Many nonprofits rely on IT support from generalists – service providers that aren’t specifically focused on the nonprofit space. Assuming that there is nonprofit-focused support available, there are two lines of thinking that lead to this.
First, there’s the line of thinking that holds that IT service is IT service; it’s the same offerings provided in relatively similar ways across industry and organizational contexts. Or (second and probably more common), there’s the line of thinking that holds that nonprofits are not significantly differentiated from for-profit organizations in a way that requires differentiated IT service.
We believe that both of these modes of thinking are incorrect.
The requirements of IT service vary widely across industries. An industrial warehouse uses vastly different technology and requires far different compliance standards than a small doctor’s office, for example.
And nonprofits are unique from other organizations in a way that makes nonprofit-focused IT support incredibly beneficial.
1. A different purpose drives nonprofit decision-making.
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.
2. Nonprofits serve a different (and often wider) array of stakeholders.
As a result of their social-focused initiatives, nonprofits serve a wide variety of stakeholders. While a for-profit business is generally focused primarily on its customers (and perhaps secondarily on employees or shareholders), 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.
3. Nonprofits face unique compliance requirements.
Partly as a consequence of their purpose (and often in order to retain nonprofit legal status), 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. Nonprofit cybersecurity is also a unique and critical consideration.
4. Nonprofit organizations are structured differently.
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.
They often aren’t as flat as for-profits, which requires that decisions be made further in advance.
Planning for longer timelines, 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.
5. Nonprofits face unique pressure to keep administrative costs low.
Nonprofit budgets are uniquely focused on minimizing overhead administrative and infrastructure costs and maximizing program activities in order to retain positive public opinion and donor support.
If administrative costs aren’t kept low, nonprofits will be held accountable; watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator give grades based on how much of a nonprofit’s budget is spent on overhead.
This method of evaluating nonprofit budgets is under discussion in the nonprofit community, but it still drives most nonprofit budgets, which can stifle the ability to invest in basic technology tools and infrastructure and affects the long-term sustainability of programs. As a result, technology decision makers can find themselves caught in a bind between budget and ROI that for-profit enterprises don’t encounter.
6. Nonprofits have unique technology discounts available.
Relatedly, nonprofits also have unique opportunities to implement technologies at discounted rates.
Many hardware and software providers run programs to offer discounted technology or licenses to nonprofits, provided that nonprofits meet certain requirements. There are platforms, like TechSoup, where discounted offerings from major vendors (like Adobe, Microsoft, and Oracle) are compiled; there are also plenty of specialized programs run by individual vendors.
IT support providers need to be aware of these complementary programs as they work to implement non-profit technology efficiently. They also need to know how to evaluate “free” technology licenses that still require staff time or outsourced support.
7. Nonprofits often use specialized systems.
Finally, nonprofits increasingly rely on specialized technology systems.
Most nonprofits rely on a variety of specialized technologies that have been designed specifically for them. These include board management software, donor management software, ERPs, CRMs, task management systems, and more.
It’s helpful for IT support to have expertise in these systems; it allows the provider to plan for, implement, and maintain them well.
Nonprofit IT Is Unique. Its Support Should Be, Too.
The reality is that nonprofit IT is unique enough to be adversely impacted by generalized service. At Community IT Innovators, we’ve found that, sometimes as a consequence of working with a generalist IT provider, many nonprofit organizations deal with more IT issues than they should have to.
Our process is built to fix that.
Based on 25 years of exclusively serving nonprofits, we feature high-level strategic expertise that’s been gained serving organizations like yours. We’ve built our 100% employee-owned business by focusing on the specific needs of nonprofits, ensuring that they are prepared for the future with systems that support their missions.