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From the President's Office, September 2004

Dear Friend:

Three days ago, GuideStar celebrated an important milestone—our 10th birthday. A decade ago, a dedicated group led by Buzz Schmidt gathered in an office in Williamsburg, Virginia, intent on improving the nonprofit sector by making charity information available to the public.

As Chuck McLean, our vice president for research and one of those founding employees, says, "Before GuideStar, giving to charity was like trying to buy stock without a stock exchange." We are proud that we have changed that reality.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped us revolutionize philanthropy with information during the past decade:

  • The funders who took a chance on this upstart endeavor, who supported us along the way, and who are helping us continue the revolution today.
  • The nonprofit organizations that embraced transparency and accountability by updating their GuideStar Reports and encouraging their peers to update as well.
  • The grantmakers who promoted transparency and accountability in the sector by encouraging applicants to update their information on GuideStar.
  • The state and federal regulators who collaborated with us to create an authoritative, comprehensive database; who have come to rely on GuideStar as a valuable resource; and who continue to work with us to make it easier for charity officials to share information and to make charity reporting less burdensome for both regulators and the nonprofits.
  • The individual donors who used GuideStar for their due diligence, demonstrating that philanthropists large and small want to know about the work of the nonprofits they support.
  • The providers of services to nonprofits and individual donors who purchased our products and promoted us to their clients.
  • The members of the media who researched nonprofits on GuideStar and cited us as a resource for information on charitable organizations.
  • The academic researchers who incorporated GuideStar data into their research and directed their students to the GuideStar Web site.
Thanks to all of you. Without you, this grand experiment could not have succeeded. Please join us as we continue the revolution.

Sincerely,

Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO, GuideStar

Technology Triage: Keeping Mission-Critical Technology Running


This article originally appeared on TechSoup.

Here's how technology projects work: plan, implement, support, plan, implement, support. Ad infinitum.

Sure, that's the best practice. And those three words stand for a heck of a lot. They stand for technology asset inventory, needs assessment, and gap analysis. They stand for testing, QA, and bug fixes. They stand for troubleshooting, adding new users, reconfiguring workstations, and updating software. And they stand for doing it all over again.

So what happens when your printer is broken? Or when two users have been having a problem getting onto the Internet since 2002? What happens when you know your technology isn't working as well as it could for your staff, for your mission, for your constituency? Do you always have to start at zero and work your way through a file cabinet full of best practices?

No.

I'm a consultant, I do this for a living, and I'm going to say it again: you don't have to do it all every time.

You can't. Project management, planning, implementation, and support take a lot out of your organization. They take time and money. And then they take more time and money.

It's not that this isn't valuable work. It is. Best practices are important and useful. However, many best practices work well in an ideal world, and that world may not be the world of your organization.

Technology Triage

You may not have the time, resources, assistance, or expertise to start from scratch and plan, implement, and support your technology. You may be—and so many organizations are—struggling to keep your technology going from day to day. The possibility, and resultant futility, of doing an exhaustive and expensive planning process only to find that implementation is years—and many technology changes—away is very real.

One alternative is for organizations to think in terms of technology triage. What is mission-critical for your organization? What technology supports those functions? Those pieces of technology are the ones on which you should concentrate your resources.

  • Technology Assets Inventory
    Any technology decision making starts with two essential questions: where is your organization now, and where would you like to be? There are many good reasons, even if you can't answer the second question, to keep an updated answer to the first.

    Maintaining a current list of your technology inventory, both hardware and software, as well as the technology skills of your staff saves you invaluable time when hiring consultants, looking within your organization for specific areas of expertise, or replacing computer equipment.

    In addition, having a current inventory positions you to begin a technology planning process when you are ready.

    Here are two alternatives to tracking your workstations and the associated software:

    • Staff Inventory Worksheet (Word Format)
    • Computer Workstation Inventory (Word Format)
    You can also use TechSurveyor to complete an inventory and survey your staff to discover technology skills.

    A technology assets inventory should also include a complete list of network hardware, such as routers, switches, or servers; printers; and technology services providers, including consultants, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and e-mail and Web host information. To prevent losing this information in a broken system or computer, be sure that you have printed copies stored in your office.

    ENTECH computer inventory software can also be used to gather information about your systems.

    You can read more about this step in The Planning Process: Assess Resources.

  • Troubleshooting Log
    A troubleshooting log allows you to record problems, resolutions, and associated costs. This can allow you to identify training, hardware, and software issues. It can also be an excellent tool for building up your technology know-how. If the first step in resolving a technology challenge is looking through the troubleshooting log, you may be able to follow the resolution notes and avoid having to call a contractor.

    A Blank Troubleshooting Log (pdf) is available on TechSoup.org.

  • Stabilize
    Once you have a technology inventory, bring together a core group of people to identify the technology systems that are critical to your organization. Does your ability to receive funds depend on accurate case management records? Do you need to be able to send and receive e-mail? Is your Web site a prime mechanism for reaching your constituency and achieving your mission? Do you have field staff who need to be able to access your office network from remote sites?

    If there are existing problems with any of these systems, get them fixed. Emphasize to your tech support team—whether they are volunteers, consultants, or in-house staff—that you are interested in stabilization, and you are not interested in an outlay of cash on new and improved systems. Be sure that you are requesting replacements necessary to your organization's stability, and hold off on things that can wait.

    As a part of this stabilization process, you might find yourself buying new hardware or software. This can be a part of preventative maintenance: supported software (that is, software that is not seven versions old) is often necessary so that you can protect your systems against various worms, hackers, or persistent crashes.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Consultant

Once a system is stabilized, it's easy to just let it hum along as an unnoticed utility. However, a few simple steps can help ensure that your systems stay stable.

  • Backups
    Backups are like flossing: everyone agrees that it's a good idea but no one does it until they lose something. Backups are essential to guard against data loss. While finding out that it will take two weeks to fix a computer is bad, realizing that crucial, unique data—think accounting information or grant proposals—is inside that computer is even worse.

    Having an appropriate backup system means that you know:

    • Who is in charge of backups
    • How often your systems are backed up
    • What is backed up
    • How information in backups is restored
    • Who else is trained to perform and restore backups
    • When you last successfully tested it

    For a more thorough discussion of backups, see the TechSoup articles:

    • Backing Up Your Data
    • Using Retrospect to Back Up Effectively

  • Update
    Updating your operating system, office productivity tools, Internet browser, and other frequently used tools helps to ensure that you're protecting against known vulnerabilities, receiving bug fixes, and, in rare cases, receiving feature enhancements.

    Find out more about the importance of updates: Improve Security by Patching Windows

  • Anti-virus Software
    Why is anti-virus software last in this list? News coverage in mainstream outlets makes it unlikely that you don't know that you need it. Like backups, anti-virus software with up-to-date definition files helps to ensure the data housed on your computers is protected.

    Anti-virus software is not enough. It's important that the definition files, essentially a list of viruses to guard against, are up-to-date.

    For more information, please see:

    • Virus FAQ
    • Working with Norton AntiVirus
    • Infection Control

    To get your virus questions answered, visit the Virus Vaccination and Computer Security Forum.

    You may also be eligible for TechSoup Stock.

The Limits of Technology Triage

It's possible to function in triage mode, keeping your system stable through the mechanisms described above (augmented by judicious software and hardware purchases), but there are some technology projects that demand a commitment of organizational resources—time and money.

  • Database Design and Selection
    A database provides your organization with a thoughtful way to track, use, and reflect upon the information that is available to you in the course of doing your work. This may mean donor tracking, case management, or client surveys. It is important that you are willing to devote the time, and potentially the money, to a system that works for your organization.

  • Web Site Design and Development
    It's easy to think of a Web site as a cheap thing: get a volunteer and slap something together. But a Web site is often the first encounter individuals have with your organization. It may be a primary means of engaging donors, volunteers, or even your constituency. If you're investing resources in putting up more than a brochure site—a simple explanation of what your organization does—ensure that you are implementing the tools that will allow the Web site to grow and reflect your organization over the long haul. This may require a content management system. Rob Prideaux's article, Knowing When You Need a CMS, begins a three-part series that can help you explore this issue.

  • Long-term Planning
    There's no way around it. At some point, you need to engage your organization's staff, board, and other partners in a discussion about the vision of your organization. That discussion can lead to another about the role technology has in achieving that vision.
Marnie Webb, Director of Consulting Services, CompuMentor
Visit TechSoup.org for technology information, access to donated and discounted products, and support from nonprofit experts and your peers.

© 2001-2003, CompuMentor. All Rights Reserved. TechSoup.org is a registered service of CompuMentor.

The State of Confidence in the Nonprofit Sector


People don't trust charities anymore. At least, that's what many GuideStar Newsletter readers think.

August's Question of the Month asked, "Do you believe that the public has more or less confidence in the nonprofit sector today than in the past?" The majority—58 percent—of the readers who responded believe the public has less confidence.

Only 19 percent feel there is more confidence today. Another 18 percent think confidence levels are about the same, and 5 percent aren't sure.

The Public Has Less Confidence

Participants who feel public confidence has declined cited several reasons. One anonymous individual neatly summarized the factor mentioned most often: "I believe that people had very altruistic views of the non profit sector but with all of the scandal that has happened over the last few years it has tainted the sector."

Low program ratios and high salaries were two other recurring themes. "I believe there is more skepticism as to how the money raised is being used," wrote another anonymous participant. "When only 20%-25% is going to the clients, there is reason to doubt the usefulness of the organization. When salaries at the top are extraordinarily high, more suspicions are raised."

Scott Jones attributed the apparent loss of trust to the increased availability of nonprofit information. "I believe there is less confidence, simply because there is greater awareness of the purpose and mission of nonprofit organizations chiefly due to the easy access and available information on the Internet. This awareness creates a deeper level of discernment in decision making."

Tom Hoyum of Hoyum Services pointed to problems within and outside the sector. "Many non-profit telemarketers & door to door people are poorly trained and cause suspicions about how real the non-profit is. And then there are the real scams, which can appear to know what they are talking about."

And one participant listed personal experience as the cause lost faith in the sector. "I do not trust most charities at all. Been burnt too many times."

Distrust for One Means Distrust for All

Several respondents who believe public confidence has decreased emphasized that the actions of a few organizations affect the entire sector. "There has been a lot of negative publicity about a few nonprofits. This has made it more difficult for the rest of us," commented Paula Dickson of the Lake County Community Action Agency.

An anonymous participant mentioned several specific scandals in his or her region and noted, "Unfortunately, when one type of organization is documented doing something that is 4 standard deviations from the norm, or they do illegal things, it reflects on ALL other orgs, especially those of the same type. ... I tell you, this kind of activity and press affect us ALL. It makes fundraising a proverbial nightmare and takes years to dissipate."

The Public Has More Confidence

Respondents who said public confidence has grown primarily listed increased nonprofit transparency and accountability as the reasons. "More transparency on the part of nonprofits and better information available over the Internet ... for citizens means more confidence in the sector," wrote Armen Boyajian of the Golden Harvest Food Bank.

Others suggested that increased trust in the nonprofit sector corresponds to decreased trust in other sectors. "The news about the [for-]profit sector is so bad that people tend to trust the nonprofit sector," an anonymous participant said. Another anonymous individual concurred: "I believe that the public has more confidence, but I don't think we can take credit for it—I think we're gaining that confidence by default, as the government and business sectors have lost it recently."

The Public Has About the Same Level of Confidence

People who feel public confidence is about the same as in the past share sentiments with both the "trust has increased" and "trust has declined" camps.

Nancy Fabian of the Charleston Bank Consortium agreed that nonprofits look good in comparison to other kinds of organizations. "The public has confidence in nonprofits to do what they are supposed to be doing but has less trust in the banks and high CEOs of the world because of mergers and embezzlement."

Robert W. Flournoy of the Louisiana Methodist Children's Home concurred that negative publicity hurts the entire sector. "Scandals hurt any organization." Another respondent echoed the opinion that people are making better giving decisions. "I just think donors are more savvy and aware of how to evaluate nonprofits before investing their charitable dollars."

Ways to Increase/Sustain Public Trust

Several participants suggested or implied steps organizations can take to increase or maintain public confidence.

Embrace transparency

"Transparency works as a trust-building tool," asserted Paul A. Mazzuca of Capitol Advantage, LLC.

Accept public scrutiny as a fact of life

"Nonprofits need to come to terms that we will ALWAYS have a higher fiduciary responsibility than the for-profit sector. Transparency is the only way to ensure the highest level of accountability," Tammy Thomas of the Girl Scouts of Citrus Council, Inc., commented.

Embrace a high ethical standard

"Those working in this sector need to be squeaky clean if we are to return to the levels of confidence of the past," Lisa Nyberg of Family Bridge maintained. "Only [nonprofits] with honest practices and smart marketing will overcome the lack of confidence seen in today's giving climate," agreed Elisa Brown of Ecolutions.

Report finances scrupulously

"We are working to restore credibility to non-profits by meticulous accounting of all funds received and disbursed," noted an anonymous participant.

Build relationships with the public

"When large companies have an involvement as board members/donors the public views this as being trustworthy," an anonymous participant observed. Another anonymous individual commented, "Those that are actively involved in volunteering for a nonprofit have greater confidence in the nonprofit they are volunteering for."

Adopt a self-evaluation program

"I believe that organizations which have adopted explicit program evaluation systems (outcomes) are able to demonstrate to the public how their contributions are making differences in the lives of their clients or constituents," said Frank Mansfield of the Uptown Shelter.

Help educate the public about the sector

"I think this decrease in confidence is in large part due to misinterpretations of IRS data by media who are not trained in philanthropy," an anonymous participant mused. "I believe the public is still more benighted about non-profits, the work they do, their needs, et all," wrote J. Thomas Duffy of the Equinox Music Festival. Carolyn Love of Kebabya Coaching-Consulting agreed: "I question how many people understand the nonprofit sector. The sector is so broad and includes a diverse group of organizations."


Suzanne E. Coffman, September 2004
© 2004, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.