggest things that should NEVER EVER go back to the way things were in our sector. Treating tech as overhead.

THAT WAS THEN

Before 2020, most nonprofits were asleep at the technology switch. Come on – you know I speak truth here.

Often run by older CEO’s, organizations struggled with how to use / maximize social media and tech. Risk averse leaders steered clear of blogging unless it was promoting a program or an upcoming gala. Website messaging? Often a hot mess because investment in messaging was not a priority.

Online engagement was something that was seen as nice to have (“Oh look, we had 10 likes on that post!”) but not tied to any kind of real business goal or success metric. And the latest technology for staff? If you can still turn on that 9 year old (or older) computer, we’re good.

How about virtual service delivery (think telehealth for ex)? Well, that was in year 2 or 3 of the strategic plan because it will take us at least a year to get it up and running.

THE MESSAGE OF “THEN”

Here’s what you may have said at one time or other back in the day:

  • “Tech is a support function – reports to Operations.”
  • “Our website is kinda like a storefront to promote our work, to tell folks what we want them to hear about our amazing work.”
  • “Digital is such a specialized skill to get right and we don’t have access to that.”
  • “I don’t really understand the value of Instagram to our work.”
  • “Oh, right! We should have a DONATE button on the home page.”
  • “I can’t even get working computers and high quality internet into our office – you want me to have a digital strategy?”

THIS IS “NOW’

Tech as overhead is done. Technology was in fact the centerpiece of the ability of nonprofits to pivot and adapt in 2020. It was the “Nonprofit MVP”.

Close your health center doors and within a week, you are offering that TeleHealth program you said would take a year.

Museum doors close and virtual tours offer visibility of your collection to those for whom there were all kinds of barriers to entry.

Children’s theatre program shuts down and kids use video and zoom to make movies instead.

Schools transformed the delivery of education and caused faculty to develop innovative curriculum.

Houses of worship brought us together in creative and engaging ways at a time when we needed so desperately to be connected to our faith.

One more. Online galas were accessible to more people, not just elites. And how happy did it make you that you didn’t have to worry about whether you fit into your fancy clothes? Galas in PJs. A blessing – plain and simple.

THE MESSAGE OF NOW

Here’s what you may be saying now. Or what you should be saying.

  • “We totally did not get the power of technology before the pandemic but now? It’s at the center of our work, vital to our ability to grow our scope and impact.”
  • “People from around the world attended our concert – we shared our art, our beauty with so many who needed it more than ever.”
  • “Rather than bringing fewer people closer to our organization – to know more, to do more – we brought MORE!”
  • “Technology is the engine that drives engagement – I get it now!!!”
  • Let’s never consider tech as overhead again!”
  • INSERT YOUR OWN AHA MOMENT HERE

TWO IMPORTANT HEADLINES

In 2020 the sector embraced what others knew long ago. That technology is not just a tool but rather central to your engagement strategy, to your client service strategy, to your development strategy.

The power in your organization does not ultimately rest with you and the board. Really Joan? Stay with me.

It rests with your ability to build what I call the “army of the engaged.” Grow the number of people who know and care about your organization and what do you have? POWER.

PEOPLE = POWER

What do I mean by “people?” What do I mean by “knowing and caring?” Well there is the big lesson and the huge opportunity.

An engagement post on social media thoughtfully constructed that asks a question that propels conversation about the issue your organization works to address? That’s knowing and caring.

Sharing a sample Facebook post for board members to share on their pages that inspires, reminds folks about that board member’s commitment and triggers interest? That’s how you build and grow your army of the engaged.

The closer you bring people, the closer they want to come. And the more they tell others and the bigger your posse. And the bigger your posse, the more power you have to solve big problems.

TECH = PROGRAMS

Yes. That’s what you learned. Tech can unlock program innovation, program reach, and offer a new kind of access – geographic, socioeconomic, the list goes on.

TIME FOR YOUR 4 MARCHING ORDERS

Embed these into your organization’s DNA and then get out there and spread the word about this AHA, this new narrative to those who invest in your work. Like so.

  1. Change your own narrative. Look at the folks who do tech in your org, from Operations all the way to the social media intern. Bring them together and after you appreciate them, tell them you have seen the light. Technology is not a support service. It is central to inviting people to know and do more with and for your organization. Tell them that engagement increases what I call the “army of the engaged” and that the bigger your army, the more powerful you are. Tell them that technology = programs.
  2. Get visible about this. Our panel at Salesforce made this point loud and clear. We need more of these – more conversations, articles, blog posts (like this one!) making this case. There are two reasons: First, we cannot go back. Luddites beware – tech savvy nonprofits will thrive. Secondly, if we can begin to educate funders, we will shift their thinking too.
  3. Market this to your board. It’s part of the process of shifting the mindset of your board away from, “when are we going to get back to normal?” You have to make intentional choices to demonstrate your own enthusiasm about what technology made possible. Heck, some of you may have tech folks on your board. A conversation (maybe using this blog post) could ignite your board to move from ‘what could go wrong’ to embracing innovation. They might have seen it as smart crisis management and it was that but now it’s time to bake in the lessons.
  4. Educate and excite your funders. Get out there and talk to your donors and foundation funders. Brag like hell about your 2020 heroics. Make technology the protagonist. Try something like this: “You know I used to totally get why funders saw technology as support services and overhead but if 2020 taught me anything, it’s that an overall digital engagement strategy is actually program work.” You (and your board once you do #3) will be the best possible ambassadors for this change in mindset.

OK, so there are your marching orders. Start marching.

Can you imagine if funders began to understand that tech was not overhead but program expense? What would that make possible for your organization?

Keep the momentum of innovation front and center. Don’t lose steam. And remember that the technology was at the center of your 2020 heroics.

Show your donors some love. And stay safe.