I started in the software and technology world in 1995 doing tech-support for a software product called “Internet in a Box”. The job consisted mainly of taking phone calls to help customers who bought the software install it, set it up on their computer and configure their modems to get connected to the Internet. By 1996 the Internet had become more open for the public but it still wasn’t ‘easy’ to get connected. Internet in a Box was revolutionary in the same way TiVo and smart phones changed how people use technology. I was an early, non-Electrical Engineer, geek.
In 2003 I was asked to join the board of a nonprofit organization in California. The nonprofit worked with many California State Parks along the Sierra Nevadas. I was brand-new to the nonprofit world and knew nothing about how these organizations work at a business level. What I did know was software and technology. Previous to this board position, I had worked at Microsoft, Ernst & Young and Avanade in the software development world. I was also a small business technical consultant, so I understand the challenges small businesses face trying to use technology in their businesses. When I was doing consulting, I often explained, and sometimes had to convince, clients of how different technologies can work for them to be more efficient in time, money and processes, using technology that was available and inexpensive.
In the mid to late 1990s small businesses, aside from not understanding how technology could help them, also faced the hurdle of cost. Unlike today, the cost of hardware and software were significantly higher. ROI for technology wasn’t usually an item on their punch lists either. Usually training wasn’t either – which is obviously important when trying to implement new processes or when integrating new technology. Most people had little to no experience with technology. Aside from changing the time on their VCR there were no mobile phones, no TiVo, no GPS and of course there was no Internet. Even today, many people still have a hard time accepting new tools and processes. Sure, everyone is more comfortable because they have smart phones and three remotes for their home entertainment systems, but trying to move them to using web-based software for donor tracking or collections management is too much for them to accept. It’s understandable that change is scary, but using 15 year old technology (or any technology) just puts them further behind other groups. Sometimes that means not getting a grant or even just losing good volunteers who want to do more than leadership is capable of understanding.
Now, back to that first nonprofit I worked with… they had cash registers at their gift shops, but no point-of-sale system. There was a computer at the main office for doing QuickBooks and basic financial tracking but they weren’t on the internet and didn’t have a website. Aside from using word processing and simple spreadsheets, the board didn’t use much technology. They didn’t even do email. Heck, they didn’t have a brand or logo for the business.
While it wasn’t part of my Board position to push technology, I did. I proposed a logo contest as an inexpensive form of getting the corporate brand setup. We ended up hiring a company instead, but that’s okay – it got the Board to take action on something simple, but important. One of the State Parks, in 2003, was still selling their most popular video on VHS tape! Actually, they weren’t selling many… I brought up at several Board meetings that we needed to put the video – which we owned the rights to – onto DVD. I was told someone else was ‘taking care of it’, but after many months, I finally took on the project myself. In a few short months I tracked down old paperwork and contracts, contacted the original filmmaker (from 20+ years earlier), got bids on doing the transfer from HD Beta tapes into digital and getting a glass master made, DVD replication, artwork and shipping. Other than keeping people up to date and getting approvals to spend money, there wasn’t much other Board members could do. The first summer weekend we had the DVDs, almost 300 copies were sold – vs. less than 100 VHS for the entire previous year.
I also tried pushing the point-of-sale system idea, even if just for one location to prove its viability for all locations. But, because I wasn’t nearby any of the locations I couldn’t be as involved with the inventory, sales and tracking of a location. Without understanding the process, I couldn’t make good choices or research needed information. The project was met with resistance and others involved didn’t understand the technology at the level which I did, so it never got going. With the simplicity and low cost of POS systems today (even Square Up or PayPal), I hope they’ve using something now – but who knows…
Since that first board position, I’ve been on three other nonprofit boards with similar hurdles. Cost is always one of the obstacles, but there are many low-cost – or even free – options for nonprofits. I tend to move quickly when a plan is formed, mainly because I believe in the idea that moving forward, even if there are problems, will lead to success. Making wrong decisions and learning from them can clear the path to right decision, thus continuing progress and gaining the experience of what works and what doesn’t work. As long as no one’s life is at risk and there is little or no money lost, people and businesses should be willing to take risks and make mistakes in order to move forward. I’ve always loved the quote from The Sopranos (um, actually Cicero): “More is lost by indecision than wrong decision.”
While I think my years of experience working with small businesses and their owners has given me the ability to speak and teach in non-technical, non-geek language, I still run up against either fear of the unknown, individual egos, or just a plain reluctance to change. It’s at this point when many organizations lose potentially great volunteers due to their poor choices (or willingness to move forward.)
Ego may be the biggest issue though. Many Board members who mistake a sense of concern, for a sense of ownership, slow down progress for their own benefit. If it isn’t their idea, they don’t want to go with it. I’ve recalled this quote many times when working with Ego-driven Board members: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”
The frustration that I have personally felt over the years is my own fault. For some reason I expect people to trust someone who has significantly more experience than themselves in a given area. I expect them to ask questions, learn, discuss and make decisions that will help move the organization forward. It doesn’t always work that way. Then it’s easy to get bogged down and slow to a crawl, or stopped completely from achieving a goal.
I clearly have more learning to do when it comes to persuading people why technology processes and software are beneficial to an organization… either that, or I need to make better decisions on what groups I get involved with – or I need to set up guidelines with those groups that I help and make it clear that I’m not one of those individuals that move at glacial speeds. Technology doesn’t move slowly. By the time most groups adopt and implement a solution, it’s often already outdated, less expensive or less efficient than what’s available now.