Nonprofit technology inadequate, study says; six ways software as a service models can help

Think your nonprofit has inadequate technology to get the job done? You’re not alone. Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project released a study showing a whole lot of folks in your shoes feel ya.  In fact, I believe that was one of the survey questions:

How would you characterize your attitude toward this statement: “I feel ya.”

  1. Strongly Disagree
  2. Disagree
  3. I’m not sure what I feel
  4. Agree
  5. Strongly Agree
  6. I SO feel ya!

No surprise, right? Nonprofits often feel like the youngest kid in the Walton family getting the hand-me-downs from brothers and sisters. Poor Jim-Bob.

Though Hopkins didn’t ask me, I feel ya, too. When I read the story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the study, I couldn’t help but think of a gig I had prior to PICnet for a great nonprofit where I was cobbling together donated broken down IBMs and a couple Mac IIe machines to form a reasonable representation of a computer network.  Whether your nonprofit is in that meager a state or not, the Hopkins’ study likely isn’t news.

Even in better economic times, a good number of factors contribute to the nonprofit challenge of meeting technology needs.  Donors are loathe to bankroll equipment and software.  Staff specializes in the doing of the mission, not the wiring of the mission.  Equipment costs require significant initial cash outlays that are hard to come by.  Technology advances at the blink of an eye so money spent on boxes and software seems to become obsolete faster than your iPhone can stream Ray Charles’ “I’m Busted”.

What intrigues me about the study isn’t the obvious finding but how industry trends toward software as a service (SaaS) models can help nonprofits deal with the dilemma.  Rather than buying software in shrink-wrap off the shelf at your local office supply store and installing it on your computer, software as a service leaves the software with the provider and you access it over the web.  Undoubtedly, you and your nonprofit already use some SaaS options.  If you are a Non-Profit Soapbox client, you definitely do since all you need to update your website is a handy dandy browser that connects to the software we house and update on our servers.

There are at least five reasons why this is trend helps combat the finding of the Hopkins study.  As for the sixth I’ll tentatively toss out, I’m down with any and all comments that enlighten me as to its validity.

1) Reduces hardware costs

Software as a service means more software in the cloud and less software on your computer.  The less software on your computer, the less you need to expect from your machine.  That lowers the price point of new hardware and extends the life of old hardware.  Have an old machine without enough horsepower to effectively run Adobe Photoshop?  Pop open a browser and tackle that image alteration with Pixlr or any number of other online options.

2) Reduces staff time invested in upkeep

Software has updates that need to be run on machines.  That requires someone running those updates and standardizing versions across computers.  Software as a service models eliminate that because the software doesn’t live on your machines.  Case in point: when PICnet pushes the latest Non-Profit Soapbox release next week that will add some great new features for Soapbox 2, your site will automatically have the new functionality ready to be used as you wish.

3) Pay as you go to use what you need

Initial cost of many software as a service models is generally the monthly fee you will normally pay, reducing the initial out-of-pocket expense and flattening out the cost curve over time.  And services scale to allow you to gradually increase your use over time also on a more graduated cost curve and fitting more neatly into annual budget cycles.

4) Nonprofit-friendly pricing from various SaaS providers

This is a trend we love to see: great services sold at a reduced rate to nonprofits – or given away for free to nonprofits.  And while free or reduced priced software could always be come by before, the SaaS model makes it easier to systematize discounts and removes barriers to your nonprofit scoring a deal.  From big boys like Google and Salesforce to elegant tools that are more targeted like Wufoo‘s form solution, plenty of SaaS models (heart) nonprofits.

5) Free options

Some software as a service providers don’t care that you’re a nonprofit.  They just give theirs tools away for free regardless.  While some are worth exactly what you pay, many – like Pixlr.com noted above – are just plain groovy, depending on your needs.

That’s five benefits.  Here’s the tentative sixth that I’ll leave up to you to assess the validity of:

6) Easier to find funding from willing donors?

With the monthly pricing model associated with software as a service models and their pay-for-what-you-need approach, is it easier to fund software as a service costs through donor funds if there is a clear, definite use of that service for purpose of a given program activity?

To put it another way, can software as a service costs be viewed less as overhead and more as program costs?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 5th, 2011 at 1:17 am and is filed under Non-Profit Soapbox, nptech, Salesforce.com. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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