One problem that is typical for NFPs is the different nature within an organisation of IT users and the technology they apply.
“In most cases an NFP CIO, as in my case, works with many different scenarios in order to satisfy the user and end customer, probably a lot more than a commercial sector CIO needs to," says CIO and director of procurement with the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat of Anglican Church Australia, George Lymbers.
Keeping across many different platforms and requirements is a distinct and specific challenge for some CIOs. “The answer is to ‘silo off’ each architectural environment and look at housing it in the same server environment.”
Paula Carleton, CIO for age and life care operation, Baptist Community Services (BCS), says one of her tasks is to reduce the number of applications required, and to grow a strategic app set. Through hardware virtualisation, BCS has cut back on servers, though she admits that this is a process that needs refreshing.
“To do this sort of work we look internally. If we can’t deliver the service, we’ll look to outsource it, but we need to closely justify this.”
Paul Ramsbottom, managing director of ASi, which sells the iMIS membership and fundraising software exclusively to NFPs, adds a few areas where he thinks many NFPs may fall behind: Disaster recovery (few have it; there’s a lack of knowledge and a perception of high cost); an over-reliance on basic apps like Excel and Word (“still highly prevalent”); and an orientation to silos and process thinking rather than an end-to-end or enterprise view.
He adds that there is a common lack of appreciation of the benefits from outsourced transaction processing. Data processing of donations used to be done by volunteers, so it was seen as a low cost operation. But when it’s done by paid staff, which is increasingly the case, the cost per transaction could be as high as $25 — and some industry commentators have put this cost even higher.
“Processing 1000 transactions per day is costing $25,000. They could be outsourcing that to banks or even the Post Office — the Post Office charges only about 75 cents per transaction.”
Steve Ball, information systems manager for Amnesty International Australia, agrees that commercial organisations are often the ones at the cutting edge of powerful new IT ideas, because of the resources available to them. Nonetheless, he is impressed with the microfinance site, Kiva.org, which lends small amounts of money to would-be entrepreneurs in developing nations.
“This has impressively backed a dynamic database-driven web site with a strongly governed operational framework to deliver over $100 million in micro-loans,” he says.
Closer to home, he likes the Australian politically motivated advocacy organisation GetUp!.
“This has done some great work in their IT and web spaces and is one I particularly admire for their agility and accessibility.”
But there are dangers for NFPs, and they often revolve around money. McFarlane says that, in general, NFPs that operate in a more commercial environment, such as credit unions and membership-based organisations, are more effective in what they do — “or they disappear”.
“These types of NFPs do, however, operate well outside the sphere of the more personal NFPs that may be delivering services to those people disadvantaged in our society, where there is no effective market to deliver services that they require.”
Nonetheless, it’s the sense of doing something — and being aware of the impact of your actions — that often differentiates NFPs from their commercial brethren, and can make the organisation more attractive to existing and potential staff.
“I love working at Amnesty International — knowing that there’s a connection between the changes I’m making here and human rights outcomes for other people in the world,” Ball says. “Working for an NFP provides technologists with the opportunity to make a concrete difference that impacts people’s lives. Employees with a strong commercial background can bring many benefits to NFPs, including cost-focused ideas for ways to build an effective long-term IT vision.
“At the same time, I’ve found there’s a lot to be learned in the NFP environment about how to manage the complexity of driving an organisation towards multiple goals when you don’t have shareholder value as the primary benchmark to guide you, and how to leverage the huge potential that’s available in a team of committed and talented individuals sharing a common goal.
Carleton agrees: “Is there greater satisfaction? Yes.”
And there could be a greater future. Lymbers believes that those sectors that deal with youth will drive technology innovation far more than commercial organisations. “I think commercial CIOs would do well to see what their counterparts are doing in the NFP sector on a many fronts.”