Technology systems are foundational to modern nonprofit work.
No organization can run without email, file sharing, and cybersecurity. Technology streamlines nonprofit workflows; there are a plethora of resource planning software systems, CRMs, and task management platforms built specifically for nonprofits. Technology helps nonprofits get the word out; from email marketing donor campaigns to ad space on platforms like Google Ads, the digital world offers plenty of opportunities for reaching the right audiences.
When systems run as they should, technology helps nonprofits achieve their missions more effectively and efficiently than ever before.
Unfortunately, though (as you probably know a little too well), systems don’t always run as they should.
Whether due to budgetary constraints, limited internal bandwidth, or a lack of expertise, many nonprofits deal with unoptimized technology systems – and in cases where technology is unoptimized, it can actually hold nonprofits back, causing miscommunications, inefficiencies, and general frustration.
At Community IT Innovators, we believe that nonprofit technology shouldn’t be non-functioning technology. Nonprofits need systems that support their missions.
That’s why implementing effective tech support in a nonprofit organization is crucial. This guide exists to help nonprofits toward that end. On this page, we’ll cover a general listing of the most common nonprofit tech support questions, including:
- What makes nonprofit IT support unique?
- What considerations should you make when choosing IT support for a nonprofit?
- When should you outsource IT support for nonprofits?
- Should nonprofits choose onsite IT support or a remote helpdesk?
- How can nonprofits get the most value from IT support partners?
- How should nonprofit IT support approach cybersecurity?
- What should IT support look like for a 20- to 50-employee nonprofit?
- What should IT support look like for a 50- to 100-employee nonprofit?
As we work through these questions, we’ll keep the focus strategic (as opposed to offering deep dives into specific nonprofit software systems) to apply to the majority of nonprofit contexts. Our objective will be to outline high-level approaches that can pay large dividends in helping technology to empower nonprofits.
Ready? Let’s do it. Here’s the guide to tech support for nonprofits.
What makes nonprofit IT support unique?
To start, let’s clarify our context: What are the considerations and challenges that make nonprofit tech support unique? Is tech support for nonprofits really any different than it is for other organizations?
We believe that the answer is a strong “yes.” That the designation of “nonprofit” even exists is proof positive that nonprofit organizations are differentiated from for-profit organizations, and this does impact tech support. Here’s why.
First (and most obviously), nonprofits serve a different purpose than for-profit enterprises: they exist to accomplish service-focused missions. While that distinction doesn’t drastically shift how technology is used, it does underlie every major technology decision. Tech support that doesn’t take this purpose into account will be less effective.
As a result, nonprofits serve a wide variety of stakeholders. While a for-profit business is generally focused solely on its customers, nonprofits must take into account the needs of donors, funders, constituents, members of the community, board members, society as a whole, and others. The variety of stakeholders requires a more sophisticated set of organizational functions.
Partly as a consequence of that purpose, nonprofits may face unique compliance requirements. Tech support must ensure that data management systems and infrastructures are compliant with the regulations nonprofits are required to adhere to, including health care privacy, protecting children clients’ identities, and other compliance issues important to the nonprofit community.
Nonprofits are also structured differently. The past few decades have seen a push in the business world toward flatter organizations – but nonprofit organizations, with diverse arrays of stakeholders, require more organizational capacity and complexity. Communicating effectively in the right channels and collaborating well internally are key components in getting initiatives accomplished. Tech support that understands nonprofit organizational structure is more likely to serve nonprofits well.
Nonprofit budgets are focused on minimizing overhead administrative and infrastructure costs and maximizing program activities. Nonprofits receive Charity Navigator grades on keeping their level of administrative costs low. This method of evaluating nonprofit budgets is under discussion in our community, but it still drives most nonprofit budgets, which can stifle the ability to invest in basic technology tools and infrastructure and affect the long-term sustainability of programs. Technology decision makers can find themselves in a bind between budget and ROI that for-profit enterprises don’t encounter.
Finally, nonprofits increasingly rely on specialized technology systems. ERPs, CRMs, task management systems – most nonprofits rely on a variety of specialized technologies. It’s helpful for IT support to have expertise in these systems in order to plan for, implement, and maintain them well. IT support providers need to be aware of programs that offer complementary technology access to nonprofits, and they need to know how to evaluate “free” technology licenses that still require staff time or outsourced support.
When should you outsource IT support for nonprofits?
There are two common scenarios where nonprofits should outsource tech support.
1. The nonprofit lacks internal resources.
As nonprofits grow, they reach a point where IT management is simply too complex and time-consuming to be handled internally without a designated team.
Some small organizations may function for a period of time without any designated internal resource at all (this is certainly unsustainable if growth is a goal). Other mid-sized organizations may be able to get by with a single person but find bandwidth increasingly pinched and specific expertise often lacking.
One clear indicator that the time has come to outsource tech support is a lack of time or expertise for strategic planning. If there’s only time to fight fires and no time to plan ahead, outsourced IT support is probably needed.
Another even clearer indicator that it’s time to outsource: your nonprofit deals with too much downtime. Slow computers, virus-infected email accounts, misconfigured computers, and broken connections between applications are some of the red flags that the current IT service is not able to proactively maintain the health of the network and enable staff to be focused on the mission.
2. The nonprofit needs to supplement internal resources.
Larger nonprofits that have strong internal IT teams already in place may still encounter situations where outsourcing some aspects of tech support makes sense.
One example: the internal team is built to service internal tickets but is light on strategic expertise. When future planning, it may make sense to outsource to strategic IT consulting.
Or, an internal team might require supplementation in a particular technology area. Outsourcing these types of needs is typically cost-effective in comparison to making an additional hire.
Often the nonprofit simply doesn’t have the internal expertise to be able to hire a person with the right technical qualifications, or to evaluate and choose a technology vendor that will suit their technology needs.
What considerations should you make when choosing IT support for a nonprofit?
Because IT support for nonprofits is unique, there are particular considerations to make in choosing a provider effectively. So, what are they?
Admittedly, this is a broad question – but if your goal is to make a good selection that empowers your nonprofit’s mission, it’s an important one to ask. Factors to consider include:
The provider’s experience in a nonprofit context.
Experience in the nonprofit space is helpful for all of the reasons previously discussed. Check to see if the provider has served organizations similar to yours. Check to see if they have familiarity with your technology systems. If they lack experience, or have never worked with a nonprofit organization before, they may not be a good fit.
The provider’s model of operation.
Does the provider operate under a managed service model (a holistic set of integrated services for a fixed monthly price)? Or do they primarily offer break-fix services (reactive labor delivered only when systems break)?
Managed services are generally preferable as they align the incentives of the provider with the incentives of the client (providers are motivated to reduce the amount of issues – in break-fix models, they’re actually incentivized to deal with more issues). That said, there may be some situations where working on a project basis makes sense. The key is to make sure that the model fits your needs.
The provider’s price point.
It’s obvious but unavoidable: Price point is a factor in selecting an IT provider. Nonprofit budgetary constraints are a reality of the industry. Work with a provider who understands this and is able to offer value within this reality and without hidden fees. Ideally, this provider will facilitate lower costs by seeking out license donation deals and any other nonprofit discounts that are available.
The provider’s customer retention rate.
Does the provider keep their clients? (Good providers do.) Ask for numbers around retention rates. Ask for references. Hesitancy in either area is a red flag.
Should nonprofits choose onsite IT support or a remote helpdesk?
As nonprofits work through selecting an IT provider, they’ll also need to consider how support will be provided. Should organizations opt for onsite support or remote support via a helpdesk?
Both methods of support are helpful, and there are drawbacks and benefits to each.
Helpdesk support is efficient.
Nonprofit employees can call in from any location (typically at any time) to receive support for a wide variety of issues – from lost passwords to system errors. It’s cost-effective and quick.
There are two main drawbacks to helpdesk support: First, it can be less relational than onsite support. As a consequence, some needs that might have been discovered by an onsite technician might go unaddressed if a helpdesk is the only support option. Second, some support needs still require a technician onsite (on-premise hardware fixes, for example).
Onsite support is relational and more strategic.
An onsite technician can develop relationships with employees that often lead to technology improvements and a higher level of service. Onsite visits can uncover issues that wouldn’t have been reported, and, in solving them, can go a long way toward optimizing systems. Onsite support is also well-suited to address any higher-level tickets that may arise.
The drawbacks to onsite support are that it’s slower (since the tech has to take time to travel to the site) and that it tends to be more costly.
The bottom line: it’s best to have both modes of support.
In reality, choosing between helpdesk and onsite tech support shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. The two modes of support are complementary to each other, and accordingly the best IT solutions offer both. Most managed service providers offer a helpdesk for employees to call into and regular onsite support where appropriate (either on-demand or via scheduled check-ins).
Rarely is onsite support delivered as a standalone service without access to a helpdesk; however, for many nonprofits, choosing a helpdesk-only or helpdesk-first model can be an efficient and effective solution – especially if there’s an internal IT resource whose bandwidth is compromised with a constant bevy of minor tickets.
How can nonprofits get the most value from IT support partners?
This, again, is a broad-but-important question. Nonprofits generally operate within very real resource constraints; functioning well requires streamlining expenditures and maximizing efficiencies. So how can this be done in tech support?
While there’s a limitless number of technical considerations that could answer this question, the most foundational component of tech support value is pretty simple: good communication.
Nonprofits can get the most value from their IT support partners through good communication.
Practically, this means that tech support partners must take the time to listen so that they thoroughly understand the needs of the nonprofit. If they don’t, they’ll be pitching solutions that may or may not be the most effective (and valuable).
Good communication also means that there must be trust between provider and client so effective dialogue can happen that leads to the best solutions. The client should not be afraid that the provider is either letting the ball drop or only interested in upselling a solution that is inappropriate in the nonprofit context.
All of the technical expertise in the world is worthless if it’s not applied in a way that’s helpful. Communication is the key to providing expertise in a way that’s helpful – and, ultimately, providing value.
The takeaway: look for a provider that you can communicate with easily and effectively, and for a provider that has made ongoing and proactive communication a core part of their service.
How should nonprofit IT support approach cybersecurity?
The stats around cybercrime are frightening. Attacks are estimated to have increased by 67% in the last five years and are predicted to continue increasing, potentially incurring costs of $6 trillion globally by 2021.
Nonprofits, increasingly, are at risk – especially since they tend to have weak or nonexistent security postures. NTEN found that in 2018 only 20.5% of nonprofits had documented policies and procedures in case of cyberattacks.
In light of all of this, the best approach to cybersecurity is proactive.
The possibility of an attack can’t be eliminated. But it can be drastically reduced. And, just as importantly, proactive security can greatly limit the amount of damage that a cyberattack can create. Here are a few approaches we recommend:
This is a bit of a catch-all, but hardened systems typically include firewalls and antivirus software.
Many managed services offer 24/7 network monitoring. Raising an alert early can go a long way toward minimizing the damage of an attack.
Regularly backing up data can ensure redundancy. In the case of a ransomware attack, for example, having backups can help organizations to avoid paying the ransom fee; if the organization can access recent data (and potentially revert back to noncorrupted systems), it can avoid major losses.
Documented and enforced security policies.
Have security policies in place (i.e. enforce secure passwords and data management practices). Also, have a response plan in place, so that if an attack does occur there is a clear path of action to minimize damage.
Of course, most nonprofits are wary of the costs associated with a proactive cybersecurity stance – budgetary constraints are probably the biggest reason that nonprofits tend to be unsecured.
This is certainly understandable, but the reality is that ineffective cybersecurity can be more costly in the long run. And there are reasonable support options available through the right providers. At the very least, consider what a proactive cybersecurity strategy would look like for your organization and work toward what’s possible. Talking with experts can help.
Nonprofits may also want to consider Cyber Insurance, depending on the risk level to operations or reputation. A cyberattack or scam that damages credibility and trust can end a nonprofit organization and its mission.
What should IT support look like for a 20- to 50-employee nonprofit?
Tech support solutions will differ according to the size of nonprofit organizations. For a smaller organization (20 to 50 employees), here’s what that might ideally look like.
1. An internal IT resource.
The internal IT resource might be a Director of IT or they might simply be an office administrator. For organizations of this size, though, it’s generally preferable to have some internal point of contact for tech support – not necessarily to respond to tickets (although they may help in this way), but more so to help coordinate solutions.
2. A managed IT service provider.
Ideally, an organization of this size will work with a managed IT service provider to facilitate their tech support needs.
Managed services can be cost-effective and offer a high level of support with services like:
- Helpdesk support
- Onsite support
- Remote backups
- Network monitoring
- Network design
- Strategic planning
In tandem with an internal point of contact, this model can fully service the needs of a 20- to 50-employee nonprofit.
What should IT support look like for a 50- to 100-employee nonprofit?
For a larger (50- to 100-employee) nonprofit, here’s what an ideal tech support solution might look like.
1. An internal IT team.
Nonprofits of this size may prefer to have a small team of internal IT personnel who are experts within the organization’s infrastructure. This can be helpful for coordinating strategy and for servicing the needs of a larger number of employees in a committed way.
2. A managed IT service provider.
Ideally, an organization of this size will work with a managed IT service provider to supplement their tech support needs, especially with automated maintenance and advanced expertise.
Managed services can cost-effectively provide support that frees up bandwidth for the internal team. They can offer expertise in areas where internal resources might lack familiarity.
The focus of managed services may vary depending on context, but often helpdesk service and onsite support can go a long way toward equipping these organizations to succeed.
Take the next step toward better nonprofit IT support.
As you consider IT support for your nonprofit organization, our hope is that this guide has been helpful. If you’re ready to take the next step toward better tech support, get in touch with us.
At Community IT Innovators, we’ve found that many nonprofit organizations deal with more IT issues than they should have to.
Our process is based on 25 years of exclusively serving nonprofits. We feature high-level strategic expertise to help you plan for the future (not just put out fires). We have built our 100-percent-employee-owned business by focusing on the specific needs of our clients, ensuring that they are prepared for the future with systems that support their missions.
Technology systems are foundational to modern nonprofit work. Don’t let unoptimized systems or subpar support to hold you back.