Technology is an investment, even when it's free

From a Huffington Post article about the Salesforce event last week:

With Salesforce Foundation’s 10 free licenses allowing any nonprofit to use Salesforce, accompanied with Google’s Enterprise Apps for Nonprofits, one can essentially set up a “nonprofit on demand,” and do so effectively. A new nonprofit can get the same back end as Cisco, and get it without spending a dime.

In theory, he’s absolutely right. Salesforce and Google Apps are a killer combination for any nonprofit. It allows a small nonprofit like us with a distributed staff to look much bigger than we are for a lot less money.

However, I think it’s a bit misleading to say that you can “get it without spending a dime.” Yes, you can get these tools donated for free. But if you’ve started a nonprofit chances are your priority is the mission, not the technology. You get the technology for free, but it’s still a waste if you don’t learn how to use it well. Not many nonprofits are founded by folks who know what to do with the “same back end as Cisco.”

Time is money. Whether it’s your time or the time of a consultant you use to help you get the most out of these tools. Far too often I’ve spoken to folks who have gotten the Salesforce license donation and can’t put the time or attention into it that’s needed to really understand how it works and configure it for their organization’s unique needs.

It takes time to learn how to use a CRM designed for multi-million dollar companies. It takes time and patience to optimize your data. If you aren’t willing to spend days or weeks of your time to figure it all out, you should just stand up and slowly back away from the keyboard before you break something.

I worked with consultants from the get-go to help us get Salesforce set up. It was just a short-term project to get us off the ground. I made a point of learning as much as I could while we had the help, so I was easily able to take over as administrator when the consulting contract ended.

I made a strong argument to our Board that it was an investment worth making, and I don’t regret that decision. From the beginning, I stressed that my time was valuable and if I spent too much of that time poking around in the dark I would be wasting the organization’s money in the long run. I also made the point that if we waited to ask for (and pay for) help, it would cost us more to correct the mistakes I knew I would make due to my lack of knowledge of best practices. Luckily, I work for an organization that thinks two steps ahead and they agreed with me.

It’s not about getting something “without spending a dime.” It’s about spending your donor’s dimes wisely. To my mind, the less time I spend fighting with technology, the more time I have to help fight colorectal cancer.


2 responses to “Technology is an investment, even when it's free”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this post. It is wonderful that nonprofits and other small businesses can access state of the art software and services for FREE. However, as you say “FREE” doesn’t obviate the need for sound STRATEGY!