This post was written by Peggy Duvette, director of social impact, NetSuite.org.
We all know technology is radically changing our world and accelerating your organization's ability to achieve your mission. A huge amount of that technology is available to you for free. But should you pursue every free solution just because it's free? Actually, no — successful organizations spend the time understanding the problem they are trying to solve and exactly how the free solution can (or in some cases cannot) help.
There isn't a one-sized-fits-all approach to choosing and utilizing free technology. However, there are some steps you and your organization can take to make the process of deciding which technologies are right for your organization and leveraging those technologies easier:
You don't get in the car and start driving before you know where you're headed (unless you're joyriding). Similarly, you don't want to start a search for new technologies before your organization has determined the problem you're trying to solve. When it comes to determining the problem, here are a few things to keep in mind.
For example, your problem isn't a lack of "financial transparency," your problem is that you can't accurately report where money is being spent to your funders.
Make sure the problem you're trying to solve is one that impacts more than one person or department. In the example above, not being able to accurately report where money is spent to a funder is a problem that affects development, accounting, and the CEO.
Going back to the problem above, start with a specific funder whose reporting is difficult and solve for that. Once you've solved for your initial problem, you can expand upon that.
Once you've determined the problem, bring together the people inside your organization who understand the problem and can help solve it. We like to call these two groups of people "doers" and "deciders." In the case of wanting to improve your financial reporting to funders, "doers" are the people who enter the data, run the reports, close the books, etc. "Deciders," sometimes called executive sponsors, are those who can make decisions about how a project will roll out and who will be accountable.
Once you've established your committee, commit to meeting regularly. Regular meetings ensure that your doers have a voice in the process, and deciders understand the process for solving the problem.
Of course, the offer of free software can be exciting! However, it's important to understand how much free technology will potentially cost you in purchase costs, implementation costs, long-term maintenance costs, and staff time. Sometimes your organization will be able to use "free technology" right out of the box. But there's a good chance that you'll need to purchase additional licenses or make customizations to meet your needs or solve your specific problem.
A technology vendor should be able to help you navigate this process and understand potential costs associated with your use of its technology.
People are resistant to change, even if the change promises to improve the way your organization does a particular thing or makes those people's jobs easier. A training and adoption strategy can help alleviate this resistance and give everyone involved a clear plan for going forward.
Going back to our original problem of being able to accurately report your expenses to a funder, the solution could mean that your staff now need to track their hours and expenses in a new way. The training and adoption strategy would provide staff with step-by-step guidance for how to do this and how to sunset current ways of completing these tasks.
And lastly, your training and documentation should be ongoing, even after you've adopted new technology. Good documentation makes scaling and training new employees that much simpler.
In the same way your organization is not single-handedly responsible for ending world hunger, homelessness, or domestic violence, you shouldn't have to approach solving your organizational problems alone either.
When your organization is looking at free technology solutions, make sure you're also looking beyond the tools to see what training and support are offered. Also investigate whether or not you'll have access to other organizations who use the technology too. There are communities attached to technology, so remember, when you adopt a technology, you become part of that community.
In the example of reporting money spent to your funder, the technology you choose should have examples for how organizations like yours are tracking expenses and time and pulling reports.
It might be tempting to choose a brand new tool that seems to offer all the bells and whistles. But it's also important to think about how much expertise a particular vendor has in the nonprofit sector. Consider, too, whether or not they'll be around two to three years from now.
In a sector that's pressured to do more and spend less, free technology can be an incredibly valuable resource to help your organization scale its work and meet your mission. Although this isn't an exhaustive list of tips, we hope that it gives you a place to start as you begin evaluating technology solutions.
NetSuite.org, the corporate citizenship arm of NetSuite, has been supporting nonprofits and social enterprises to create social impact through our software donation and volunteer programs since 2007. To date, we're supporting a community of 650+ global nonprofits and social enterprises with free and discounted software and pro bono volunteerism.
Image: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup
And do your research! It's easy to find reviews of all software, free or not. As a user of free software myself (OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Thunderbird, BlueGriffon, and, of course, Chrome, Mozilla and all the apps on my smart phone), I rely on online reviews to help me know more about something before I download. And remember that a lot of software that's for purchase also often goes away in a year or two - you can find people lamenting this on the TechSoup community regularly. Remember that ALL software, free or not, won't be *forever.*
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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