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NTEN recently released a new book, Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders, with advice from top experts in the nonprofit technology field on how to smartly use technology to help an organization grow and meet its mission. What better time for us to share additional advice and success stories on the topic from nonprofits in the community? Higher Achievement, whose mission is focused on academic achievement for underserved middle school children, has been preparing for major growth and decided to make a substantial technology investment in order to meet their expansion needs.
Rachel Gwatley, Higher Achievement's Chief of Programs, put together the brief case study below, so other nonrprofits may benefit from their experience. She also shares:
I think the most important thing that other nonprofits can learn from our experience with these projects is not to be afraid to invest in infrastructure or internal capacity, because it pays dividends in the long run. The key is figuring out what investments are targeted at advancing the organization’s mission—in our case, data drives so much of what we do, how we do it, and how we measure our progress that investing heavily in a top-notch data system was a natural fit. So often, nonprofits skimp on the internal stuff because we want to direct as much money as possible into our direct services. Smart internal investments enable the organization to expand its services and impact (and this argument can really resonate with funders!).
Technology to Help a Nonprofit Expandby Rachel Gwatley
Over the past several years, Higher Achievement has been preparing for and executing a transformation into a national organization with affiliates that deliver the program to different regions, to serve more motivated middle school students in our rigorous out-of-school time program. The decision to expand as a wholly owned organization required that we build systems that allow us to monitor quality, share information and interact efficiently and collaboratively to maintain connections across affiliates and with the national office. As Higher Achievement worked to build organizational capacity for expansion, we made two significant investments in technology: a new management information system to capture and report data about our program participants, volunteers, and alumni; and an intranet designed to foster collaboration and share best practices. These systems have become major parts of the platform on which our transformation is built.
The Management Information SystemThe management information system, called ISIS, is a custom-built data center, critical for an organization like Higher Achievement with a laser-focus on measuring outcomes and results. There are many benefits to the system. For our program participants (called scholars), we can input and track grades, test scores, school and program attendance, progress through the program curriculum, skills acquisition, high school investigation and application, and other key information. The ability to report on any piece of information for any size group tells us instantly how well we are meeting our mission for an individual scholar, at one particular program Center, or across the entire organization. As the program spreads outside of the DC metro region, ISIS will be a critical tool for national staff to monitor key program metrics at each affiliate, allowing us to target national support where it is most needed.
MIS ChallengesInitially, a big challenge for ISIS development was the several months of staff time, discussion, and planning needed to design exactly what we wanted the system to do, reconciling the system with every aspect of the program we needed to include. Researching and selecting an appropriate vendor to build and maintain it was also a challenge, along with the significant associated costs. Now that the system has launched we must invest time and energy in testing each component and training staff to use it effectively. Ongoing challenges will include building and maintaining the partnerships with each school district we serve to make sure we can collect the outside data we need to be effective, and maintaining data integrity through ongoing staff training and data input monitoring.
The IntranetHigher Achievement’s intranet is built on a Microsoft Office SharePoint Server platform and provides a home for the codified policies and procedures and key information that are the framework for every aspect of the organization’s work, from the board structure to how to run a Higher Achievement Center to the staff phone and birthday list. The intranet is also a space where each staff member stores their day-to-day work, ensuring that staff members with similar roles can easily collaborate, learn from each other, and share best practices. The intranet allows us to share instantly the announcements, updates, meetings, and other workings that keep us unified and connected as an organization.
Intranet ChallengesAs we develop the intranet and make it useful to all staff going forward, two challenges arise. The first is ensuring that all staff are adequately trained to get the most possible out of the system, especially given people’s various levels of comfort with technology. Second is the time and “prodding” needed to transition the entire organization from a public drive folder system to this new intranet, with its new structure and protocols.
ConclusionExpanding and replicating quality programs and results is more than just a matter of replicating activities. It needs a solid infrastructure where board, management and staff can have a mechanism to look at data and make sound decisions. It also requires strategic approach to building systems that ensure quality control and maintenance, and provides the mechanism that allows for best procedures and effective practices to emerge. Higher Achievement has invested in these systems to ensure a strong framework for future growth.