Friday, June 22, 2012

Help from Idealware: nonprofits, IT planning and strategy.


Recently, I was in conversation with the nationally recognized non-profit, Idealware. The organization helps other nonprofits make “smart software decisions” through its analytical reports, resources, and research. I became familiar with Idealware and its resources through a course here at Heinz on technology planning and implementation for arts organizations. 

In class, we often discussed the challenges arts organizations face in integrating technology and technology planning in their strategic plan. According to a Mellon study in 2007, less than 25% of the arts organizations surveyed had formal technology plans, an IT strategic plan, or an IT component to its strategic plan. Given the size, human capital and resources of many arts, non-profit organizations, this is no surprise. The same study reported that 71% of the arts organizations did not have any designated IT staff or internal IT support. Not only does this general disregard for IT related issues affect an organization’s operations, but it makes it increasingly difficult to move forward in an IT direction- generating buy-in from board members, management, and operational staff is nearly impossible with this attitude.

Now back to the strategic plan! The Harvard Business Review article “Can you say what your strategy is?” was especially relevant to my conversation with the director of Idealware and to the technology planning course I took at Heinz. For many arts organizations, social media is now old news. But for the late adopters or those who jumped into using all Web 2.0 technologies, only to find out they were not using any of them well, identifying and clarifying the basic elements of a strategy statement (as defined in the article) is critical to their success online. PS- arts organizations LOVE social media because the platform is creative, expressive, often free, and engaging. 

Idealware published a Nonprofit Social Media policy workbook, available for free online, that walks organizations through their competitive game plan for social media use. It indirectly asks organizations to identify its objectives and end goals for Facebook, YouTube channels, FlickR—what’s the point, why are you on social media, what are you trying to accomplish through this channel? The workbook walks organization’s through the process of identifying its target audience, how it wants to be perceived, and where it fits in the spectrum of arts organizations/non-profits on Facebook/social media. Additionally, the workbook asks organization’s to be realistic- yes, every organization wants to land a spot on a tech blog’s “Coolest Twitter Accounts” lists (like the Mattress Factory did earlier this year!), but how will the organization define itself from the rest- what value does its Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel provide its followers that they can’t get anywhere else? What makes you unique on social media and how will you defend that position in the growing, competitive, social media landscape?

And yes, I realize a social media strategy isn’t necessarily critical to an organization’s sustainability, it is not even comparable to its own strategic plan or to the scope of G.E’s (in the article “G.E. Goes with what it knows: making stuff”). But from these readings on strategy, my previous course work, discussions with tech planning consultants, and my own professional experience in social media planning, I have come to the conclusion that strategy is strategy. Regardless of the scale-- whether it is your company’s internal, business strategic plan, or its social media strategy—it cannot be competitive or sustainable without clearly defining how, in its domain, it will meet its customers’ needs in a way others cannot. If you can’t identify why you are on social media—what your objective is, what your domain is, or what your value proposition is—then it is not the right communications channel for your organization (right now).  As the director of Idealware told me, 

“Having a plan in general, is always really critical for any technology or communications effort. But with social media, it is particularly important to be aware of—and it is all too easy—being peer pressured into it, the idea of being on Facebook because everyone else is. To avoid this, think through what your goals are. Though it has proved to be a useful way to reach out, it does not necessarily mean you should be doing it right now if it does not align with your goals. Once you have identified your goals for technology development or communications, figure out what you are attempting to do and what tools you will need to achieve that. Then move forward.”

Check out the workbook: it’s written casually and conversationally, a great resource for organizations looking to strategically expand their social media presence with a clearly defined purpose, direction, and advantage.

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