The pandemic has forced non-profits to move to a virtual platform for over a year now. Non-profit leaders are generally busy with day-to-day responsibilities of managing staff, volunteers, applying for grants, and many other tasks that come with managing an organization. Often, the strategic vision gets pushed to a second priority, and unfortunately, technology advancements fall into this bucket.
I can’t count the number of stories I saw firsthand and read about in newspapers recounting how non-profits struggled with the initial move from in-person fundraising initiatives to an entirely virtual platform. This is because technology is often only looked at if there are issues, which is often not the priority.
This got me thinking, did non-profits with CTOs or technology leads fare better than those without when the pandemic happened? What exactly is a CTO’s role, and why would it be necessary for non-profits to have one? When I googled my question, the first few pages of results were from 5 to 6 years ago. I wanted to talk to some CTOs to gain their perspective on why a CTO should be part of a non-profit team, especially now more than ever, given the pandemic.
I spoke to 4 CTOs from 4 different companies to gain their perspective on this.
The first CTO I spoke with was Brian Stewart. Brian is a CTO and Project Manager for ProsperoWeb, LLC. He started as a Senior Developer and over the years, he worked up to this current role as CTO.
Wendy: “Brian, what can a CTO do for a non-profit and what is the role a CTO plays in an organization?”
Brian: “I’ve seen non-profits struggle to use technology to further their missions, but there is no one thinking about it daily. It is a problem that’s just not addressed. In the technological arena, the rate of change is evolving and speeding up, and it is a very challenging area with frequent upgrades.
There are several costs associated with failing to keep up with technical developments. One of these costs is the inefficiency of using multiple tools without the ability to integrate the data. Not knowing which software aligns with your non-profit’s needs, might in the best-case scenario, result in you missing out on functionalities that could streamline your operations and reduce costs. In the worst-case scenario, it could be high costs to switch to new software in the future and scrambling to salvage data from the old system into usable and meaningful information.
Another cost has to do with security. There are constantly new security vulnerabilities, and they are most prevalent in new products. A non-profit that is unaware of these vulnerabilities could put confidential donor data at risk. This could be a costly mistake that would have been easily prevented if there was a knowledgeable technical lead monitoring security vulnerability and taking a proactive rather than a reactive approach.
A CTO can prevent non-profits from making these costly mistakes. The CTO is a decision-maker who has a clear understanding of the organization’s mission and strategy. The CTO is someone who regularly engages and understands the changing needs of their organization’s employees. A CTO is mindful of how other organizations are successfully using technical resources so they can apply the best technology practices for their organization.”
Wendy: “Brian what was a challenging issue faced by ProsperoWeb, LLC that you were able to solve?”
Brian: “A couple of years back, we had to face a power outage at one of our data centers. On the restart, our databases had an issue with the identity cache. This was a major setback since it affected all our relational databases. Our programmers could fix the issue, but the vulnerability was identified and addressed by me, the CTO. The programmers could take a reactive approach to the issue and prevent further harm, but it was not part of their role to give the strategic oversight that ProsperoWeb needed. I developed a plan of action that would effectively upgrade the system and mitigate future outages’. I believe my experience working initially as a programmer and the years of experience that followed enabled me to think strategically and fast in the case of this story and other similar stories.”
Managing data bases
As mentioned previously, non-profits have large databases, and it is a struggle to manage all this sensitive information. I have personally worked with a few non-profits in my past, and I vividly remember being horrified with the amount of confidential data that was not password protected.
It also shocked me how there were no barriers to send confidential information to personal email addresses. I am not saying every non-profit out there has terrible security, but it seems like it is something worth talking about from my firsthand experience. It would be devastating to a non-profit if they have a leak or loss of their database. So, I asked the next CTO about this. I wanted to understand how a CTO’s knowledge would help non-profits protect this confidential information.
The second CTO I had the pleasure to speak with was Tom Darmstadter II from Darmstadter Designs. He is involved with a large charity in East Texas with multiple locations and serves a large region of 13+ counties related to Alcohol & Drug Abuse. He was formerly the CIO of an M&A $700 million company that went public on the NYSE with 450 locations in US & Canada.”
Wendy: “What did you bring to the table as the CIO?”
Tom: “I had designed the charities network in the same manner that I would if they were a for-profit organization. I helped them take advantage of all the reduced licensing fees available for charities. Most charities that I review do not know of the many avenues to get reduced licensing fees on software and hardware, so they end up buying at retail and pay full price.
When I adopted the alcohol and drug abuse charity, there were no company standards on technology, and everybody was on their own to purchase a laptop or desktop. They had cable modems, DSL, and ISDN lines coming into the building, and they were paying more than if they consolidated everything into a fiber connection. I was able to recognize the inefficiency and help them save on costs.
I was also fortunate to work with a charitable foundation to help them standardize their office equipment. I implemented Meraki equipment for networking, HP for all computers and printers, and Microsoft for email and desktop products. I was also able to help them negotiate better contracts for their VOIP phones and Internet service. My role and expertise as a CIO allowed me to help them get the most technology for their money.”
Wendy: “What’s the difference between having a CTO compared to an IT administrator?”
Tom: “Most administrators do not understand technology fully. They are often the people writing the check for the laptop and delivering it to the employees but are hands off afterward. Laptops and the software on laptops have security vulnerabilities that require regular upkeep, and employees should be aware of what software is available to them and for what use cases. Providing employees with a laptop does not mean these devices’ full potential is unlocked. Training must accompany the hardware purchase, and this training must be linked to the bigger image of the company’s strategy, which is the role that the CTO will play.”
Where CTOs can have the biggest impact
The third CTO I had the pleasure of speaking with was Gary Kosinsky, the CTO of Green Apple Pay. He started with semi-conductors in a video game company and went on to support many other organizations in a tech lead role. An interesting fact about Gary is he developed an iPhone game that was trending #1 in the Apple Store in 2007, on the iPhone’s first rendition! His technical background of 20+ years, strategic mindset, and diverse experience in various industries made him the perfect CTO for Green Apple Pay.
Green Apple Pay is a digital fundraising platform that helps organizations like non-profits and community groups generate recurring revenue from spare change and cashback rewards by making it seamless for stakeholders to contribute through their everyday spending. Green Apple Pay is like a cashback credit card for organizations that fundraise. I wanted to see what Gary thought were the areas where a CTO is most beneficial to non-profit organizations.
Wendy: “Where do you see non-profits lacking right now regarding technology, and how could a CTO help?”
Gary: “Non-profit organizations’ most significant concern is raising awareness of their mission and fundraising. The non-profit employees often work at the non-profit because they fully believe in the mission, but they usually do not know their target audience well enough. In my roles over the years, one of my favourite acronyms I came back to was K.Y.C, which stands for know your customer. As a CTO, I’m able to use the data available and analyze it in a way that would allow me to optimize the offering to donors and maximize my organizations’ exposure to the right individuals. With what happened with the WE Charity scandal in 2020, many donors are concerned with the privacy of their data and transparency. A CTO would know how to guide non-profits to ensure they are not infringing on data policies, especially with an eye towards being fully compliant with data privacy laws worldwide. This is also very true now with the pandemic changing the landscape of fundraising to one of Anywhere Operations. It can be a delicate line between maximizing offerings and infringing on legislation, and having a CTO to map this all out clearly is essential.
Interestingly, by leveraging the data available, non-profits can be more transparent with their donors. By aggregating the data, non-profits can show their donors how their money moves from point A to B, from initially entering the non-profit to helping the cause come to life, all while protecting any sensitive information. With a CTO who is knowledgeable, this process does not have to be complicated or expensive. Data aggregation is about the presentation of information in a way that is meaningful to the end-user. This level of transparency would help donors regain trust in the charities they donate to.”
Wendy: “What are the top 3 qualities in a CTO that non-profits should look for?”
Gary: “The first quality I would say is a good understanding of technology, ideally someone with multiple years of experience in diverse roles. The second quality would be an individual who understands the market, particularly consumer preferences. Finding a CTO who had had prior experience in the relevant industry would be invaluable to non-profits. Finally, the third quality would be an individual who understands people and the human process. People and relationships are at the center of all businesses, profit or non-profit. Having a CTO who understands the big picture and who has the experience and skillset to execute that strategy is essential.”
Finally, to introduce the last tech lead, I enjoyed speaking with Maxim Ivanov, the CEO & Co-Founder of Aimprosoft. Maxim is well versed in speaking about technology in the non-profit space. His company delivers personalized experiences for enterprise stakeholders by developing corporate web portals, intranets, and providing connected enterprise apps based on one digital experience platform. They also implement document management and business process automation systems.
I had never heard about CTO-as-a-Service (CaaS) before speaking with Maxim. So what is CaaS? It’s when your organization hires a part-time CTO. This can include hiring a technical consultant that will come into your organization to focus on technology-driven challenges and assess the current state of technology in the organization. They would focus on the strategy and look at cutting inefficiencies. If hiring a full-time CTO is not possible due to financial constraints, it is excellent to know there are alternative ways to leverage the knowledge and expertise of CTOs.
Wendy: “Maxim, can you tell me about a success story where a CTO you worked with helped their organization succeed?”
Maxim: “Our experience of software development for a large non-profit organization allowed us to gain valuable insights into the role of the CTO in such companies. Our clients turned to our services to transform an online platform designed to access data from genebanks regarding plant genetic resources. Based on the company’s CTO business and functional requirements, we provided the consultation on the solution’s architecture, selected the most efficient approach to the platform’s upgrade and implementation of its functionality. With our expertise in software development and the company’s CTO strategic planning, the platform transformed into a secure and scalable solution providing its users with easy access to genebank data.”
I want to thank all these four technology leads for their help in answering my burning questions about how CTOs can help non-profits. I am excited to see how non-profits will start adopting technology in 2021, and I hope they will begin to view technology as an essential piece of their strategy.