Kay Sprinkel Grace believes that nonprofit board members are ill-equipped to make decisions about technology, which in turn is hurting fundraising

Kay Sprinkel Grace believes that nonprofit board members are ill-equipped to make decisions about technology, which in turn is hurting fundraising.
A time of great chaos

The chaos the nonprofit sector is now facing is good. Concerns about the impact of global recession on long-term philanthropic investment, the rise of ‘citizen philanthropists’ who use the internet to research and fund causes, power-wielding mega donors who make significant single investments (e.g. Chuck Feeney’s $100 million investment in medical research in Queensland) and the increased scrutiny and demands for transparency from all donors have left us scrambling.

I believe this gives us an opportunity to find new ways forward in building robust philanthropic organisations, providing we harness two seemingly disparate aspects of our organisations: board decision-making and a commitment to mastering rapidly changing technology.

Stretching the limits of board service

This huge change in the environment for philanthropy particularly affects our boards, where people who simply signed up to do good things for important causes are suddenly confronted with critical decisions they never anticipated. Donors’ changing expectations have ratcheted up the legal and fiduciary requirements for board members, while growing demands for increased transparency and accountability are (or should be) causing new rules and policies to be developed.

Many boards are not good at anticipating change, often doing business as usual until a problem arises. Then, when a donor’s demands challenge programs or leadership, or a swiftly changing marketplace begins to erode the traditional stability of an organisation, the board confronts a new level of discussion and decision making.

While ceding appropriate authority to the executive director, boards are increasingly called to evaluate the executive director using new standards and to respond to those donors who feel that, as investors, they have the right to suggest the board take a firmer hold on the reins of the organisation.

Simultaneously, boards are being asked to allocate more resources to fundraising due to a decline of government funding, yet many balk at increasing expenditure without a guaranteed return. There are no guarantees, but board members must realise robust investment in fundraising is essential to establish thriving programs. This is risk capital. Boards need to invest in growing the organisation’s capacity to raise money.

Board members also struggle with decisions they must make about their own role in resource development and fundraising. Conditioned by a history of government funding which required little involvement or expenditure, boards ignore or deny expectations that they will be involved in connecting private funders and corporate contacts with the organisation for financial investment.

Nonprofits behind with internet understanding

It was a big deal when most organisations began using the internet, but it was slow to take off – mostly because many organisations in the nonprofit sector did not budget for the best equipment or latest software. Some organisations had to be grateful for second-hand, out-of-date technology, which impeded capacity to make the nonprofit’s work more effective.

But no one is slow now. Hardware and software are more affordable. We are all racing to catch up with the many ways we can communicate, store and segment information. Just when we think we have it all figured out, another innovation surpasses the last.

Texting has superseded emailing, Facebook and Twitter are the go-to sources for the latest news, and web sites are no longer static catalogs. Web sites are expected to be interactive ports for information exchange – places where donors can visit and learn not only about your programs and services but get a feel for how dynamic you are.

And that’s the problem. We are still way behind when it comes to understanding that it is not enough simply to have a web site or a Facebook fan page; it must be current and exciting. It needs to convey who you are, what you do and why you do it. Many boards maintain a flawed belief that budgeting for improving technology is an extraneous cost unrelated to the core mission – similar to the denial of funding for fundraising. Nothing could be further from reality.

Boards out of kilter with today’s technology demands

And that’s what ties the decision-making and technology challenges together. Uninformed board decision-making and not embracing technology both endanger an organisation’s ability to fully engage the community. Poor decisions send the organisation down the wrong path, while faulty, under-resourced technologies ensure the journey will stall – even if it is the right path. Fear of making the ‘wrong’ decision paralyses an organisation and prevents it from seeing the power of its mission and the need to generate involvement.

Our biggest challenge is adequately preparing veteran and new board members for these tough decisions. We simply must, as global enterprises creating solid mission-based results in a changing environment, have confidence in our decisions and move forward with fundraising, technology, and any other opportunities which arise. If we don’t, our future is limited