detectiveIt was a dark and stormy night. My face was bathed in the blue glow from the laptop’s screen.  I sat staring at an email. “We won’t have anyone to take on the project manager role for the upcoming major technology project at our organization.  Do you think that could be a problem?”

I sat back, cracked my knuckles, and began to craft a reply.

“The challenge of working with nonprofits and technology is the faith that somehow “the technology will save us.”   I think the hope is that by hiring a consultant or firm to run and manage a project (donor database, file storage system, etc), the nonprofit won’t take up valuable staff time, the consultant will work their technical voodoo, and come back with a system that is perfectly configured, easy to use, and ready to be used by all staff with a bit of training.  This, in my opinion, is false hope.

One of the keys to a successful nonprofit technology project is staff ownership of the project.  This doesn’t necessarily require that a staff person spend 100% of their time on the project (after all, that’s one of the reasons you’re hiring a firm, presumably), but it does require that there is someone on staff who fully owns the results of the project, is the main point of contact with the consultant, and is capable of making decisions regarding the project, or communicating with internal staff to get decisions made, and then clearly communicating those decisions.  Ultimately, staff time is always required for any successful nonprofit technology project, and ownership is a big part of that.

In a nutshell, I’d say that yes, it is problematic that no one within the organization is able to take on that role.”

Exhausted, I hit send, and closed the laptop’s lid, hoping that I’d prevented the disappearance of yet another nonprofit technology project manager…

(Apologies to Elmore Leonard, and fans of real hard-boiled detective stories.)