What is a nonprofit vCIO (Virtual Chief Information Officer)?

Before we can learn what is a nonprofit vCIO, just what is a CIO? What kind of organizations need them? How much do they cost?

A Chief Information Officer (CIO) is typically a position at a larger organization with an in-house IT department, or any size organization where managing IT is a mission critical function that demands a c-level position of responsibility and expertise. Generally, this executive is in charge of both managing all the IT support for the organization, but also supporting specific information management functions like data and data architecture, usability and utilization of IT tools, and in addition, this executive leader will be integral to the strategy of the organization and the way IT fits into and furthers that strategy.

The CIO analyzes the organization’s need for IT tools and technologies, stays up to date on the landscape of vendors and tools, and integrates those tools and IT support into the organization systems in order to convey an advantage, benefit, or improvement. Typically the CIO manages the managers of the various areas of IT, and those IT directors and IT managers then manage the vendors and tools. The CIO also will rely on metrics and reporting from divisions that report to them, and then is responsible for communicating that data to the other chief officers and the nonprofit’s board members.

CIOs typically have a combination of experience, education, and soft skills to excel at this position. They must be well versed in management and the management side of their organization, including nonprofit-specific management and budget challenges. They must navigate the technology side of their position equally well, understanding and staying current in existing and emerging technologies and how those technologies are used or adapted to support nonprofit missions. Finally, they must also excel at communication and personnel management, and understand the functions of all the departments of their organization and those departments’ needs for specific and general IT support. They must be able to lead change management initiatives organization-wide, and instill the widespread buy-in that allows any IT tool to be successful.

CIOs typically have decades of experience in IT and nonprofit management and their salaries are reflective of their senior status and responsibilities. In 2022 on the job site Indeed typical CIO salaries started between $100,000-$200,000 annually in the for-profit sector.

What about Interim CIO services?

Many large nonprofit organizations do utilize temporary or interim CIOs and these positions may be part time. Typically, this role is temporary and well-defined; happening while a CIO search is performed, during a reorganization, or when the technical debt of a nonprofit organization is so pervasive and debilitating that a senior leader is needed to temporarily guide the process of getting the IT functional again.

Usually the interim CIO is expected to provide support focused on the problem at hand for a single client full time, or may have a few other clients but not so many that they can’t perform at a c-suite level. It does happen that an interim CIO arrangement may lead to a longer-term part time arrangement, if that arrangement provides value to the nonprofit. Given the nature of the CIO role, there is a certain size organization where a CIO or interim CIO can add value; for smaller organizations with average IT needs an IT Director, Manager, or even an “accidental techie” may be the best fit, as we discuss in the webinar Staffing IT Positions at Nonprofits.

What is a Nonprofit vCIO?

A nonprofit Virtual CIO (vCIO) is a relatively new and buzzy term in our sector. It seems like many outsourced IT vendors and MSPs (Managed Services Providers) are talking about this role. You might expect that a virtual CIO would take on the responsibilities of a CIO, but part time and virtually.

But can, or should, you outsource this level of responsibility and experience for such a senior role, and as a part time position? Can someone parachute in for a few hours a month and provide value?

And does a vCIO actually take on a CIO role at their clients? Let’s look a little deeper, particularly focused on the ways vCIOs have been marketed to the nonprofit sector.

vCIOs for Nonprofits

Modern offices are dependent on IT, including modern nonprofits. Depending on the size and scope of the IT needs, your nonprofit may need an IT Manager, IT Director, or CIO. IT support often falls under the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) or COO (Chief Operating Officer) as an infrastructure asset, similar to having an office or having electricity. It’s clear that having laptops for staff and functioning email would fall under this infrastructure rubric.

When responsibility for IT support falls under an executive with financial or operations expertise, and perhaps limited IT expertise, it is possible for the strategic value of IT investments and support to be overlooked. It is possible for IT support itself to be seen as a cost only. Underinvestment in IT leads to technical debt and can be very challenging to overcome.

MSPs and outsourced IT providers who report to a CFO or COO have a natural interest in providing some management advice and even helping in budgeting and planning for IT. Providing occasional or ongoing higher level IT management advice in addition to IT support and help desk is a benefit to working with an outsourced provider. Your provider should know the landscape of vendors and tools available to nonprofits. They can and should help you plan for inventory replacement, hardware investments, and cybersecurity. They may advise you to implement cybersecurity training for all staff, for example, even though training doesn’t always fall under IT responsibilities. Not all MSPs provide this IT management service, so when you are asking questions to vet a new MSP be sure to inquire.

Your outsourced IT provider may call this role vCIO. They may promise a lot – even the name makes it sound like you get c-level strategy at a fraction of the cost. However, when you ask more questions, you may find this vCIO is juggling multiple clients, may be hard to reach, or may be hard to talk to. They may even have an exalted title – and price – for essentially being little more than a help desk.

IT Business Manager

At Community IT, we refer to the people that combine a tech background with management skills as the IT Business Manager. These are senior engineers and consultants who manage 5-6 clients’ needs for planning and technology advice. At Community IT, these ITBMs have a technology background, are good communicators, and are strategic thinkers with experience serving nonprofits. We have found that some clients need a great deal of time from their ITBM, other clients don’t need as much.

At Community IT we have learned over our 20+ years serving nonprofits that it can be hard to find IT employees with abilities in both IT and management. In fact, at many organizations, once an employee starts to show aptitude in one or the other they are often tracked into professional development in only one area, IT or management. It may be far easier and provide more value for you to utilize our ITBMs than try to hire for these specialized roles – particularly at a small or medium size.

We know that successful nonprofit IT includes planning, and not just at budget time. Our ITBMs monitor help desk usage and can suggest strategic changes to solve persistent problems, such as replacing older hardware or increasing staff training. When it comes time to budget, our ITBMs can help prepare inventory and investment documents to help convey your IT needs to your executives and board.

How does this impact nonprofits? How does it impact you?

So, do you need to hire a CIO? Find a vCIO? Or search for an outsourced IT provider with integrated IT management capacity who doesn’t take a break-fix approach to nonprofit IT?

One way to start to answer this question is to consider the size of your nonprofit and your relationship to IT in general. As Johan and Nura discuss is this video Staffing IT Positions at Nonprofits, smaller nonprofits and start ups usually can manage most of their IT needs themselves, using free or low cost cloud-based tools like Google Workspace.

At around 10 staff members, IT needs become more complex and a loss of the IT function becomes more of a disruption to business continuity, not only because it impacts more people at your nonprofit. From 10-50 staff members, an outsourced IT strategy or building in-house capacity makes sense, depending on the role of IT in your organization. Is technology a necessity of doing business or does it drive everything your mission does? Are you leery of IT or does it drive you? Are you on the cutting edge or are you using donated laptops?

Understanding the cultural relationship your organization has with technology will help you staff accordingly. The free download Building the Foundation for Innovation can help you assess your size, lifecycle stage, and comfort with technology as an organization.

At more than 50 employees, you will find that your IT Director may need to co-manage and outsource parts of your IT support, and at 100+ employees, your organization will probably have or need a CIO level position guiding IT. At this size it would be unusual for a vCIO to be able to provide value – it is difficult to see how an organization could replace a full time c-level executive with a part time and outsourced role. At this level, your organization would be seeking to hire a CIO with the senior management experience and time to understand your nonprofit’s technology needs and opportunities.

At Community IT we generally co-manage with large clients, providing outsourced support where it makes sense and supporting the c-suite leaders with research and additional advice.

Ready to get strategic about your IT?

Community IT has been serving nonprofits exclusively for twenty years. We offer Managed IT support services for nonprofits that want to outsource all or part of their IT support and hosted services. For a fixed monthly fee, we provide unlimited remote and on-site help desk support, proactive network management, and ongoing IT planning from a dedicated team of experts in nonprofit-focused IT. And our clients benefit from our IT Business Managers team who will work with you to plan your IT investments and technology roadmap, if you don’t have an in-house IT Director.

We constantly research and evaluate new technology to ensure that you get cutting-edge solutions that are tailored to your organization, using standard industry tech tools that don’t lock you into a single vendor or consultant. And we don’t treat any aspect of nonprofit IT as if it is too complicated for you to understand.

We think your IT vendor should be able to explain everything without jargon or lingo. If you can’t understand your IT management strategy to your own satisfaction, keep asking your questions until you find an outsourced IT provider who will partner with you for well-managed IT.

If you’re ready to gain peace of mind about your IT support, let’s talk.