Don’t call me Webmaster

Helping the community

As part of being an active community member, I am occasionally called upon to help neighborhood organizations because of my technology background. I’ve done a lot of things in the technology space and there is even more that I have not done, but as a professional, I’m happy to assist.

I’m fortunate to have been significantly involved with my church, my kid’s school PTA, and a local travel soccer club. With each of these nonprofit organizations, my role primarily is focused on aspects of Information Technology. I serve this role because I am comfortable in the space, and hope to avoid selling wrapping paper from door-to-door, running the registration table for the 5K, or selling raffle tickets.

I’m also fortunate because these disparate nonprofits are a good representative sample of nonprofit diversity. One has considerable budget and paid staff. Another is entirely volunteers, and has a moderate budget. And finally the other has a tight budget, paid staff, and the board is all volunteers. The missions are all are quite different, but the technology needs are surprisingly similar.

I’d like to make the case that small community nonprofits should value IT alongside other governance roles and have a dedicated IT position to improve operations and manage risks.

Can you be our ‘Webmaster?’

The dreaded question that most folks with technology background is: ‘Can you be our Webmaster?’ This is question is asked because websites are generally the most high-profile online presence of most nonprofits. To the lay person, the mystery of being a ‘Webmaster’ is many-fold; they have no idea what to do or where to start when creating or maintaining a website.

Enough Internet lore has focused on the term ‘Webmaster’ to mean the final owner and arbiter of everything online. In the bad old days, creating a website was either an arduous or expensive proposition. But now with services like Wix, SquareSpace, and others, it’s quite approachable – yet still mysterious. However, the technology that an organization needs to operate effectively today goes far beyond the website.

So when the President of the Board asks you to be the Webmaster, she really means: can you create/manage the website, all content on the site, coordinate the social media footprint, write and send newsletters, handle associated video / audio vendors, administer email accounts and document sharing, facilitate electronic payments, and finally: be the purchasing agent for all technology vendors.

And that’s if you’re dealing with a small nonprofit. Inevitably each nonprofit will then have additional specialized service needs like podcasts, donor management, e-commerce sites, and program registration.

Oh by the way, you’re also on the hook for Information Security. So keep your Wordpress site up to date with software updates or risk becoming a hacked pirate warez site (or worse).

Today’s nonprofits depend on technology

What most small community nonprofits do not grasp – but should – is that there is a whole host of technology-related functions the organization needs to operate effectively.

Without donations or funding the organization cannot function - that is an accepted fact. But what if member updates only came via snail mail and not emails, newsletters, or Facebook? Imagine if all the important phone numbers were contained in a Rolodex sitting on a desk.

Face it, without technology, most organizations will screech to a halt. Here’s a representative sample of important technologies:

The foundations:

The money collection:

The communications:

The Social Medias (and creating content for each):

The Information Security aspects

Another critical but often-overlooked technology skill is the ability to effectively negotiate with technology vendors to ensure high value investment of dollars.

Something is missing…

Common roles for non-profit organizations include president, vice presidents, committee chairs, maybe communications, a secretary possibly, and of course a treasurer.
Enough shenanigans have happened where nefarious board members embezzle money for their own profit, that it’s very common to have dedicated board members or committees and oversight controls dedicated to managing money. This makes a lot of sense: money management without strong checks and balances tempts many a volunteer.

What almost always seems to be lacking is a comprehensive IT position. Often, there is no centralized person managing the IT footprint and various board/committee members sign-up to the latest SaaS-du-jour to run surveys, sell tickets, run auctions. Total chaos and confusion from the members, a nightmare for budget management, and great potential for wasting money or over-spending on technology related costs.

If IT gets screwed up, everyone in the organization will be less effective or blocked entirely from accomplishing the mission. Without an IT person, there is no single point of contact for other volunteers or committees to coordinate ad-hoc or one-time needs such as surveys, or other temporary technology needs. No one establishes balanced policies for Information Security to protect the organization from malicious online threats.

In short, the dependency upon technology and technology services is for a nonprofit is so important that, just like income and expenses, a nonprofit cannot effectively function without technology.

You Need an IT Position

Some recommendations for small and community nonprofits to incorporate an IT discipline:

Establish an official board or volunteer position: Make a formal position equivalent to other board positions. The position should be filled just like other board volunteers – whether that be elections, appointments, or other mechanisms. Call it Director of IT, Chief Technology Officer, or Technology Coordinator, but please don’t call it ‘Webmaster.’

Define the scope of the IT responsibility: If this is a new function, allow the IT individual to define the scope of the role based on the organization’s needs. Document it for the future. Communicate it clearly to the organization so, for example, everyone understands that the Director of IT maintains the technology platforms and access to it, but is not in charge of generating or managing the content. (That’s the communications person’s job!) Nobody likes it when the secretary starts staging rogue fundraising events, so why should he be allowed to spend money on technology services without approval?

Build in a default term of service and term limits: From personal experience, it is important to recognize that volunteers will come and go. This is the same regardless if the position is President or Director of IT. If the Director of IT position is not formalized, then too often the organization assumes that one person can keep doing the job indefinitely. Especially if the person doing the job is introverted or unwilling to complain about the excessive load – creating the potential for burnout. I suggest making the default term equivalent to other board members for consistency.

Also please establish a term limit. Not only do people get sick of managing a website for eight years, but usually websites need significant rework after 3 or 4 years. Introducing new talent and energy into this role is as critical as ensuring you don’t keep the treasurer or president around longer than needed. New perspectives are critical to embrace new technologies and paradigms such as mobile phone support and in-home virtual assistants.

Have provisions for transition: When a newly elected treasuer is onboarded, usually there are many financial spreadsheets available for her to review. The same expectation should be required for the Director of IT. The position should be expected to maintain documentation, perhaps utilize a password manager tool, and make it easy for her successor.

Value your Director of IT: Often, technology tasks are accomplished in the background, with lots of preparation and testing, and deployed seamlessly without user impact (while unsuccessful tasks are highly visible accompanied by numerous user complaints). Thus highly competent Directors of IT are, almost without exception, unsung. The best organizations don’t abuse the Director of IT by asking her to do things they could do themselves, or things out of scope; and after big efforts like incorporation of a new function or a website refresh, they publicly thank their Director of IT. Praise is free and easy, so why not give her a shoutout?

Going forward

I hope more small nonprofits take this advice to heart. Establishing an IT position offers interesting opportunities for technology-savvy members of the community, helps manage the risks of the organization, improves operations, strengthens the reputation and brand of the organization, and allows it to accelerate its fundamental mission.