Nonprofits have diverse IT needs, and the best approach to addressing those needs—whether through a consultant, an employee, or a volunteer—depends on the specific requirements and circumstances of the organization.
In fact, you’ll likely rely on all of them at one time or another, and many times you’re rely on all of them simultaneously. Your needs will likely be first addressed with Volunteers and expand to consultants and employees as the needs and successes of your organization grows.
In this article, I’ll explore what can best be addressed by each of these groups and when they should play a role in addressing your needs, specifically in technology (Information Tech or IT). However, these same principles can be applied to other parts of your nonprofit operations as well.
What’s Best Addressed by a Consultant
Specialized Projects: Consultants are ideal for short-term, specialized projects such as implementing a new Constituent Resource Management (CRM) system, migrating to cloud services, or conducting a security audit. This is especially important if you have no expertise on the needed tools and want to quickly set them up or conduct the audit.
Strategic Planning: Consultants can help nonprofits develop IT strategies aligned with their mission and goals, ensuring technology supports their long-term vision. Ideally, the consultant you hire has sufficient expertise about the operations of a nonprofit to also understand the underlying processes that need to be put in place to ensure quick adoption and maximum value, to accelerate your efforts to bring about the changes you have in mind.
Expert Advice: When the nonprofit lacks specific IT expertise, whether in the form of volunteers or employees, consultants can provide guidance on technology selection, infrastructure setup, and best practices. There are many consultant who specialize in specific categories of tools or even a single tool, such as a CRM like Everyaction or Nationbuilder who can quickly assess your needs, suggest a solution and even deploy the technology and train your staff on its use.
Cybersecurity: Consultants with cybersecurity expertise can assess vulnerabilities, design secure systems, and implement data protection measures. This becomes quite important as you begin to encounter resistance or opposition to your ideas on reforms you’re pursuing. You may very well encounter cyberattacks as your opposition realizes how effective your efforts have become. Protecting your data, strategic plans, list of internal activities, volunteers, key contacts and donors becomes highly important in not only ensuring your organizational success, but the health and wellbeing of your people.
Data Analysis and Reporting: Consultants can assist with setting up data analytics tools, creating custom reports, and deriving insights from collected data. Curious how your educational programs on Ranked Choice Voting is drawing in supporters? Are you increasing your donations with the press releases or meet-n-greets? How many people become volunteers after each event? How many become donors and at what levels? Figuring out what data is important to you based on your strategic goals and setting up the right tools to capture and analyze them is where a consultant can deliver much value.
Training and Workshops: Consultants can provide IT training to staff, enhancing their technical skills and knowledge. This is especially important when you want to ensure your staff knows how to best use the tools and processes your consultants put in place. It’s especially important here to ensure the consultant can set up a proper knowledgebase that you can maintain, add to and continue to reuse so that you can free up the contractor to focus on the higher priority tasks where their costs are better justified.
What’s Best Addressed by an Employee
Daily IT Operations: An in-house IT employee is well-suited for managing day-to-day IT operations, user support, troubleshooting, and maintaining hardware/software. Ideally, this is done once you’ve received help from an expert consultant or employee who has helped with your tools and tech selection, training, and deployment.
Network and Systems Administration: An employee can manage network infrastructure, server maintenance, backups, and system upgrades. Most of these tasks should be automated so that they require minimal oversight. Also, the work is typically a one off, especially after the initial setup, and would require very little ongoing effort. Though they may require specialized knowledge from time to time, theses processes should be well documented after the initial setup. If your team lacks the knowledge, then having a maintenance plan with a specialized IT Consulting firm would do the job.
User Training and Support: Most of your software user training should either be provided by your vendors or setup by your consultants at the onset. However, as processes and software are updated, the material will need to be as well. This is where your employees come in. They can provide ongoing training updates and even fill in for answering training questions to staff, ensuring they effectively use IT resources and tools.
Data Management and Backup: Employees can handle data management, ensuring data integrity, and establishing regular backup procedures. Backups can certainly be setup for full automation. With many of today’s cloud providers, in fact, they are already fully redundant and are backed up regularly, requiring very little to no involvement from your employees. Where they would get involved is in retrieving the backups and restoring any files your staff may have lost.
Collaboration and Integration: An employee can work on integrating various systems, ensuring smooth communication and collaboration across departments. Though your consultant will likely setup the initial integrations, as systems change and your organization’s data needs expand, those base integrations and processes have to be updated. If the processes are specialized, large or more complex, then your employees may need to work with a consultant on this too.
What’s Best Addressed by a Volunteer
Overall, anything that’s not time critical or those that can be project-based and timeboxed for limited time periods can be handed off to volunteers. Of course, you’ll have your super volunteers who can dedicate large amounts of time or limited time but over a long-period. That’s rare and you may not find very many of them. And for anything ongoing, you’ll want to rely on employees instead.
Ad Hoc Support: Volunteers can provide occasional support for basic IT tasks such as software installations, troubleshooting minor issues, or setting up new devices. This is especially helpful when you have to ramp up local campaign offices, Get Out The Vote events, as well as rallies and educational events.
Community Engagement: Volunteers with IT skills can help organize tech-related community events, workshops, or training sessions. There’s something quite meaningful when the change makers, putting together a local event, are the local citizenry.
Website Content Updates: Volunteers can assist with updating website content, posting news or events, and maintaining the organization’s online presence. Given these are typically not time sensitive, they can be scheduled in advance and dependent on volunteer availability.
Data Entry and Cleanup: Volunteers can help with data entry, database cleanup, and data migration tasks. They are especially helpful for data entry from local event sign ups that may be done on sign up sheets or at events where you’ve captured business cards from local political players.
Social Media and Online Marketing: It’s amazing how so many folks have become well versed in social media as a result of regular use. If you can attract them, younger volunteers can do an amazing job with managing social media accounts, online campaigns, and digital marketing efforts. You’ll need to ensure they remain on point by working directly with your Comms / Marketing team.
Basic Training: Some of the training that can’t be automated, especially those that require human interaction, can very well be handled by your volunteers. This comes in handy for some of your introductory tools knowledge and live Q&A sessions when you’re onboarding a large group of volunteers for campaigns and events.
It’s important to note that the roles of consultant, employee, and volunteer can overlap, and the right approach depends on your nonprofit’s specific needs, resources, and goals. A well-balanced combination of these approaches can help your nonprofit effectively address your IT needs and leverage technology to advance your mission, especially when you’re time constrained in how quickly you need to move to bring about change.
In fact, you’ll likely start by relying heavily on volunteers. Then, if you have sudden growth, you’ll want to hire and retain consultants as you prepare your funding and budget for key employment roles. Eventually, you’ll have staff for the day to day activities where you have the need to directly manage their actions, relying on consultants for occasional, key, specialized, and time sensitive projects, while engaging volunteers to complete grassroots activities that require an energized base.