The challenge of building a technology team in non-profit organisations

Technology's role in the non-profit sector is increasing and there is a need to help the nonprofit community think creatively about technology. (Image: PxHere)
Technology's role in the non-profit sector is increasing and there is a need to help the nonprofit community think creatively about technology. (Image: PxHere)

The usage of software and technology in non-profits is increasing. Non-profits use software for general purposes like office tool, video conferencing, excel, etc. But there are solutions available that are specific to the sector (customisable products). Else, they can be custom made for an organisation. Acquiring or developing them requires access to software development professionals. There are various ways in which the organisations can go about it.

  1. Hire external software service provider for software project execution
  2. Do long term partnership with a software service provider
  3. Hire senior technology person in-house and do one of 1 or 2 for junior people, or hire junior technology people in-house and do one of 1 or 2 for senior people
  4. Develop in-house software team

To help you decide what is the right choice for you, lets us lay down a few fundamental issues that have a bearing on it and how it impacts the outcome. 

It is found that software teams understand less about your non-profit ecosystem, organisation's context, and their requirements - since they often do not work for non-profits. It is common to hear from non-profits that communicating requirements and expectations is one of the biggest challenges.

A common complaint is - "they (software people) just don't understand what we are saying and we don't understand what they tell us". Needless to say, this leads to unsatisfactory outcomes. This drives non-profits towards seeking to develop in-house software teams as a solution. The logic is right but the conclusion is not. Let us see why.

Talented software professionals like working in teams where they can learn from each other about technology, design, etc. They also prefer a working culture suited for technologists. We cannot explain what this culture means, as it would take up a lot of space. But the key is that this culture is unique and is not easy to re-create/replicate in small embedded teams within large non-technology organisations. 

Hence when non-profits try to create in-house teams, the inability to hire the right skills, high attrition rates, short tenures etc - plague them. There is also the issue of compensation, which is well known and plays an important role too. Many organisations which have tried, find it extremely difficult to keep a stable team in house. However, exceptions do exist.

So what should organisations do? Before we get to that it is worth reminding that the need for software teams is a second-order question. The first-order question is - do you need your own software built or can you use a product already available or customise one. Even if one customises an existing product, the demand for having a technical team reduces significantly. With that dealt with, let us get back to the question at hand - what should organisations do, if they do need a software team.

We believe that - partnering with software organisations that have a good understanding of the social sector is a sustainable long term approach. One can offload the problem of developing a technology culture and competence to the partner - who can focus on that part. Please also note that we are referring to partner, not a provider. A partnership most importantly develops an understanding of your organisation within the people of the software organisation.

Finally, what about the other hybrid approach mentioned in point 3? We reckon that in theory, it is easier to have an in-house senior person working with the external software team. But this runs the risk of a single point of failure which one needs to reconcile with. Lack of continuity can be quite challenging especially if the technology is strategic to your organisation.

Conclusion

Professionals like doing work they find meaningful. Finding meaning is usually not an issue in the social sector. But professionals also seek fulfilment from their work which they get by applying themselves fully and constantly getting better at what they do. Meaningful work without fulfilment is insufficient and is not sustainable.

A software provider can afford to assemble a larger group of people, in which people can be inspired and learn from each other, as it serves multiple organisations. This also provides an opportunity for people to work on different problems - which will be difficult working in a single non-profit.

 

Vivek Singh is Co-founder of Samanvay Research and Development Foundation. He has over two decades of experience in the software industry as a technologist, consultant, and product manager - mostly at ThoughtWorks. He has considerable experience in developing software products and technology solutions for NGOs and governments. 

This article has been republished with permission from Samanvay Foundation. View the original here.

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