Foundations and Technology: Too Little Change?

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

September 25, 2014

Foundations and Technology ChangeThe Technology Affinity Group and the Grants Managers Network have released the latest version of their Grantmakers Information Technology Survey Report. You can download a copy here.

The report is full of useful information about how foundations use technology. Read it all! Early in the report, however, the authors write, “Survey results indicate little progress from 2012 to 2014 with respect to the adoption of technology, executives’ comfort level with and understanding of technology, and its impact within foundations. This is disappointing given the ubiquity of technology in today’s society.”

Why could this be happening? Here are four speculations:


1.) The End of the Low Hanging Fruit

Looking back, it’s easy to see how things like word processing, email and spreadsheets have transformed the way we work. It may not have looked like that before hindsight, but at least back in the day the whole society was going through computerization. One year, the computer was “person of the year,” etc. Today the need for change is not that clear.

Most of the hype, these days, is over consumer devices. We’re wondering what we can do with a new Apple Watch more than we ask about the benefits of a content management system. Advocates of more organizational technology therefore have to sell it more effectively.

2.) From Individual to Group

The kinds of applications we’re thinking about today involve groups more than individuals. Consider CRM, File Sharing, Collaboration, Content Management and even Grants Management in its newest incarnations.

As soon as you start implementing one of these applications, a lot of social questions come up. Users may ask whether their notes are included with every email contact that gets centralized. They may disagree on how files ought to be renamed or metadata ought to be organized. Even testing a collaborative application requires testing by a group. If you start providing dashboards, there is likely to be a debate about what should be on the dashboards. If you start providing workflow, you may soon be debating who should do what when.

I suspect that these questions may only appear sometimes after the decision to go ahead with the technology has been made. Thus, projects can slow down when they are supposed to ramp up, which can lead to frustration, if not failure.

3.) Big Ambitions, Small Resources

To the extent that applications become complex and involve groups, they often require more administration. Most foundations have accepted the need for a grants manager, but how many hours do you allocate for a file-sharing or CRM administrator? Remember that while foundations are influential and relatively well funded, they tend to be very small. For example, the report lists the average number of staff for foundations with assets from $250 million to $1 billion as 22.4 people. Half of the respondents to the survey had assets below $250 million. They weren’t even included on the technology staffing table, but, to the extent that staff size follows asset size, we can assume they’re even smaller. Hiring another administrator, then, is a big move.

The result is that a lot of the non-infrastructure work related to applications gets spread around among people who have other jobs and often little training in matters related to IT. Consultants may be employed to get an  application running, but it’s less common to have them around for ongoing application support. Under these circumstances, a lot can go wrong, particularly in the less technological/more organizational areas mentioned above.

4.) Who Needs It?

An old question among software developers is, “Is it a pain killer or a vitamin?” In other words, if your application doesn’t address a clear and crying need, it won’t be adopted. It not enough just to be good for you, in some abstract sense. In the private sector, competition provides a continuing need. You adopt what’s working for your competitors, or you try to leapfrog them. What is the equivalent in the foundation’s world?

I’d argue that the greatest need today might be something like demonstrating results from grants. Another might be identifying needs in the areas foundations choose to serve. Both of these can involve data, but working out the details of what to look for and how to collect it are complex. Often, such tasks are delegated to grantees or consultants. It’s a lot to ask IT to take the lead in this, so the focus, and the money, goes elsewhere. There may be big-data crunching going on, but it may not be in house.

On the other hand, there may be a market for some pain pills. If a foundation is frustrated trying to communicate with its constituencies, CRM may be a pain-killer. If your staff is going crazy because they can’t find documents or they are drowning in email attachments, content management or file sharing may be the right pills.

Of course, to know where the pain is, you have to ask. But discussing that would be point five, and I said above we only had four points.

Also, fortunately, there is some hope. We’ll cover the hope in our next post.

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