After a year of writing several briefs and one, exceptionally large (by my standards), report for the Ministry of Citizenship — I can firmly say that I now know more than I ever dreamt I would know on the topic of successful non-profit technology initiatives. Add to that my own experience over the past few years and you’ve got a lot of blog posts. So here’s the first… Let’s call it the Canadian non-profit technology assistance manifesto. And why does Canada need a manifesto for non-profit technology assistance? Simple: because successful, sustainable, long-term, and hands-on information technology support for most Canadian non-profits simple doesn’t exist in Canada as it does in the US and elsewhere in the world. So, based on my experience, what does Canada need? I’m glad you asked — here’s what I think Canada needs:
- A strong and well-connected network of non-profit technology assistance providers (NTAPs) from coast-to-coast
- The infastructure and funding in place to support the NTAPs in bringing their clients and communities up to basic levels of technical capacity An approach that puts ownership of the information in the hands of the non-profit organizations, allowing easy transition between assistance providers as their needs grow and evolve
- A proudly Canadian community of NTAPs that work together to help instigate progressive programs and policies in Canada that support their work and the work of the organizations that they serve
- Several initiatives that explore how this community can collaborate, share resources, and build coalitions that strengthen the voice of the Canadian NTAP community, for the benefit of all Canadians
Given that I’m going to write on this topic frequently, here are just a few examples of these ideas in action:
- The Non-profit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN) in the US is a national trade association for non-profit technology assistance providers. Through education, mailing lists, local meet-up groups, and several regional and one annual gathering, N-TEN has helped to create a cohesive movement around non-profit technology assistance. There should be an organization filling this role in Canada.
- Similarly, in the US, there have been several reports and many conversations among funders about the importance of “technology intermediaries” as a part of successful non-profit technology adoption. The key here is that A) intermediaries interact with aggregate demand and are able to create efficiencies or notice common trends in their client’s needs, and B) grant makers can leverage their investments by working with an intermediary that is working with other funders and on several similar projects. So there needs to be some infastructure in place to make this possible. Specifically, Canada needs to adopt the successful model of “circuit riding” that has worked in the UK, US, and throughout the world.
- Much of what I would personally call success in the US is toward creating standards. Standards can be built around something as simple as an IT inventory or “technology binder” or around promising strategies to common non-profit technology needs, like managing membership or donor information. And, let me repeat myself here: the only way to expose these common approaches is by connecting the people interested in them. And, for those of you not listening, that’s the technology assistance providers (aka Geeks) not the non-profit orgnaizations (as has been tried so many times).
- Now, why proudly Canadian? Not because we all know what a Timbit is — no! But because Canada is a different country, with different funding realities, and with organizations that face different challenges. We need providers interested in the political and social implications of the fact that our non-profits and charties are being strangled — that it often costs these organizations more to deliver inmportant social programs than they are given in funding. So, needless to say, technology often falls off their radar screen as they struggle to find money to help their communities. So, to address the root of the problem, Canadian NTAPs have to be willing and able to engage these issues at municipal, provincial, and national levels — with grant makers, government, and the private sector.
- And, finally, we need not one, not two, not three — but several initiatives that try to bring these people together. And initiatives that try to bring them together again, and again, and again. This is not a national Web portal, this is not a multi-million dollar federal program, this is not good money thrown after bad. This is simple: support a grassroots movement that aims to help NTAPs come together locally, regionally, and across the country. And support entreprenuerial individuals and innovative upstarts that will find creative and cost effective ways to publicize that this community exists!