The technology needs of the nonprofit sector are as varied as the causes and organizations they serve, but there’s some common ground, particularly when it comes to their need to collaborate, remain connected to employees and donors, and do more with less, especially with IT budgets.

Many nonprofit organizations have had to find ways to operate - i.e., grant writing and fundraising - despite limited staff and IT resources. Many have turned to the Web for assistance, be it through cloud-based solutions that allow the often-disparate workforce to stay better connected and work more efficiently, or even free solutions that help with day-to-day technology needs.

San Francisco-based TechSoup Global (www.techsoup.org) is an organization and online resource that provides nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, libraries, and community-based organizations free hardware, software and services. These information and communication technology donations are available alongside educational content, such as articles, webinars and community forums.

As of June, TechSoup Global has served more than 127,000 organizations, distributed more than $6.3 million in technology donations, and enabled nonprofit recipients to save more than $1.8 billion in IT expenses in 33 countries around the world, according to its Web site. TechSoup's corporate donors include tech giants Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, Symantec and Sage.

Heather Burton, director of product marketing for Sage's nonprofit solutions division, is familiar with the varied needs of nonprofits. Along with her role at Sage, Burton has been involved in NFP work for over 12 years both in full-time employment and as a volunteer. Most recently she served as president of the board of directors for an Austin, Texas-based literacy group called BookSpring.

She recognizes that how nonprofit groups receive funding determines what tools are important to them. However, there are some commonalities among them, particularly the need for Web-based solutions. In fact, Sage recently launched its own online community for nonprofit organizations, called the Sage Nonprofit Online Community, which at press time had approximately 1,000 users.

"At the end of the day [for most nonprofits], in order to count the money you need to get the money, and outreach tools and social media are definitely a curiosity. They know they need to go there, but they don't know now how to use it best," said Burton. "Most Web tools and simple content management software systems are so important. At some point, yes, they need an accounting system too, but they need e-mail and they need to build a Web site. Portals are also becoming very important to help collaborate."

Burton also sees a fast-rising trend among nonprofits to use more mobile devices, and stressed that Sage is looking to add mobility to its products. As an example, its Sage Millennium, a Web-based CRM donor management software used primarily by colleges and universities, hospitals, and arts organizations, has built-in mobility.

For the virtualization needs of nonprofits, Sage is offering its Sage MIP and Fundraising products in a hosted environment, while targeting smaller organizations with limited IT budgets through Sage Virtual Services.

NONPROFITS GOING MOBILE

U.K.-based Life Champions, a membership rewards and benefits company providing loyalty programs to nonprofit schools, charities, and social media groups, will soon have a presence in the U.S. - and therefore will need to expand its mobile capabilities.

The organization, which has a staff of 87, plans to grow its team to include field agents, and in order to address those additional mobile requirements, recently chose FinancialForce Accounting to support its membership sales initiative.

Life Champions' field agents will be equipped with iPads and will record new opportunities and leads directly in Salesforce CRM. Credit card payments can be processed and transacted immediately in FinancialForce Accounting.

The connection between FinancialForce Accounting and Salesforce will allow all activity to be completed through a single input by a field agent working remotely from an iPad. Life Champions can then have a real-time view of every new membership transaction, outstanding payments and balance sheet data, according to Life Champions president and chief executive Simon Stimpson.

"Our entire platform has been scaled to over 500 million accounts in multiple territories, and therefore needed the scalability and flexibility that FinancialForce Accounting delivers through its cloud-computing architecture," said Stimpson. "Our systems will manage over 1 million chosen causes, providing live reporting and visibility to enable us to amend campaigns on the fly. Providing real-time reporting and trigger-based integration to our marketing campaigns through social media and digital marketing channels will help us maintain our operational statistics."

Stimpson added that while the organization is still relatively young, use of cloud-based solutions will allow them to "compete on a world stage at a fraction of the cost," which, in turn, will provide sustainable revenues for its chosen causes.

The larger, more-established American Lung Association has similar needs to Life Champions and other nonprofits, in that it is looking more to Web- and mobile-based tools to meet the needs of its staff and better serve its constituents.

Based in New York, the ALA has offices in Alaska and Hawaii, and vice president of data and technology Rusty Burwell maintains that ensuring that his workforce stays connected is a high priority. As such, the association has given smart phones to all senior and mid-level employees.

"The immediacy that smart phones allow has come to roost for many nonprofits, not just us," said Burwell. "No one in our organization had one even three years ago. With smart phones, the connectivity tool allows them to be where they need to be and stay connected and do some basic work. I tend to look at technology tools as productivity tools, and ask what can we put in employees' hands that will take stress from the work they do or make them more effective."

The ALA also uses Sage MIP, and began doing so approximately four years ago when it decided to start pulling its accounting data together. Today, it uses the hosted version.

"We moved to [hosted Sage MIP] successfully and it has had a significant impact on our business. Having the Web-based access meant that people would never have anyone in the finance department outside of the central office," said Burwell. "The ease of use of Web-based systems brought them connectivity they didn't have before. CFOs used to spend too much time at the office; now they can do that work from wherever they are."

Other vendors that serve nonprofits are also noticing the trend of an increasingly mobile workforce.

"One of the big things we're running into is that more clients want portals as the staff is working in the system offsite, so we now provide Web-access portals," said Steve Glauber, a senior systems engineer at nonprofit software provider Serenic. "Another big issue we run into is the ability to have field offices all over the world, and the problem is communication speed. We now offer our Replicator product, which allows them to work from a laptop and upload data as they have a connection. Now you have someone with a laptop, they can update the server and if there's a problem in a particular country they can leave and the data is safe, it's uploaded and they don't need a central office."

UPGRADE CONCERNS

Because of the economic downturn, another primary issue for nonprofit organizations has been the challenge of not being able to spend to upgrade the systems they have.

Scott Bechler, vice president of public sector solutions at Blackbaud, understands that many of its customers are not in a financial position to upgrade, so the vendor made improvements to its current offerings to effectively extend their life.

"What usually happens in a down economy is people are going to try to keep the systems they have longer, especially with the accounting systems they have," said Bechler. "To extend the life of that investment, we added more modules to our products. With Blackbaud's Financial Edge, we added 29 modules, and many are third-party products. The same is true with Fundware, where we added 23 modules."

In addition, Blackbaud added a product called PaperSave in Financial Edge, which allows users to scan documents and transfer them into its flagship Raiser's Edge fundraising product.

"What this does is allow existing clients to have their investment last longer; they can use their base accounting system and then something like PaperSave so they can store and save documents in that accounting system," explained Bechler. "There's definitely more of a push to be paperless in the government sector. Eventually you will see more nonprofits that have a lot of paperwork start to incorporate scanning technology."

In addition, Blackbaud and several of its resellers are now hosting its entire product portfolio for its clients.

COST-EFFECTIVE ADVICE

Many of the accountants who work with nonprofits also see their clients having to do far more with less until the economy improves.

Washington, D.C.-based Raffa PC generates 15 percent of its total revenue from its nonprofit service niche. The firm acts as both a consultant and an implementer of the software and systems that many of its clients use, and has seen "a notable pushback" on upgrading their systems, but the firm has been able to advise them on better, cost-effective ways to use available technologies.

"Some sort of remote access is very important to our clients, and so we have a number of clients now using Microsoft SharePoint. The pricing for nonprofits is attractive, and you can use them to build portals for your members," explained Seth Zarny, technology partner at Raffa. "For the most part, [nonprofit organizations] have put off system work for a few years, and now need to replace or upgrade them. We do seminars on virtualization. We have a virtual server and it's a cost-savings and its very effective. We are big proponents of virtualization, as internal IT costs are lower and you are leveraging powerful servers."

COST CONTAINMENT

Jericho, N.Y-based Grassi & Co. also receives a large portion of its fees from serving nonprofit clients. The big trend they see among these clients is the need to better track costs and expenses.

"If they need to do cost containment management, as long as they have a tech system in place allowing them to track that, then they are in a good position. If it's not in place, you have to be able to find out where the money is going to come from to help manage the organization," said David Rottkamp, Grassi's partner-in-charge of nonprofits. "We advise our clients [on technology investments], and they have to realize that software and technology does provide value to the organization. It's a bit harder for the smaller organizations to do these days, though."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access