NGO Information Management

This article was originally drafted by Jennifer L. Tavis for the NGO Handbook.


One of the biggest operational challenges faced by organizations today is information management. No matter what your organization does, you canít operate without collecting, storing, sharing, and archiving information.

There is a dizzying array of information technology available to help you work more efficiently, but if you donít know how to select and use technology effectively, you can end up with tools that create problems rather than resolving them. Also, the fact that you can automate everything doesnít necessarily mean that you should. Tried and true information management tools like ledger books and filing cabinets still have their place, even in todayís high-tech world. In order to select the right tools, you need to understand your needs, to research tools and solutions, to weigh costs and benefits, to ensure that the end users are comfortable with your choices, and to arrange for maintenance and support.

Overview

Understanding your Needs

The first step for putting in place information management systems that work is to reach a clear understanding of what information needs to be managed. In other words, donít go out and buy a server because someone told you every office has one these days. Instead, think about what the office staff finds most frustrating and difficult. Does their email keep closing them out because their inboxes are too full? Did someoneís computer crash, resulting in the loss of crucial data? Are you storing endless piles of floppy disks? This would mean that you have a need for centralized information storage and for a back-up procedure to ensure that data isnít lost. Purchasing a server is one way to address that need, but it isnít the only way. The better you understand the operational needs that underlie your technology choices, the better the chance that you will make successful choices.

Researching Tools and Solutions

There are numerous ways to research tools and solutions; to make an informed decision, itís best to use a combination of techniques.

For many of us, our first stop is the Internet. Conducting a search on the words that describe your need will give you a quick overview of the options available to you; however, there is often little to tell you about whether a vendor is reputable or how whether the information you find is reliable. Some websites offer user reviews of the products they sell, which can be illuminating, and it can be helpful to search technology review sites like www.cnet.com or www.zdnet.com to see ratings and compare products. You can also take advantage of technology resources specifically for non-profits, such as www.techsoup.org, www.grassroots.org, or www.npower.org. An Internet search, however, isnít the only way, or even necessarily the best way, to get the information you need.

Another approach, which can be quite effective, is to contact other organizations like yours to find out how they solved the same problem. They will be able to give you more in-depth feedback on what works and what doesnít. They will also be able to save you time by sharing the options they researched and didnít choose, along with their reasons why. If you donít know your peers at other organizations and are feeling uncertain about how to reach out, try contacting organizations like WANGO that have connections throughout the NGO community. While they wonít necessarily have the answers to your questions, they may be able to point you toward others who have faced similar challenges.

If you are facing a particularly thorny problem, you may want to turn to a professional for assistance. Depending on your budget and the availability of people with the knowledge and experience you are looking for, you may opt to bring on a volunteer or hire a consultant to help you decide how to fulfill a particular information management need. There are organizations specifically devoted to helping non-profits and NGOs with technology for free or at a low costs (again, www.techsoup.org, www.grassroots.org, and www.npower.org are good US-based resources). You can also take advantage of the expertise of your donors, your board members, or even the population you are assisting. People like to find ways to give that donít involve writing checks, and this can be an interesting and fulfilling opportunity for an experienced professional. If you do choose to bring in someone to help, be clear about your expectations and make sure that you stay engaged with the work being done to ensure that your needs are being met.

Weighing Costs and Benefits

While cost is usually not the most important factor in making decisions at an NGO, in the case of information management, it is generally a deciding factor. In order to make the best decision for the organization, itís important to weigh the costs and the benefits of proposed solutions. For example, if you are faced with a choice between purchasing a $10,000 piece of software for managing donor information or hiring an additional person at $40,000 annually to manage the spreadsheets and paper files you currently use, youíd be better off investing in the software. On the other hand, if you are conducting a survey and have a choice between investing in a $1500 laptop for real-time data entry or simply buying $15 worth of photocopies and pencils to be handed out and then having an intern spend a week doing data entry, the paper and pencils are probably the better option. For details on how to conduct a cost-benefit analysis, see the article entitled, ďProject Management Ė Better Practices.Ē

The End-Usersí Needs

For major software and equipment purchases, itís important to bring the users into the decision-making process. Share product literature with them. Invite them to product demonstrations. Solicit questions and feedback from them. If test versions are available, have the users give the system a test drive. A good way to make your staff feel positive about an information management solution is to make them feel like they chose it. One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is selecting tools without user input, which results in resistance, resentment, and, at worst, wasted investment. If the users arenít involved, crucial aspects of what the system needs to do may be overlooked.

Maintenance and Support

When you purchase a product or service, consider what will be involved in maintaining and supporting it. Will the users need training? Is there a help line they can call when they have questions? Will the vendor provide software updates to address compatibility issues when the next version of Windows comes out? Is there a cost associated with calling technical support? Is a support contract available, and if so, what are the costs? These are a few of the questions you may want to ask a vendor when purchasing an information management product or service. If what you are buying is not adequately supported and maintained, then you are not getting the most out of your investment.

Productivity Tools

Productivity tools are the most commonly used software. This category includes word processors, spreadsheets, email/calendar/contact management programs, and presentation programs. Many organizations depend on these tools for almost all of the office work they do. These tools help us communicate. They help us manage our work. They help us store and analyze information. These programs are not specifically built for any industry. They are designed to be of use to everyone.

Data Collection Tools

The information that you manage needs to be collected in some manner. How you go about collecting it will depend on what type of information youíre after and from whom. In most cases, a computer will be involved somewhere along the way. Even if you are reaching out to a largely illiterate population, you may be recording what you find in reports, transcripts, and spreadsheets. For literate populations, you can get paper forms with the information or even have them enter it themselves using forms on your website or using a terminal youíve set up. The type of tool you need will depend on the volume and type of data you want to collect.

Data Analysis Tools

Once youíve collected information, you need to be able to make some sense of it. You need to be able to see different views and different combinations of the information you collect. This section lists some of the tools you can use, from the least to the most sophisticated.

Information Sharing

One of the most popular uses of information technology today is communication. The Internet, email, computer networks, voice over IP (VoIP), and videoconferencing are just a few of the communication technologies with which you may be familiar. To understand how and why these technologies are useful, however, we need to look more generally at the ways we share information and communicate.

Before the widespread availability of computers that are networked and connected to the Internet, we communicated through meetings, letters and the telephone. We shared information using directories, libraries and files. Technology makes communication easier and faster, but in the end, our needs are relatively basic when it comes to sharing information. We need to be able to ask questions, get answers, communicate ideas and share feelings.

Asking Questions and Getting Answers

Technology can assist you in a number of ways when you have questions to ask. Internet search engines like Google and Yahoo! allow users to search for the information they need using keywords. The more specific you can be with your keywords, the more likely it is that you will find the answer to your question. If the search engine doesnít provide the answer you need, you can try looking up the websites of organizations or institutions where someone might be able to help you with your question. Email addresses for inquiries are frequently posted on websites, allowing people with questions to make contact when the website doesnít give the answers you need. Online bulletin boards and forums allow users to post questions and receive answers from others who access the same webpage.

The Internet is a rich information resource if you know where to look and what to trust. Be aware, however, that much of the content on the Internet has little or no editorial oversight and it isnít necessarily trustworthy. Use common sense when deciding whether information is trustworthy. For example, consider whether the information makes sense, whether it is provided by a reputable source and whether it matches similar information you have found elsewhere.

Communicating Ideas

Technology today gives you new ways to share information within your organization and with the world at large. Within an organization, email and a computer network can be very useful. Email allows people to communicate nearly instantaneously without having to leave their workspaces. Computer networks allow users to share files and programs and to contribute to and benefit from a shared knowledge base. In communicating with the outside world, email and the Internet can help you connect with people across the world to share your organizationís vision and goals. Having a website for your organization can help raise awareness about your organization and what it does. Email can be used as an effective marketing tool, provided you use it thoughtfully. Itís an excellent way to reach out to donors or even to connect with the beneficiaries of your organization, provided those you are serving have regular access to the Internet.

Sharing Feelings

Sharing feelings is a crucial part of human interaction, and in the NGO world, facilitating the communication of feelings, reactions, and opinions is frequently a core aspect of the job. The community you work with needs to communicate its wants. Your donors want to share their good will. Your co-workers on the other side of the globe need to understand the urgency of a task you have assigned them. Communication technologies like VoIP and video conferencing can help to bridge geographical distance and allow communication to be not just informative but meaningful. Text-based communication tools like websites and email can also be used effectively to share feelings, but greater care is needed to ensure that the feeling behind the words comes across. Thoughtful use of images and graphics to supplement text can help enhance the emotional impact of your message.

Tips on Using Information Sharing Tools and Technologies

Now that you have a sense of why and how you might want to use technological tools for information sharing, letís talk about what the nuts and bolts. Please note that this section uses technical terminology and assumes a basic understanding of common computer and Internet concepts. If this section is too technical for you, donít worry. Your best bet is to find someone in your organization or your community who has some technical expertise, or to reach out to the broader NGO community for assistance.

This section has provided an overview of types of information technology and their uses. This is not intended to be an exhaustive reference or a step-by-step guide, but rather an introduction to the topics. For further information, please do further research or consult a professional.

Information Security and Storage

A major concern with todayís information technologies is security. The technologies themselves are expensive, and the data contained on them is often sensitive and valuable. It is important to take basic precautions to safeguard your technology assets and the data you store on them.

Please note that this section uses technical terminology and assumes a basic understanding of common computer and Internet concepts. If this section is too technical for you, donít worry. Your best bet is to find someone in your organization or your community who has some technical expertise, or to reach out to the broader NGO community for assistance.

Computer Security

Computers are at risk from a variety of threats including viruses and malware, theft, physical damage, malfunction, and data corruption. A variety of approaches and protections are needed to protect against these threats.

Network Security

Network security provides a further layer of protection for computers and servers connected to the network. It helps ensure that your officeís connection to the outside is safe and consistent.

Paper

In looking at your security situation, be careful not to overlook low-tech security considerations. You can have all the right computer security technology in place, but if you donít lock the cabinet with all the confidential files, youíre still exposed. Also, you may want to consider scanning crucial documents and storing the digital images in an offsite location. In case of a disaster, you donít want to lose all of your critical paperwork.

Technology Management and Maintenance

Unfortunately, technology is not a once-and-done investment. It isnít enough to buy the right equipment and set it up with the right security. You also have to plan to maintain your technology and to replace equipment when it reaches the end of its service life.

Proactive maintenance of your technology will save you a lot of headaches and ensure that your technology is doing what you need it to. If having a full-time technology professional isnít an option, build a relationship with a service provider you trust. If possible, try to have an arrangement in which the same person or people provide the services you need consistently. That way, the person you are working with will have a working knowledge of the particular needs and concerns of your organization.

In addition to maintaining your technology, you need to plan to replace it. Technology changes quickly, and even if your old equipment is still functional, it may be obsolete. It is best to replace old equipment before it dies rather than waiting until something goes terribly wrong. Computers generally have a lifespan of three to five years. Servers and network equipment are generally fine for five to seven years. While your equipment may function longer, the performance it provides probably wonít be adequate to your needs, and the longer you wait, the greater the risk of a major malfunction.

In terms of software, your antivirus subscription needs to be renewed annually, and you need to upgrade operating systems when support for those operating systems is discontinued by the manufacturer (for example, Windows 2000 is not longer supported by Microsoft). Also, if you use any special software in your organization (for example, Raiserís Edge), it is advisable to purchase annual support. This will allow you to receive updates to the software when the company releases them and technical assistance when things arenít working properly.

Conclusion

Technology can be helpful in running your organization, but only if you know how to use and maintain it effectively. Hopefully this article has provided you with an overview of office technology and what it can offer. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the subject. Whole books have been written on many of the topics covered here, as well as on many office technology topics beyond the scope of this article. If you need further information, consult the resources listed below or a qualified technology professional.

References

External Links

Technology Resources for Non-profits

 General Technology Resources