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Do small non-profits get IT?

After 5 years of working with Australian Canoeing I thought I would look back on what has worked for us and what has not in our provision of Information Technology .

Australian Canoeing is the organisation in charge of paddle sports in Australia. It has between 6,000 and 8,000 members via its 6 affiliated State organisations.

I have been in charge of the information technology needs of the organisation for the last 5 years and I feel that I am only now beginning to understand the unique challenges that come with the job. This is partly because I am only employed part-time (of which only part of my time is focused on IT) but also partly because of the diverse needs of an organisation that not only has 6 State affiliates but also has 10 different canoeing disciplines to look after.

Failures

Moving to Online Conferencing

I thought this one would be a no-brainer. I looked at gotomeeting and saw that it was a cheap video conferencing tool with iphone apps, good online documentation, screen sharing, fall back phone numbers in case the internet was not working. #fail I tried for 6 months to get adoption of this but every meeting came back with stories about how someone could not log on or it was not set up properly.

I could not set aside enough time from my job to help people to resolve these issues. The problem was that the issues were not with the video conferencing tool itself but with people’s IT knowledge. In my experience, helping people with those sorts of issues is a black hole of time for little discernible benefit. In the end we cancelled our subscription and went back to teleconferencing. There were just bigger issues to deal with.

Online registration

This was another item that I thought would have fantastic adoption but has not really taken off yet. I think when we first released it we did not do enough of a “hard sell”. Membership is our organisation’s “bread and butter” and if it grows, we grow and so making it as easy as possible to become a member makes sense.

I am still not sure of the right strategy for this but I would like to have tried mandating that all clubs must provide online registration and then setting this up for them. I am sure we would have had a backlash but I think we would be in a better position now.

Successes

Sprint Regatta Results System

We have been incredibly lucky with our RP7 software and online portal developed by Stephen Croot. It was primarily created for rowing but Stephen has adapted it fantastically for Sprint.

It is everything I wish all our projects had:

  • fantastic and conscientious support
  • reasonably priced
  • exactly the features we need

I know that this sort of perfect match is not always or even often possible but it does restore faith that there are options out there that can be a really positive experience. It has also taught me not be afraid of committing to a one person company in case they quit the business but to embrace a good solution when and if it comes along.

Putting everything in the cloud

We are a small office and the less manual work we have to do the better. We have managed to automate our membership card process and also the email out of most of our education certificates giving us more time to focus on projects.

We have also recently moved to google apps as our email provider. This caused a few issues with the transition of emails and the different mail clients people use but now, all our emails are always backed-up and if a person leaves the organisation we can provide continuity by maintaining their emails.

Thoughts for the future

As simple as possible

I know this will come as no surprise but without a significant IT training budget everything needs to be kept as simple as possible. What is a surprise (to me at least) is the level of simplicity required.

Without having a step-by-step guide to everything and

Change for all

When it comes time for a change make sure it happens quickly and that you change it for everyone.

I have been stuck supporting legacy systems for some states because I listened to their feedback and wanted to do the best thing for them. This appeasement made my life easier in the short-term but in the medium to long term it has caused extra work and hassle for both me and the State organisations.

Email is the only worthwhile support

I know that it is great to hear people’s voice on the phone and to be reassured that the problem on your screen is not your fault but it is incredibly hard to diagnose a problem on the phone and very time-consuming as one issue often leads to another and then a question about their daughter ipad. The important thing you have to build up a trust that a person’s issue will be responded to quickly via email otherwise they will always resort to calling you for urgent matters.

Conclusion

Without a large budget and with a small staff, IT provision is a struggle. However if you target certain areas such as reducing manual processing and adapt to new technologies quickly you can make massive gains quickly.

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