Charting a Course

By Laura D. Burford, President, LAD Enterprizes, LLC and Members, NRN's Preferred Consultant Network

A ship’s Captain charts a course before embarking on a long ocean voyage to ensure the course is efficient and safe.   Tactical actions are defined and needed crew duties are assigned enabling the Caption to reach the strategic destination successfully. 

Charting a course for an ocean voyage is not easy.  Industry guidelines as well as individual preferences are taken into account as the course is plotted.  If the voyage seems easy and effortless and the destination reached, the Captain is considered first rate.  If not, people may decide not to travel with the Captain in the future.

Just as the Captain charts a course for the voyage, a nonprofit needs to chart a course for how their Information Technology (IT)* will support the organization’s vision and mission.  IT Governance processes or IT Best Practices are the guidelines that assist nonprofits with creating an IT approach or a strategic IT plan.  

Information Technology (IT) Best Practices:

  1. Help ensure that the investments in IT generate business value and
  2. Mitigate the risks that are associated with IT.  

Implementing IT Best Practices is not necessarily a cost reduction initiative.   Rather, IT Best Practices could raise the bar of expectations on the part of the board, community, and donors since you may provide a higher quality of service as well as be more effective and efficient.  As the success of an ocean voyage requires all of  the crew to do their part, so does the success of implementing IT Best Practices. This article will highlights a few Best Practices any nonprofit, regardless of size, should consider implementing.  

Are you aligning IT with your Strategy?  Are you doing the right things?  Are you doing things right?  Are board members involved in the process?

When it comes to aligning IT and Business Strategy, take a “top-down” approach.  By looking at the “big picture, " you can align your business processes and IT needs with the overall strategy and goals of your organization.   Strategy and Goals drive Business Processes.  Business Processes determine necessary tasks (who, what, why, where and how).  The tasks define the IT requirements (software, data and hardware) to be implemented.

The challenge with aligning occurs when discussing the tasks and IT requirements.  The communication channel tends to break down.  This is known by many as the IT Divide”.  Both sides have their own jargon, abbreviations, and unique experiences. Neither is able to explain, in terms understandable by the other, the necessary requirements, limitations, gaps, and potential solutions that are an acceptable fit.  Executive Directors, Board Members, Managers and Technologists each go their own way out of frustration with one another and alignment goes by the wayside. 

Best Practice:

Align IT, Business Processes and Strategy by creating an IT Strategic Plan.  The plan becomes the “Road Map” to help manage IT as well as manage requests from various different functional areas of the nonprofit.  

How important is the project?  Should the project be moved up in our priorities?  Does the nonprofit have the network infrastructure in place to support the new program? 

Prioritizing IT projects is not a once a year effort; it is an on-going process.  Technology and business needs continually change and staff and board members provide new ideas.  Effective IT requires embracing change and changing priorities.  There are NO Technical Projects – there are only Business Projects.

Best Practice:

Implement Project Management processes.  Project Management is an approach or discipline for planning, organizing and managing resources to successfully complete a specific project. 

How reliable is the vendor?  Do we have adequate backups of our data?  Are we performing the right amount of maintenance work?

A number of factors as well as decisions can impact a nonprofit’s technical risk.  Many organizations needlessly complicate their IT environment.  IT should not and does not need to be complicated.  Focus on keeping your technical environment simple, but implement Policies and Standards to assist with standardization and controlling of actions.  

What is an example of increased risk?  You may have heard of a well-meaning decision maker, who buys a new application system and then calls the technical person after the fact.  "I purchased this software to help with fundraising. I realize we did not talk before I selected  the software, but we need you to install it and support it."  Will the software work? Maybe or maybe not.

Best Practice:   

Create Policies and Standards such as:

  • Purchase brand name software and hardware from industry leaders.  
  • Prohibited access to pornography, violence and criminal activity sites.
  • Windows 7 is the standard operating system for workstations.
  • Application data is backed up nightly.
  • 60% of the technology budget will be for maintenance; 40% for new projects

Every nonprofit is dependent on IT to support their operations as well as to meet the organization’s mission.  Whether you have 5 or 500 employees, implementing IT Best Practices enables your nonprofit to prioritize efforts, analyze and manage risk, and ensure maximum benefits at the right cost are provided. 

*Information Technology (IT), as defined by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), is  "the study, design, development, implementation, support or management of computer-based information systems, particularly software applications and computer hardware."  IT deals with the use of electronic computers and computer software to convert, store, protect, process, transmit and retrieve information, securely.

LAD Enterprizes, Inc.

Laura is President of LAD Enterprizes, Inc., a management and information technology company that assists organizations to get the most out of their information technology strategies. The firm specializes in information technology strategy and implementation, business processes, network engineering, business continuity planning and project management.

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