I am a frugal person. Spending money gives me heartburn, except on artisanal pork products, concert tickets, international travel and bicycles. I have t-shirts from the 90s. I drove the same Toyota Matrix for 10 years, past the point when even Toyota abandoned the model and small children would giggle when I would drive up in my sweet hatchback. I once went a year without a dryer. What I am saying is that I am Cheap.
As a self employed professional this has served me well. My Grandmother told me long ago to always hold a little back, to pay myself first. Whenever I meet with folks interested in a consulting career my first piece of advice is, “Watch your Money. Save your Money. Don’t spend your Money if you don’t have to spend it” as there are thin times in any business. So spending frugally is key for all of us and, of course, a non-profit institution.
All that being said, there are limits to frugality. Non-profit organizations limit their impact, lose staff members, make themselves incompetent due to a lack of investment typical for our corporate colleagues. Take an easy and obvious example: staff development.
I cannot name one non-profit that consistently prioritizes staff development in a meaningful and ongoing way. What is more important than your people? Nothing. Nothing is more important and yet team building, ongoing education and professional development are the first thing chopped out of any budget (if they were in to begin with). What happens? People leave, or are thrown under the bus, and relationships are lost, vital skillsets walk out the door, and programs collapse.
But nothing, nothing comes close to dummy non-profit frugality than the lack of investment in technology. The average non-profit office has ancient computers, slow and virus ridden. The community laptop is from 2007. The digital camera needs film. The server smells actively of a campfire. The intern brought her own computer from home. You think I am joking. Drop by and see the computers in the office.
Where to begin with how silly and self-defeating this is. The fundraising team who works with volunteers to sell sponsorship but cannot be given a simple notebook computer to share as a resource? The high producing college professor teaching at a very expensive private college who has had the same computer for five years now? The old, tired Windows machines running on last gasps, that freeze and crash daily? Or the pitifully slow internet connection that takes a half hour to send an email?
All shameful examples of non-profit hubris, of believing in scarcity and self sacrifice as the norm, that there is some nobility in cruddy surroundings, old computers, uncomfortable chairs, and rusty printers. There isn’t.
What’s the one thing that’s cheap these days that can make most anyone in a fundraising, marketing, or program role in a non-profit more productive? New and decent technology. I recently bought a 27” external monitor, big and beautiful, for like $200. Why doesn’t your designer and social media person have one of these?
20” flat screen monitors go for $99 each. So why not given everyone in the organization two? Do you know how much more productive your people can be with two monitors? Or at least one functioning monitor?
Notebook computers are practically free these days. Why not give your managers one to take home, when they are doing work in the evenings anyhow?
Digital cameras capable of print ready imagery are amazingly cheap. Why not give one to each to department to capture programs, performances and interactions with donors?
Bloomerang is powerful, reliable and inexpensive. Why are so many of you keeping donor data on spreadsheets? Don’t even get me started on all the crappy non-profit websites with poor mobile functionality and a junk online giving page.
What is the price of efficiency and productivity? What is lost in employee hours, in frustration and inefficiency and lost opportunity? It is madness. Who is being served by this?
Reboot that thing. Hope for the best.