The Challenges of Being a Nonprofit Techie

Many job descriptions for tech positions at small nonprofit organizations are so vaguely written that it’s impossible to discern the requirements, with one exception: They always seem to want their tech pros to be Jacks-of-All-Trades.

Things are a little different at larger, well-funded nonprofits, which have the resources to build out an established tech staff.

Check out the latest tech jobs at nonprofits.

Regardless of the environment, working for a social cause can prove rewarding for the technologist with a multidisciplinary skill set; in a refreshing change from some segments of the tech industry, nonprofits are also a space where age and experience can work in your favor. But getting a job at a nonprofit is also a bit different than landing one at a purely commercial outfit.

The Small Nonprofit

Patrick Callihan, executive director of Tech Impact, a nonprofit tasked with empowering nonprofits and communities to use the latest technology, usually gets a phone call when an organization is struggling to maintain productivity internally, or is frustrated with not being able to get things done. “They know they need help,” he said, “but it’s not unusual for them to also not be able to articulate exactly what it is they need.”

His external team works with the client to assess its tech demands and then develops a plan that will (hopefully) result in a much better computing environment. Bringing someone with outdated ideas of technology up to current speed can be a test of skills and wills, he added: “We spend a lot of time providing education.”

The Challenge

Callihan offered up a typical scenario facing a tech pro consulting with a nonprofit: An organization with a small but significant operating budget (between a half-million and a million dollars) has called for help because everything is falling apart. “We usually find a server or two and they’re typically out of warranty,” he said. “The clients claim to be backing them up but often there’s no real comprehensive backup plan or schedule to do it. They might save it to a tape drive and that tape may or may not go offsite periodically.”

If situations like that aren’t aggravating enough, tech pros tasked with updating a nonprofit’s IT infrastructure often have to deal with outdated PCs and software, such as Windows XP.

The Goal

No matter how hinky the organization’s tech setup, Callihan added, the goal for any tech pro is to “simplify their environment as much as possible, as well as make it safe and stable.” That means making recommendations for the purchase of new or refurbished equipment, convincing (often overwhelmed) decision-makers to purchase the best hardware and software for their needs, and moving to the cloud to replace sometimes-unreliable servers.

“Ultimately what we want is for organizations to think about is how to leverage technology for efficiency and effectiveness,” Callihan said. “Hiring a higher-level person who can move an organization forward with purposeful technology… will allow them to have a greater impact.”

Nonprofit With a Budget

An older nonprofit with a larger budget will likely have its own tech team, which means the job requirements will be more structured and specific than with tiny nonprofits. Even if that’s the case, though, the ultimate goal remains largely the same: building (and maintaining) a seamlessly integrated, smoothly running operation.

Established Protocol

Arthur Guercilena is a senior technical specialist at a midsized education organization headquartered on the East coast. He’s been there for five years and is part of a five-person team that serves a 200-employee program.

While his department is considered reasonably sized, he still wears a lot of hats. “The main scope of the work is to keep everything in-house up and running,” he said. “It’s maintaining end users’ equipment and keeping them happy, dealing with computers, images, providing support, being a Lotus notes administrator, etc. It’s just your everyday management of the computer infrastructure and its everyday needs.”

For those seeking a nonprofit-tech job, Guercilena’s career trajectory is worth noting. Prior to his current employment, he was a systems engineer/administrator who endured his share of corporate layoffs before making his way to his first job at a nonprofit, where he’s not the only over-50 employee.

His wealth of experience had added value to the organization. “They want to hire people who can hit the ground running,” he said. “You have to be able to learn quickly without asking a lot of questions and come up with rapid, effective solutions to any problems that arise.”

While Guercilena did take a large pay cut to jump to the nonprofit sector (30 percent or so), he found the position more satisfying than corporate work, and marveled at both his elevated quality of life and lower stress level.

For many people debating whether to jump to the nonprofit world, those last two benefits can greatly outweigh any salary differential.

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Image: David Crockett/Shutterstock.com 

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