NCFY Reports

Affordable Technology for Nonprofits: Debunking the Myths

As the manager of computer training labs for the homeless, Jim Lynch used to make every effort to score free technology. Whenever he needed new hardware or software, he – like many other nonprofit managers – would tell himself, “I need to get this donated.”After spending many hours “hustling up” donations from hi-tech retailers, he’s since changed his mind. “If your time is worth anything, it makes more sense to raise the money and buy it,” says Lynch, now a director for TechSoup, a San Francisco nonprofit that supplies low-cost software to charities.If in-kind donations aren’t all they are cracked up to be, what should struggling nonprofits do when they need to replace their old computers, invest in new software, set up a wireless network, or create a database to track clients? We asked Lynch and Laura Quinn, executive director of Idealware, a website that offers articles and online seminars to help charities choose and use software, to debunk seven other nonprofit technology myths.HardwareMyth 1: “I need a computer with the latest bells and whistles.”“It’s been ten years since there’s been a major change in how computers function,” Lynch says. “You just don’t need the latest, greatest duo-core-whatever computer.” Three- to five-year-old used equipment will work just fine for several years at less cost.Myth 2: “I can find a good used computer on an online classified, like Craigslist.”Terrible idea, Lynch says. “You’ll get junk.”He recommends that nonprofits buy refurbished computers from authorized dealers–and make sure the machine has a warranty. While refurbishers may not offer all, or the latest, models, they offer discounts of half or more off the cost of a new computer.Myth 3: “A cheapo home computer will do just fine.”A commercial-, or business-, grade computer is sturdier and easier to upgrade, lasts longer, and can be used as a server—the central hub of a computing network—Lynch says.“Nonprofits operate their computers many hours a day,” he says. “You really need something that’s going to stand up to that.”SoftwareMyth 4: “I’ve got to upgrade to the newest version of software.”Not true if your computers have been around longer than most of your staff. “Older computers might not be able to run the latest software,” Lynch says. Find out what software will work on your machines before you make a purchase. Often, software is available online to convert newer versions of documents into older ones that your older computer will be able to read.Myth 5: “The cheaper the software, the better.”Not always, says Quinn, of Idealware. She recommends spending a little extra to get software that is easy to run, maintain and train staff to use.“If you’re looking for low-cost software, it doesn’t make sense to spend three months choosing it,” she says, or to lose hours trying to run software that doesn’t work well for your purposes.Free software like Google Analytics, a well-regarded online tool for analyzing the popularity of Web sites, can also be handy. But Quinn suggests thinking carefully before using “open source” software designed by a community of people, rather than by a for-profit organization.“Often open source software is by techies for techies,” Quinn says. “Unless you have somebody really intrepid on staff, it’s going to be complicated to get started, and there’s no vendor to support you.”Myth 6: “It’s better to use software that’s installed on my computer.”In fact, Quinn says, Web-based applications can be a good bargain for charities. Examples include E-Tapestry (a donor management tool) and Wild Apricots (a tool for managing Web sites, broadcasting e-mail, and accepting online payments). With Web-based software, one typically pays a monthly fee; some tools are free for smaller organizations.“As opposed to putting a big chunk of change down at the beginning, it’s a very predictable stream over time, and they also tend to save a lot of hassle in terms of time to set up and hardware costs,” Quinn says.IT SupportMyth 7: “A volunteer can fix my computer.”Volunteers are an engine of the nonprofit world. But, Lynch says, they might not always be available when you need them.“If your computer goes down, your mission goes down,” he says. “On mission critical stuff, you want someone who’ll show up.”He recommends using a referral system such as TechFinder to locate an IT professional who will do scheduled support on your computers. For instance, the tech person might charge a monthly fee to check for viruses every other week. 

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