Building an IT Department for the Third Sector

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The Catalyst

I sit as the Secretary to the board of the PEI Home and School Federation, an umbrella organization representing local home and school associations in more than 50 schools across Prince Edward Island.

Many of our local home and school associations maintain websites of some sort to provide information to parents and the public. Because our members are entirely run by volunteers, these websites tend to be ad hoc projects, often run by a tech-savvy parent. Because involvement in a home and school is necessarily time-limited -- students move on to other schools -- when the tech-savvy parent moves on, the upkeep of the website dies, and the local home and school is forced to start over or do without a website. Even with the tech-savvy parents in place, there's wide variation in capabilities from local to local -- some associations maintain simply blogs, whereas others manage school lunch programs, or run online auctions.

At the PEI Home and School Federation we've talked about working to solve this problem by offering access to pooled technical support, design and website hosting, but as we considered this, we realized that, even with only 50 member schools, such a project was beyond our means, and would ultimately suffer from the same problem affecting our members: funding would end, or staff would turn over, and the pooled resource would suffer or disappear, leaving home and schools worse off than when we started.

We realized that we share many of the same IT challenges -- from websites to basic technical support -- that other non-profit "third sector" organizations beyond the home and school movement do, and decided it was wiser to pursue a broader solution to this challenge.

The Problem

I have worked with non-profit "third sector" organizations for more than 25 years on projects involving technology, information and networks. I've built systems to allow community radio stations to catalogue their record collections, databases to allow crafts producers access to supply sources, and innumerable websites to allow organizations to communicate internally and externally. I've done technical support ranging from answering basic help desk questions through to specifying, purchasing and installing web systems.

The threads that run through all of this work are:

  1. Inefficient hardware and software purchase: Organizations buy equipment retail, and don't have the capacity to determine the best hardware and software for their tasks, often resulting in under-buying or over-buying.
  2. Lack of technical support: Organizations are often entirely without access to quality technical support. What to do when the printer breaks, the Internet stops working or you want to build a simple database to track something? Often there's no support at all for tasks like this, leaving staff and volunteers to pay for support, waste resources hunting for a solution, or to take advantage of generous nerds.
  3. Lack of system design expertise: The Internet has resulted in dramatic changes in the way we collect, manage and share information, and brought tasks which used to be expensive and complicated within the realm of small organizations. But this doesn't mean that systems plan themselves: databases, websites, surveys, email lists, and other information management tasks can benefit greatly from knowledgeable systems design expertise. Which is usually completely absent from non-profits, and not possible to purchase in the marketplace because of scale or cost.
  4. Lack of corporate memory: Non-profit IT projects are often funded as short-term projects; when the project funding ends, the project ends, along with the information it gathered and organized; there is a seemingly endless graveyard of abandoned information-gathering projects -- databases, resource libraries, etc. -- in organizations that are no longer maintained and gradually fading out of usefulness.

The Solution

An "IT Department for the Third Sector" is proposed as a solution to all or some of the above problems. Such an organization would play a "service centre" role similar to that played by organizations like Central 1 Credit Union or Prince Edward Island Environmental Network but for a wider range of organizations in the third sector, or perhaps a digital version of the Voluntary Resource Centre.

Such a body could be a non-profit or cooperative organization, or could be a for-profit company engaged under a sector-wide fee-for-service contract, and could provide services included but not limited to the following:

  1. Website and database hosting and management.
  2. Day-to-day technical support ("my printer stopped working," "my browser won't open").
  3. Implementation of day-to-day office best practices (security, backup, access control).
  4. Systems design and planning consulting ("we need to keep track of donations," "we need a web database of our members that the public can search").
  5. Pooled purchase of hardware and software.
  6. A venue for sharing expertise and user stories ("actually, nobody at all visited our website until...").

The Benefits

Being able to access dedicated shared, professional resources and services focused entirely on the third sector could result in:

  1. More efficient use of operating dollars: organizations don't have to waste time and resources in the market finding the right hardware, software and systems for their tasks, and staff are not shackled by DIY technical support.
  2. More efficient use of project dollars: every new ad hoc project doesn't have to spend time and money coming up with an ad hoc IT solution.
  3. More efficient use of funding across the sector: many third sector IT projects shares similar IT demands; pooling resources and expertise means that no organization is left to reinvent the wheel, but, instead, can draw from a menu of non-profit-focused solutions and best practices.
  4. Financial savings to organizations (bulk purchasing, cost savings from pooling resources).

The Risks

  1. The experience in the Province of PEI's "IT Shared Services" project, which saw a pooling of IT resources into a single corporate entity, has not been entirely positive: there have been efficiencies realized, and planning has become more rational and systematic, but there has also been significant client frustration from the transition from dedicated to shared support resources ("we could be assigned anyone; we used to know the guy," "I tried calling the help desk, but the person who needed to fix my problem was out at Brookvale helping somebody else").
  2. Without secure, long-term funding, such an arrangement could leave third sector organization more vulnerable if the organization disappeared, and with it the access to the expertise and shared resources.
  3. IT support is expensive, time consuming, and hard to do well; if the organization was not well-funded it would run the risk of being staffed by people inadequate skills, which would likely frustrate rather than help third sector clients.
  4. There may be resistance to the notion of a shared non-profit resource from the private sector, feeling that its market is threatened.