John Kenyon has been helping nonprofits understand and benefit from technology for more than two decades. Before becoming the education program manager for the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) in February, he was a well-traveled consultant and speaker. He was a contributing author on “Effective Online Communications” in the book Managing Technology to Meet your Mission (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2009. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of Nonprofit Marketing 360 and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: How did you get started consulting with nonprofits?
JOHN: I started volunteering with (then known as Compumentor), who connected people with technology skills with nonprofits. I started volunteering to get to know nonprofits, as they are much different animals than for-profits. That grew into a consulting position with a nonprofit in San Francisco, where I started building a technology-consulting practice with a group of affiliates. Then I worked for Global GroundSpring.org as their training and consulting manager. I went around the country teaching nonprofits how to use the Internet. I was also hired by the University of San Francisco to teach the technology course for their Masters of Nonprofit Administration degree program. All that melded my experience with nonprofits and technology and being an educator.
MKC: I’m guessing when you started doing all this 20 years ago, the technology was something quite different.
JOHN: Yes it was! It was Netscape Navigator! Nonprofits were just starting to think about how to use the Internet. Email campaigns were happening, but pretty haphazardly. In 2005, I think, Michael Stein and I wrote an article about a decade of online fundraising. But a lot of people had not even begun to do it by then.
MKC: What are the biggest tech challenges for nonprofits these days?
JOHN: I’d say there are two big challenges. One is planning well. Technology can be both expensive and confusing. Good strategic planning is the way to make the most out of limited resources. But I’m still trying to improve the skills of strategic-planning consultants when it comes to including technology in strategic plans. Technology isn’t something that sits over in the corner and one person uses it − everyone needs to be familiar with it. It should be a part of every strategic plan, but we’re not really there yet. For many organizations, just getting to complete a strategic technology plan is a great first step! Then they can move toward integrating it.
I think the other challenge is the one everyone in the nonprofit sector deals with: technology is a moving train: new hardware, new software. A lot of my work has been around social media lately. From Friendster toto Facebook – and now it’s and Tumblr – it’s challenging to keep up with it. Leaders need to ask what it is they need to know to be effective strategically, and understand what they don’t need to know.
People who work in nonprofits already know 80-85% of what they need to know to be successful with technology! They know about the culture, the politics, the staffing, the funding environment – all those things that affect how a nonprofit should think about technology strategically. Then they can turn to experts and NTEN for the nitty-gritty tech stuff. Understand that you can make smart technology decisions even if technology is your least favorite thing in the world. It’s about making good decisions for your organization, then simply applying the right tools. It’s not about the tools, but the process that the tools can support.
MKC: It seems that the fast-moving nature of all this is almost antithetical to any real planning.
JOHN: That’s a good observation, but I would say it’s not quite accurate, because while the technologies and tools change, your focus and your goals for your nonprofit don’t change nearly as quickly, even as you make adjustments. The most important thing about technology solutions is that they be appropriate: appropriate to your mission, appropriate to your human skills, appropriate to your resources. Nonprofits know what they are trying to do. So the question about whether to be on Pinterest or Tumblr is not the right question. The right question is, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to get people to come to events? Are you trying to get them to donate? Are you trying to raise awareness? Then you use the tools you need that will help you achieve your goals.
MKC: What is the value for nonprofits of joining NTEN? Who in the nonprofit world should be a member?
JOHN: NTEN is the professional community for nonprofit and technology folks. We have an annual conference and a wide variety of educational programs. We’re just a great hub for the community.
I think it’s an enormous value for any nonprofit to join NTEN. When it comes to thinking and talking about technology, one of your best sources is other people in the community. Yes there are experts and consultants on certain issues and technologies, like myself. But actually to talk to another executive director who has struggled with your same database issue or another event manager also trying to decide which online registration tool works best is really so helpful. There’s no substitute for talking with someone who walks in your shoes and struggles with the issues you have. One of the wonderful things about NTEN is that we are facilitators who catalyze conversations about these issues. There’s an amazing back catalogue of webinars, for example. If you want to know about search engine optimization or website accessibility − whatever your topic is − there’s a wholeof materials for you from experts bringing answers to your questions.
In terms of who should be members, there are many kinds of folks who benefit from membership. One is the executive director because it’s so important for her or him to have a handle on these issues, to include them in their planning and to be thinking about them while steering the ship. Then of course IT folks but also fundraisers., marketing/communications folks and program staff benefit enormously. Sometimes for a lot of nonprofits the IT person is the ‘accidental techie;’ there’s not a dedicated person. So they need all the support they can get.
MKC: One of the things I have heard off-and-on over the last few years is that blogging is dead, it’s past its time. What do you think?
JOHN: I’m not sure if they’re talking about certain tools or platforms, or the blogging itself. It used to be that a blog was separate from a website, but now for most organizations it’s just one component of a website. I think some of the basic functionality of it continues to be important − a place where people can have a conversation. It doesn’t need to be long articles (maybe a couple of paragraphs and an image). Blogs still offer a conversation piece where people can follow along.
I totally understand that conversations happen in a number of places – onon Facebook, on Twitter and other places. So I think as a standalone tool, a blog’s not sufficient any more. You need to have a website of which a blog is a part, as well as using other channels. Where I think nonprofits still need to evolve and grow is in having the conversation. Not just talk but listen. One thing a blog helps you do is listen.
MKC: I know we’re not interested in ‘shiny-object syndrome,’ but what is out there that’s coming up that nonprofits need to be aware of?
JOHN: One of my clients asked me this very thing over lunch last week! One thing I keep hearing more about and seeing more evidence about is mobile. If folks are keeping on top of their website analytics, every week they are seeing an increase in the number of folks accessing their site via a mobile device.
A couple of things go along with that change. One is creating a mobile version of your site that is a pared down version and designed for mobile devices. The other is to be aware of the kinds of people using mobile devices and how they use them. A few years ago there were protests around issues of immigrant rights that activated a lot of the Hispanic youth. That population and others might not have high-speed Internet or computers, but they do have cell phones − which relates to youth generally and communicating via text. Just as nonprofits wanted to be collecting email addresses in the late 1990s, we think today they want to be collecting mobile addresses and mobile phone numbers and asking people if they want to be contacted by text: “Do you want to hear from us by mail, by email, by phone, or by text?” That requires you to think about what that means and what you say. You can’t just text, “Donate to us!” because that’s too immediate and personal, and thus off-putting. So there are at least two aspects to mobile: the mobile website and keeping in touch with people via their mobile devices.
You can follow John at Twitter @jakenyon, Facebook, or at NTEN. John is co-author with Michael Stein of The eNonprofit: a guide to ASPs, Internet services and online software.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.
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