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Strategic IT for Social Impact Leaders

GDI staff are not experts in Information Technology (IT), but we do support many new organizations as they think through IT platforms and approaches for their organization. Early-stage organizations often require a balancing act between financial investment, data protection, and customization for the organization’s unique needs. Some of the organizations we’ve incubated require highly specialized and customized infrastructures, while others are best served with off-the-shelf software as a service solution.  

Key Considerations

Early-stage organizations often find it challenging to select IT platforms for three main reasons:

  1. Flexibility: They are still figuring out how they will conduct their business and need flexibility to continue evolving.
  2. Competing Priorities: Early-stage organizations often have many competing priorities. On a comparative basis, the selection of IT systems is often deprioritized to focus on operationalizing the mission.
  3. Limited Resources: Funds are a precious and scarce resource, so significant investments may need to be delayed.

During our support building new organizations, we’ve learned a few important lessons that we carry through to each new IT launch.

Develop Your Early IT Strategy

Assume the organization will start with one set of software but may need to migrate some of its IT systems in the first five (or three) years. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

This may be the most critical IT discussion that we have with our new organization partners.  Every organization wants to select a low-cost IT platform that can stay with an organization for its entire lifespan. In reality, that is often impractical or impossible in an early-stage organization.  

Changing an IT platform in the first several years is not necessarily a sign of a failed implementation, it is a sign that the organization is growing, evolving, and taking the time to learn and understand its changing needs.

As a practical example, when GDI supports new organizations, we launch every organization’s accounting records on the same accounting platform because it is:

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Easy to launch with minimal investment in customization or building
  • Appropriate for the business model of most if not all of our early-stage organization partners
  • Easy to migrate to other systems if the organization wants to transition later
  • Well known to accountants, which open up much greater options for hiring or outsourcing accounting team support.

While some organizations might be better served by a more robust custom accounting software, rarely do early-stage initiatives have the time, financial resources, or adequate knowledge of their own needs to make a procurement and custom build of software practical.  If our partner organizations reach a stage of development where they determine it is most appropriate to move to a new accounting platform, we celebrate this with them as a sign of their growth.

Avoid Customization (To Start)

Avoid custom building software for as long as possible to ensure you have time for an adequate needs assessment and understanding.

GDI regularly supports early-stage organizations that require customized software or organization-specific software build-outs to meet their mission objectives.  We support these organizations in considering the best overall platform and design. We’ve also learned that there can be value in delaying custom-built software as long as possible, especially for a fast-moving early-stage organization.

Even well established organizations, with a clear understanding of their business operations and technology needs, often take 6-12 months (or sometimes much longer) to select and customize platforms for their business.  New organizations rarely have the benefit of that much time, nor such a crystal clear understanding of their longer term needs.  In that context, we encourage organizations to delay building customized solutions for as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their overall likelihood of success.  Using Excel and other more informal tools may not be perfect, but it provides time to refine data management needs on an interim basis at a low cost and low level of commitment.

When to Invest in Automated Technology

Early-stage organizations are usually looking for every opportunity to conserve financial resources.  While we understand and support that priority by identifying low-cost solutions whenever possible, there are times when investing in a system provides the best value. 

  • The amount of staff time to accomplish a process by hand exceeds the amount of financial investment in a system to achieve the task.  We often see this with approval management systems (for example, for expenses and invoices or document signing). 
  • Delayed investment in a system (particularly a low-cost system) creates disproportionate organizational risk.  We often see this with time management and leave systems.  Tracking leave time-off via Excel spreadsheets may work with one or two employees, but as soon as the employee count exceeds 3-4, the potential for expensive errors usually far outweighs the expense of a low-cost timesheet system.
When to invest in IT

As a note, certain service providers often offer auxiliary software as a perk of using their service.  We regularly see this area with payroll providers offering free or low-cost timesheets or employee expense reimbursements.  While it can be attractive to use these free services, they are often not nearly as robust or efficient as investing in a paid platform. These systems may come with more drawbacks than benefits.  While an organization may want to test these systems out for a limited time, they should critically evaluate whether these free options are the best for the organization.

Don’t Forget Data Security

For all IT decisions, consider data security

Data security has two key elements that should always be considered.  First, is there adequate backup that ensures my information will not be lost?  Second, do I have sensitive data that must be protected from hacking by outside actors?

Not every system is equally essential when it comes to backup or breach by outside parties.  An organization’s accounting records may need greater security than an auxiliary project management system.  Or vice versa in some organizations. Putting in place simple, easy to implement security measures, like two-factor authentication, provide high impact at low cost and staff effort.  Taking some time to consider the unique risks to the individual organization before selecting platforms is always a good investment.  

Every new organization requires a strong IT system to build-in, but not every IT system needs to be particularly complex.  We encourage social entrepreneurs to select mainstream tools initially, while embracing the evolution of their IT systems as they grow in their work and impact.