Don’t tell the parents…

Counting backward, I realized that I’ve been using my tech skills to support nonprofits off and on for the last 15 years. That’s this time around *

Since separating from the Tulsa Area United Way I’ve been doing some consulting and chatting with nonprofits in Tulsa — some who are partner nonprofits and some who are not. It’s been illuminating to look at their situations from the other side. I’ve been a party to information and discussions that I would never have had otherwise.

As the senior IT person at the United Way, I’ve learned that it’s’ like being a parent who dispenses an allowance to the kids. They’ll tell you what they’re going to use it for, but they really don’t want Mom and Dad getting in their business. You can offer advice, but you can’t pry and expect full disclosure. You can hope that they’ll take your wisdom to heart, but they often won’t — as my friend John Cory is fond of saying, we could be giving away gold bricks at 6th & Denver and not everyone would line up.

The United Way and the partner nonprofits in our orbit are different — we’re akin to a bank, with certain funds to capitalize and plan for longer-term investments. They can plan, but they also have to do more survival-based things: grants to cover both short and long-term needs. The majority are small firms (less than 50 employees) and very mission-centered. The few are larger, with big staffs, capital campaigns, etc. We have the bankroll of the large, but the staff size of the small and as such aren’t regarded as peers or equals to either.

Also, the fund-based accounting and finance approaches of nonprofits are very different from the for-profit firms most people are aware of. I was reminded of that recently as I helped a firm with a grant for a new phone system. If they are unable to obtain a capacity-building grant to cover the hardware, then they’re forced to go for a fully leased system, which will cost between $44–51K MORE over the contract term.

If I were the funder, it would be a conundrum: the additional cost could be categorized as “waste” that’s not going to the mission. But it would nonetheless improve service and thus improve measurable outcomes. Both are acceptable answers — it all depends on where you are at the time. Like buying a house vs. renting.

It’s yet another part of my ongoing education. As a parent.

* Back in the early 90s when I was at the University of Tulsa, I was the de-facto IT consultant to DVIS (Domestic Violence Intervention Services) from 1990-1994, CampFire from 1994-1995, and the Lewis County Human Response Network (Chehalis, WA )in 1996.

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