Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Emerging Technology Decisions (Nonprofit Examples)

This article was originally posted in Dimensions (a journalist publication from the National Catholic Development Conference). I redid a bit for a better read on a blog and threw in some pictures for fun.


I have a few stores I enjoy shopping at, but those stores also seem to know exactly how to get me to buy things I don’t want or need.
  • The hardware store has amazing sales and rebates on items which drive me to spend more time in the store, buy things and return for more when I get the rebate. 
  • The big box warehouse I shop at encourages me to buy everything in bulk. So an impulse buy turns into 30 items I don’t need, instead of 1. 
  • Then there's my favorite gadget store, they have the coolest things I never knew existed and the kid in me just wants to buy them. 
I think it is pretty easy to relate how we evaluate emerging technology to how we shop, which may result in efficient use of funds or unused technology. We need to have a purpose and framework to evaluate emerging technology.

Emerging technology is the wrong thing to focus on. It is only a means to an end. The real end goal of emerging technology is to drive innovation. So it makes sense to follow the steps for Unleashing Innovation. Luckily MAP for nonprofits, Idealware and NTEN have created a great resource to walk you through Unleashing Innovation. I will refer to the steps they have outlined and would encourage you to go read the full report. But I want to use some examples of how to approach emerging technology with two nonprofits I have personal experience with.

The steps from the Unleashing Innovation resource are:
  • Understand your Needs - Assess the things you could be doing better or differently 
  • Know what Technology is available - Take time to educate yourself about the technologies available (resources like Idealware and NTEN can help) 
  • Connecting the Needs - What is the catalyst or driver for exploring emerging technology 
  • Make the Change Happen - Get leadership support, staff buy-in and drive adoption 
  • What Success Looks Like - Define the planned outcomes and how you will measure it 

First a quick overview of the two organizations:

The Cara Program


I am the Manager of Technology at The Cara Program. The Cara Program is a workforce development organization focused on homeless or nearly homeless. We help them get and keep a job. We use a series of transformations classes, internships at social enterprises and professional development to prepare our students. Then a team of staff work with employment partners to identify job opportunities and match students to ensure a right fit. This is followed by a team of staff to stick with the student throughout the first year of employment. The culture is one of innovation, data driven decisions, tolerance for risk and ongoing change.

Leap of Faith Arts Ministries

My wife is the Executive Director at Leap of Faith Arts Ministries, a nonprofit focused on using arts to worship, and I volunteer to help them with their technology. Leap of Faith:

  • Much smaller and has limited resources.
  • As a Faith based organization their culture is rooted in their beliefs and impacts all decisions. 
  • As a newer, smaller organization their tolerance of risk is less and they need to focus on building a stable base. 
  • Their staff consists of an Executive Director, Dance Director and instructors, this small team has to focus their efforts on running the program.

These two orgs are different enough to illustrate how to approach emerging technology.

The first step is to understand your needs. 

The Cara Program
Leap of Faith Arts Ministries
  • Stable technology infrastructure, strategic technology plans, formal business process management and sophisticated data analytics.
  • They have needs to improve their workflows, innovate programs, build sustainability and drive long term change.
  • The technology needs are more focused on operations and supporting a smaller staff with limited budget. 
  • They have needs around creating efficiency, enabling communication, increasing awareness and establishing a stable foundation. This is the best time to involve others from your organization to build buy in during adoption.

This is no different than my example of the stores I enjoy. If I wander in to browse, without knowing what I need, I may leave with some cool stuff I will never use. Offering samples at the big box warehouse is no mistake, it purposely feeds on our impulses. Knowing what you need before you go to the store can help avoid the impulse buys. Now the exception may be if your need is to get new ideas, going to a store to browse and explore is a great idea.

The second step of finding available technology can happen in a number of ways. As a volunteer I help Leap of Faith Arts Ministries know what technology is available to them. They also belong to an organization called More Than Great Dancing which allows them to learn from similar orgs about the technology they are using. At The Cara Program we have a technology team of three staff, each taking time to learn about their perspective areas, as well as leveraging a group of volunteers in a Technology Advisory Committee. This committee provides an outside perspective and additional insight into emerging technology.

The trickier third step is connecting the technology to the need. It is easy to fall into the shiny object syndrome with emerging technology. You see an awesome technology and an opportunity, so you jump in and try it out. But having an opportunity is not the same as connecting to a need. Every organization needs to allow room for experimentation and pilots, however there should be a strategy behind it to avoid ending up with a collection of unconnected tools.

The other danger with emerging technology not rooted in a real need is experiencing a hype cycle ending with an unused toy. The technology hype cycle from Gartner shows the excitement when it is new, which quickly declines then levels off when the tool meets a real need (often way below the peak it originally reached).


I don’t buy too many things on a whim in bulk at the big box store. If I am going to try something new, I buy it in smaller quantity to try it out. And I know what my family typically likes, enjoys and needs before I go. Then I base my shopping on our budget, upcoming plans and what we already have. Much easier than trying to pick the right technology to meet the need and make sure it is useful.

Making the change happen is the fourth and toughest part of this process, especially if you haven’t done your homework in the first few steps to include your organization. A key to this step is defining what success looks like before the technology gets implemented. At The Cara Program a key to our adoption has been tying it to documented business processes and needs, taking the time to understand how we will use it before we buy it has been very effective. We also try out technology in small pilots while steering mission critical technology to integrated technology. At Leap of Faith it has been important to make all technology as easy to use as possible since there is no tech support. All technology is tied directly to a function, while balancing the faith based culture and limited resources. The innovation is really driven by cost savings and efficiency.

To close the loop (final step) you should compare the outcome to what you thought success would look like. Did the technology have the intended impact? Is the original need being met? Have things changed? Is the technology being used the intended way and is it sticking? This is a time to ask these questions.

Innovation driven by emerging technology can be a powerful way to radically change the way a nonprofit meets its mission and changes the world. It provides new ways to do old things, new opportunities and new ways of thinking, but without context on how you will use them or how they are needed in your organization, they will just be shiny toys. The way you approach emerging technology needs to be unique to your organization, goals, culture and mission. Be sure to read the full Unleashing Innovation resource to learn more about this process, then make it happen!

1 comment:

robert yarn said...

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