Amy Sample Ward is the CEO of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network, and an author and speaker invested in supporting changemakers in using technology to make a lasting impact.
We recently caught up with Amy to learn more about the technology challenges facing nonprofits today and get her advice for tech professionals interested in working in a nonprofit. Here’s what she had to say:
Can you tell us about NTEN. What is your mission?
NTEN aspires to a world where all nonprofit organizations use technology skillfully and confidently to meet community needs and fulfill their missions.
We are a nonprofit organization ourself so we understand the demands on nonprofit staff to balance their desire for the latest technologies and strategies with the daily task list of running mission-related programs. The NTEN community includes nonprofit organizations of all sizes and mission areas, and staff from across an organization. We provide educational training opportunities, including the Nonprofit Tech Professional Certificate, and convene the largest annual gathering for the sector in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.
What excites you about how technology is being used in nonprofits today?
It is inspiring to see the way that technology can help level the playing field so that an organization’s size (whether budget or staff size) does not entirely determine their potential for community engagement, fundraising and impact. With the right tools, organizations with a few staff or a few hundred staff can make a real difference. And by “right tools,” of course, I mean the right tools for them – their budget, staff needs, community needs and so on – as there is no “right” tool for everyone.
What are some of the most innovative ways you’ve seen nonprofits using technology tools to further their mission?
The most innovative examples are always those of organizations that don’t have a choice but to try something different – either for budget, staffing or time capacity reasons. For example, small organizations with successful online fundraising campaigns because they don’t have anything to lose. I love the example of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, who turned down a major donor gift because of the donor’s requests about the use of funds, and made their decision public in the launch of a rapid response online campaign.
What are some of the challenges nonprofits typically face when using technology?
We conduct a number of research reports every year to help understand current budgeting, staffing and decision making for technology in nonprofit organizations, as well as their plans for future investment and best practices. From our research, organizations consistently report that they have the tools that they need but do not have sufficient training to use those tools well. Training should be an ongoing effort in an organization (no only when someone is hired), with participation by all staff. Organizations also report that the ability for staff to access services or data from anywhere are leading factors in evaluating potential tools.
Why should IT professionals consider working for nonprofits? What are the benefits?
Technology in nonprofits is more than the “IT Department” – everyone in an organization, regardless of job title, is using technology to be effective and efficient in their job, and organizations continue to advance their use of data to inform their strategies and evaluate their impact.
For professionals in the tech sector considering a move to the nonprofit space, I recommend thinking about what you are passionate about and exploring missions that inspire you. I’ve met many people who have moved from the tech sector into the nonprofit space with a job that didn’t have technology in the title or even the job description – whether it is in operations, project management or even program deliver teams.
What IT skills have you found are most in demand by nonprofits?
Project management, especially around the transition from one solution to another, or the implementation of a solution, is a highly sought after skill set in the nonprofit sector. This includes the experience to manage a project of this scope as well as the staffing capacity to give it the time that is necessary. Data management experience and data analysis skills are also incredibly valuable.
How should tech professionals go about searching for positions at nonprofits?
Many states have nonprofit associations that often have job boards, offering hiring services, or at least serve as a network hub for organizations looking for great talent. Professionals looking for a nonprofit job should definitely connect with their state or regional nonprofit association. There are also job boards offered by groups like Idealist.org or niche job boards like NTEN’s own nonprofit tech job board.
How can tech professionals seeking jobs at nonprofits make themselves more marketable? What can they do to land the interview and get hired?
I strongly recommend finding a nonprofit with a mission you care about and serving on their board. Board service is a great way to learn more about nonprofit management, common challenges and existing networks. Serving on a board also increases your experience in the sector in a leadership position, helping you speak to real personal experience when applying for a job with a nonprofit organization.
Beyond board service, I recommend finding opportunities to volunteer – either with skilled volunteer positions that use tech expertise or in other service roles that may be offered by the organization. Again, this is a great way to get more inside experience with the ways that nonprofits function, their challenges, and exposure to the kinds of positions that may be of most interest in pursuing.
What tech trends or innovations are you following right now? Why do they excite you?
I think there are a number of interesting potential trends to watch as organizations move more of their systems and services into the cloud, especially with organizational culture as it relates to technology. I’m excited to see organizations shift understanding of technology from something that may be part of their office supplies and mostly defined as hardware toward something that both enables and influences their work and effectiveness of meeting their mission.
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