This is part two of a three-part post. Part 1 looks at the opportunity for academic collaboration with the nonprofit tech sector. Part 3 offers a starter pack of nonprofit technology resources.

Many organizations with technology expertise, available volunteers or funding dollars want to help nonprofits make effective use of technology. And that’s great news, because nonprofits and social change organizations need all the help they can get!

But it’s important that those resources have maximum impact. The issues that nonprofits address — ranging from climate change to child poverty, and from health care reform to food security — are often difficult to solve and extremely urgent. The resources available to tackle these challenges are all too scarce. And nonprofits have particular cultures and institutional constraints that limit them in certain ways, and empower them in others.

Add all these factors together and it’s essential that nonprofit technology efforts reflect the needs of the sector as a whole, as well as the requirements of a specific project. Whether you’re a tech professional who wants to lend your time to a good cause, or an NGO that needs a new web site, the effort you expend can benefit not just one organization, but many organizations facing similar challenges and opportunities.

Here are 9 questions to ask that will ensure your nonprofit project makes the best use of your resources:

  1. What are the top priorities for the sector as a whole? When you fund a nonprofit tech project, or donate software services to create a new tool, focus your contribution on a problem that many organizations face. Find out which tools are at the top of the wishlist for a large number of nonprofits by reading nonprofit technology blogs and discussion lists, attending nonprofit tech conferences or talking with organizations and consultants that work with a range of nonprofit organizations.
  2. What’s different about nonprofit technology? Nonprofit technology projects face certain characteristic challenges and opportunities. If you’re a nonprofit that is undertaking a tech project that is much bigger than or very different from anything you’ve done before, you need to learn about the skills and resources that are required to execute effectively — and then get those resources in place, or scale back your ambitions. If you’re a funder just starting to invest in technology projects (in which case, bravo!) learn about the success factors for nonprofit tech projects and the indicators you can use to track outcomes. If you’re a tech expert working in the nonprofit sector for the first time, find out about the goals and values of the nonprofit you’re supporting, which may go beyond (but still include) the financial bottom-line.
  3. Has anyone else solved this problem? Whether you are creating a web site, rebuilding a database, or creating a Facebook application, your solution may already exist. It often takes a small amount of design or development work to take a web site or software tool built for one organization, and adapt it to the needs of another — especially if you’re willing to compromise. Maybe you’re an environmental NGO that wants a social networking tool for community organizers; could you ask an anti-poverty organization if you could use their platform as a starting point? Instead of spending $50,000+ to build from scratch, you’re spending $10,000 to customize what’s already there.
  4. Who else wants to solve this problem? Maybe what you want doesn’t exist. But if you’re facing this challenge, other organizations are too. Pool your resources with like-minded organizations, or organizations that have similar needs but work on different challenges. While it is very hard to run a development project by committee, a single organization can take the lead on a project, and deliver it more effectively with the support of additional organizations who want to invest in the results.
  5. Where can I compromise? One of the biggest obstacles to nonprofit collaboration on tech projects is the belief that each organization needs to find its own perfect solution. But I have yet to see a tech project that works out perfectly, so why not make compromises that advance our larger goals? If you’re willing to accept a solution that offers 90% of what you need, you’re much more likely to find other organizations who will work with you to solve it. And remember that compromises that involve giving up some control — like having the final say on each round of development — can also save you a lot of time and money (by reducing the amount of staff time dedicated to running this development process).
  6. Who knows what’s out there? It can be hard to figure out whether your problem has already been solved, and even harder to figure out who else is seeking the same software solution you’re about to commission. Your best bet is to talk with technology assistance providers who specialize in working with the nonprofit sector; it’s a small community, so organizations like NTEN and TechSoup, and experts like Beth Kanter and Leda Dederich, often know who is looking for what at any given moment.
  7. What platform is used by organizations like ours? If you are investing time or money in a nonprofit tech project, invest it in something that will benefit other organizations, too. Some software tools are in wide use throughout the sector: if you customize a WordPress blog or create new features for a Drupal site, your innovations can benefit the thousands of other nonprofits who have blogs and websites on those platforms. If you create an extension that complements Kintera or Salesforce, your tool will help the thousands of nonprofits who use those tools. And whatever you do, avoid built-from-scratch solutions: unless you have deep pockets and a large dedicated development team, you will pay more than you need to in order to get features that already exist somewhere else, and you will be at the mercy of a programmer who may or may not be available to help you in the future.
  8. How can we make our investment shareable? Once you’ve identified a problem that you can usefully solve, and a solution that will plug into the tech platforms used by a range of nonprofits, you need to build in a way that makes your solution shareable. Document your strategic decisions (why did you build it the way you built it?), comment out your code (or require your developer to do so) and create documentation that makes it easy for people (including your staff and users) to use your platform. If you’ve built on an open source platform, release your code back to the community, and even if you’ve built something that’s propriety, consider giving it away (or selling it at a reasonable price) to other nonprofits. Blog about what you’ve learned, and offer to help other organizations working on similar projects.
  9. How will this investment be sustained?Software tools and web platforms aren’t one-shot investments. Any application or web site takes significant tech maintenance, and often additional development work, in order to remain secure, stable and effective. Most tools also involve some kind of effort from your staff and users, whether it’s to create content for a blog or to enter data in your new database. Plan on spending at least as much on people as on software, and make sure your budget covers the cost of at least two (and preferably five) years of upkeep.

If every nonprofit organization, funder and supporter asked these questions before investing in nonprofit technology, we’d have enough resources to create a perfect world by the end of the week. Well, there may be one or two problems that can’t be wholly solved by technology, but in all the places where technology investments matter — like building supporter lists, creating issue advocacy sites, or raising money online — making the most of our resources translates into a significant gain in efficiency and impact. If you’re investing in nonprofit technology, it’s because you know technology can make a difference on an issue you care about. So why not make that difference as big as possible?