Supporting the Strategic IT Journey: Advice for Leaders

As financial institutions and new giving platforms provide enticing ways for donors to actualize their impact strategies, community foundations are facing increased competition for donor dollars. Understanding the strategic interplay of people, processes, the technology tools available, and the tradeoffs associated with pursuing one approach over another, is now more critical than ever in ensuring the resilience of community foundations. How can you remain relevant, achieve impact, and continue to define your unique value to donors?

Grantbook recently partnered with the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) to write the research report Strategic Roadmap for IT in Community Foundations—we interviewed industry leaders across North America to better understand the technology architecture, processes, and team structures that enable community foundations to realize the strategic potential of IT. By following this roadmap, you will find steps to evolve and elevate the IT function in your own foundation, taking it far beyond the days of provisioning mice and keyboards, to a time and place where IT is squarely at the strategy table, enhancing your communities and meeting the considerable challenges head on.

Read the full report here, and start building your own Strategic IT Roadmap. 

While this advice is geared toward leaders in community foundations, leaders at all grantmaking organizations have a pivotal role to play in championing this journey. From our conversations, we’ve seen and heard key ways you can channel your energy to successfully integrate and leverage technology in your organization to activate your mission and vision. While it may take some practice, rest assured you are not alone in this process and that there is a community with you on this path.

Engage With Technology 

While asking IT for advice and solutions can solve tactical challenges, working alongside IT to explore the full potential of technology and learn about trends will equip you to be better informed as you make the crucial strategic decisions that help maintain the mission and values of your community foundation. Leaders well versed in technology can understand not only what will fuel their foundation now, but can also look around the corner to take advantage of what future donor preferences and competitive landscapes may bring. 

As expressed so fully in The Path to Community Leadership Report, community foundations see a role for themselves as knowledge hubs and connectors: “we describe community leadership not as a destination, but as a journey, a journey that involves ongoing change and organizational and systems development in response to the unique community context.” 

While some less tech-savvy leaders may shy away from this opportunity due to privacy challenges around collecting and keeping grantee data, a leader who is informed about the emergence of data trusts and system integrations may understand that this risk can be mitigated through legal agreements, tools and governance structures that are already being used in government and private sectors. This is a key example of how being informed can open the options and possibilities in front you in your next round of strategic planning.

Invite IT to the Strategy Table 

In many foundations, inviting IT into conversations about donor development or grants strategies may seem novel, but a technology lens can be very useful in moving conversations and plans along. Often, when team members are planning, they’ll ask “Wouldn’t it be great if….” or “If this were possible, we could…”. With a technology perspective at the table, your team could be armed with answers to these questions, or offered tool solutions for bringing these ideas to life. 

For example, some foundations may be limited in their ability to see live statistics or dashboards about development performance. Having technology at the table may reveal recent technology options that allow teams to easily and automatically pull data into a business intelligence tool to create custom charts and dashboards. The next time your Board asks a question about performance, wouldn’t it be great to pull up a dashboard to show them an answer, instead of saying, “Give me a few weeks to get back to you?” 

Advocate for the Importance of IT 

Leading by doing is also key in helping your foundation move along the strategic IT roadmap. Encouraging an organization-wide championing of IT involves introducing the IT perspective across decision-making and planning. It also includes encouraging team members to learn more about the technology they use and to be curious about its full potential. Encourage your teams to involve IT in more varied projects to help shift perceptions of these roles as only being there to help when someone forgets their password or needs a new monitor. 

This means that you’ll also need to advocate for more resources for IT-related projects and roles in your organization. Your teams are great partners in helping define the business case for these investments, but ultimately, your supportive and blue-sky voice will be key in convincing other decision-makers to boldly invest. 

Champion a Learning Mindset 

Across roles in community foundations, we learned that when individuals in the organization are invited to make recommendations, they must be able to justify the risks and clearly articulate the benefits. Whether it is a CTO explaining a decision to a Board, or an IT Manager defending the need for a project to a CEO, everyone needs to feel comfortable and informed when making a decision about technology investments. Placing a bet by investing in technology maturity is difficult, but regardless of role or position, everyone is in the same sea trying to navigate to success. So be kind to yourself and to your team in this pursuit of strategic IT. It will be a learning journey undoubtedly. But, if you are able to balance an open mindset with dedicated fostering of a learning culture, you will be able to make gains. 

While the earlier phases of this roadmap have more obvious benefits with reduced risk—moving from local office productivity tools to GSuite or Office365 is a limited time and cost investment with immediate benefits—the later stages, however, are more difficult to navigate. A grantmaking marketplace or redesigned donor portal may not reveal benefits until a year or two down the road, and while making your web presence more accessible may result in anecdotal benefits, it’s difficult to connect to fund growth. 

As a leader, if you feel your organization is shy about strategic IT, focus first on some low risk and high reward projects. As your community foundation moves along, be sure to remind your team of these wins and use them as grounding examples of why bigger bets aren’t as scary and are worth the investment. Also, your team will inevitably make mistakes and bad bets along the way—learn to protect your teams in their exploration of technology to nurture a culture of experimentation and exploration. Some of the most mature organizations have leaned into this, shrinking risk by launching pilot projects to gauge success, rather than overly investing in lengthy business case analysis and cost justifications. This roadmap is a process of constantly learning, and looking for absolute certainty is not possible. 

Read the full report here, and start building your own Strategic IT Roadmap. 

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James Law's headshot

James Law

Director, Design & Foresight

Director, Design & Foresight

James Law has worked for 10 years in the social finance and social sectors, designing, exploring, and implementing technologies to help organizations activate mission and achieve impact.

He began working in lean non-profits, employing databases and constituent relationship management tools (CRM) to help track and aggregate data for land conservation and environmental protection. Moving into social finance, he managed the development of an application to administer community bonds and equity.

Moving to Grantbook in 2015, James dove head first into helping foundations—of all types—align on digital values, explore technology options, and select the best path forward. From there, he continued to explore solutions architecture and integrations, connecting best-in-class tools to meet the ideal needs of grantmakers, grantees, and all stakeholders. 

More recently James is investing in Grantbook’s use of service design tools—from personas to service blueprints—to increase resilience and reduce the risk of technology planning and adoption via human-centred thinking. He also helps rally and co-ordinate Grantbook’s new ideas and opportunities as philanthropy and technology change.