In the spring of 2013, the Bullitt, Wilburforce and Brainerd foundations evaluated the technical needs of their grantees. By understanding the terrain, better grantmaking decisions can be made, and the individual groups can understand how their needs fit into the bigger picture. We received a solid response to the April survey, getting a little over 100 entries. Some of the key findings are below, and the full results can be found here.

The Groundwire Gap

Eighteen years after its founding, has stopped delivering services. Their services were originally transferred to a for-profit consultancy (Direct Technology), and have recently evaporated completely. It’s sad to see them go, as they were a trusted resource for nearly all of the green nonprofit groups in the region. Complicating matters is the degree to which their consulting projects – mainly CRM, online strategy and web development – had ongoing dependencies that needed to be abruptly shifted to other providers. The reach of Groundwire’s services was impressive.

Web hosting services have been transferred to Six Feet Up, a provider in Indiana that focuses on Plone, the favored development platform of Groundwire. Groundwire’s other development platform, Salesforce, is a cloud-based system already, so the service itself was not impacted by these changes. Still, the ongoing consulting necessary to maintain a functional Salesforce instance is significant, and without Groundwire there is a measurable hole in the IT infrastructure of regional grantees. Fortunately some of the skilled staff of Groundwire have spun-off consultancies that are addressing as many of these needs as they have capacity.

Framing this in the big picture, groups that relied on Groundwire services are in a state of flux. As their technology ages, and their demands evolve, they will either need to rely on a new set of service providers or let their technology decay. Some organizations have already established these new relationships and are actively taking steps to make improvements. Others (probably the majority) have yet to experience an emergency that brings the gap to light. They will. In the coming year, there is sure to be a rolling tide of nonprofits that are impacted by the hole that Groundwire left.

Even if there is sufficient capacity in the market for strategy, CRM and web consulting, there is still friction in migrating these groups to the new resources. Communication to groups about IT options has been scattered, and the custom work done originally by Groundwire developers is difficult to translate to a new service provider. It’s going to be difficult to maintain/extend the huge body of aging, custom code from all of Groundwire’s web projects.

Rather than scrambling to line up another Plone or Salesforce developer to continue the maintenance of their online presence, smart nonprofits will take stock of their evolving communications goals, and take a broad view of the options available to them. In some cases, re-investing in the Groundwire platforms will make sense, and in others, a sidestep to other technologies will be the smartest use of budget. Nonprofits and grantmakers can scan the landscape of IT providers here. Plone hosting, which has been a consistent aggravation in the region, is an issue that will grow in the coming year. There is a thorough listing of options available here, but few have been vetted, and many are international.

If cursory help is needed in identifying appropriate IT vendors for nonprofits, I encourage people to connect with me.

Physical Infrastructure

As the cost of equipment decreases, and the need for office-hosted servers declines, nonprofit groups are doing a better job of providing affordable, usable machines for their staff. Note below that laptops are becoming the tool of choice for most staff, which is a trend seen in the greater technology market. In our cohort, laptops outnumber desktops 54% to 46%.

Roughly one in three nonprofit staff use a mobile “smart” phone that has access to email and online resources. The popularity of these phones, and the growing use of laptops is likely to alter the definition of “office” for many groups – the hard-costs associated with a physical place may diminish as organizations find ways to achieve their mission with less space and more virtual collaboration. Another interesting point is the lack of tablet use. In the general population these devices are much more popular than seen in this survey. Whether the nonprofit mission is scientific, policy, advocacy or outreach, tablets represent a frugal way to enable staff to be productive and work independently. Not a laptop replacement, but excellent for light use..

Better information generally yields better decisions, so in addition to communicating some general tips, it would be useful for groups to see how other nonprofits address their own technology purchasing. Again, not treading on the decision-making sovereignty of the grantees, but offering information that can be used to improve the quality and price of the purchase.

Stated Needs

Not surprisingly, the surveyed groups have a lot of unfilled IT needs. We asked two questions that attempted to discern between technology issues they planned to address within their own budget, and others that might need outside support.

Contrast these stated needs with the reality of what they plan to address with their own budget:

A gap exists in the intentions of groups, measured against their ability to sustain themselves using their own budget. Given the complexity of some of these technical problems, organizations are facing the challenge of sub-standard technology, and a limited understanding of how to improve matters. Since IT costs aren’t trivial, this is a problem that can have a major impact in what organizations can accomplish in their mission.