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Vermont Connected: Envisioning the Future of Vermont's Economy

Connected Nonprofits

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This article was written by Kate Jellema, Marlboro College Graduate & Professional Studies, who facilitated a discussion at our Vermont Connected Summit on how nonprofits can keep pace with technology.

The good news: 55% of people who engage with a nonprofit via social media are inspired to take further action, and the average nonprofit crowdfunding effort raises about $9200, according to 2014 tech stats compiled by the nonprofit technology interest group NTEN. The less inspiring news: for every 1000 fundraising emails carefully crafted and sent by nonprofits, only $17 is raised.

Technology is changing how nonprofit organizations engage with our constituents, raise resources, and organize our work. How can we navigate the bewildering number of new digitally-fueled options and find ways to keep pace with rapidly changing technology, without exhausting ourselves along the way?

Where will tech changes matter most?

According to industry insiders at npengage.com, the top 5 ways technology will shape the nonprofit sector this year are:

  1. Mobile: Close to half of all emails are now read on mobile devices. If we are online, we need to be mobile-friendly.
  2. Analytics: We have access to endless streams of information; the challenge now is to shift from simply collecting data to skillfully analyzing it in order to do our work better.
  3. Software: In a very positive step forward, good software is now judged less on its raw functionality and more on the quality of the user experience.
  4. Cloud: As we move more and more into the cloud, we will not need to maintain costly IT infrastructure and we may be able access a wider array of useful tools.
  5. Social media: Social networks are predicted to become even more pervasive in the nonprofit world and in fact in every world.

5 visions for a tech-savvy sector

Participants in the nonprofit track at last week’s Vermont Connected were animated when they talked about the ways they have seen technology empower, engage and delight. Drawing from their own experiences of success, they developed 5 visions for a digitally-empowered nonprofit sector in Vermont:

  1. Compelling communications

    All Vermont nonprofits will have a clear and consistent message communicated using the best medium for the target audience to build long-term relationships and inspire action.
  2. Easy fundraising

    All Vermont nonprofits will use technology to make it easy to communicate with and engage donors, and make it easy for donors to understand, engage and give to non-profits.
  3. Efficient internal operations

    All Vermont nonprofits will have tools to manage their lists of members, donors, partners that are appropriately scaled to their operation.
  4. Meaningful data

    All Vermont nonprofits will be able to capture all data (qualitative and quantitative), and manage and manipulate inputs, in an efficient and competent manner to reside in a way that can be accessed by constituents for continued growth and translated into wisdom.
  5. Client and constituent experiences

    All Vermont nonprofits will have access to trainings and tools to more effectively serve their clients, members and constituents.

How to get there?

As a nonprofit in Vermont, it is easy to list the barriers to becoming more tech savvy: insufficient financial resources (compounded by a reluctance of many funders to give to infrastructure development); legacy systems that can’t talk with newer options; lack of sufficient knowledge and time to decide rationally amongst a seemingly infinite number of technical ‘solutions’; tech illiteracy amongst clients, volunteers, trustees and staff.

Some good advice to stave off getting overwhelmed:

  • Go one step at a time, particularly with social media; instead of trying to do it all, choose one channel to learn, use and eventually master.
  • Take advantage of the raft of free and reduced priced resources for nonprofits out there. Sign up to receive 4Good’s weekly roundup of free and fee-based nonprofit tech webinars; visit Tech Soup for big discounts on software and hardware; explore the many resources at Google For Nonprofits (tagline: “You are changing the world. We want to help.”)
  • Use Front Porch Forum or word-of-mouth to find tech-savvy volunteers in your community who might be willing to donate their time and expertise to help you assess your tech needs and develop a tech action plan.

Trusted guides

In addition, nonprofits need access to trusted guides who can work with them to determine technical solutions that make sense for their scale, staff, existing infrastructure, budget and mission. Conference participants agreed that this kind of guidance works best when it can be provided one-on-one, tailored to the particular needs of a specific organization, or in a workshop format like the Social Media Surgery labs popping up around the state.

The primary recommendation to come out of Montpelier from the nonprofit group was for Vermont to develop a sustainable method to provide tech and social media coaching to nonprofit organizations around the state. Just as in the business sector, when we are empowered to make wise tech decisions, we work smarter and better, and that benefits us but also the communities we serve.

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