Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ten Ways Small NGOs Can Collaborate

I made a presentation last week on NetHope and Collaboration to one of the 2012 MBA classes at Tuck/Dartmouth (For a copy of the slide deck, see the Presentation and Articles link on my web site at During the Q&A, someone asked "what can a small nonprofit do to benefit from collaboration?"  It's a a question I often get asked.  Here's an excerpt from my current book project, with the working title "Collaborate or Perish."  I welcome your comments.
* * * * *
I often get the comment during a leadership seminar I teach that goes something like, "Well this is all well and good for large organizations, but what about my twelve-person NGO?" What can small nonprofits do to benefit from collaboration?  Here are ten practical things you can do, starting tomorrow:
1)      Join a list-serve or social media group.  Pick one that fits your size and mission, and addresses technology.  NTEN and TechSoup list a few[1].  The MobileActive listserv is a good one for phone-based app’s.[2]  You can also join Interaction or the CIO4Good forums[3]. Search LinkedIn and Google groups[4]. Social Butterfly has an interesting list of helpful list-servs.  Try one.
Now here's the rub: for this to work for you and the community, plan to answer twice as many questions as you ask. The benefit?  First, the help you receive is proportional to what you give.  Second, it helps build a community of trust and collaboration: the "I know I will get three or more good ideas" as well as, "I had that experience!"  Can't answer what you don't know?  Share your technology experiences and frustrations. These will resonate with the audience.
2)      Partner in Learning. Training on a hoard of ICT topics is available on-line and in the classroom.  Some are free.  For example, LINGOs has a free nonprofit learning catalog.  And the IFRC, my prior organization, has a Learning Network with many free courses for volunteers.
However, many of the in-depth classes cost a bundle and take a week or more of your time.  Even the one-day seminars can be pricey.  What to do? Larger corporations have training departments and a multi-prong syllabus.  The GE Crotonville Center is the legendary example[5]. There are even corporate universities.[6] An easy “ask” for your local corporations is: can I get a donated seat in your classroom?  And while you’re at it, invite the seminar graduates to help implement what you learned.
3)      Partner with colleges and universities.  Students are among the most technology savvy people I know. I volunteer as an Imagine Cup judge each year, and I can tell you first hand that their caliber of technology resourcefulness is extraordinary[7].  These are among the most mission-driven, idealistic people on the planet. And increasingly this includes High School students down the street.  Call your local school and sign 'em up! 
4)      Share an application with an organization in your sector.  Has one of your volunteers, interns or tech-oriented employee developed a cool app?  Donate it! At NetHope we have a project underway to create a technology catalogue of useful apps.  Like old book exchange, give one, take one.  TechSoup has a variation on this called App It Up.  The idea is, the more we share applications, the more likely we will find really useful ones for our specific work.[8]
5)      Share some services with an organization in your sector and split the costs; start by sharing a person.[9] While I was on sabbatical at Tuck/Dartmouth, one of the things I heard from small NGOs in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire, is that they couldn't afford a staff position to manage their donor data and systems.    But they were open to sharing a person. We recommended creating a support consortium. Sometimes this can be informally done, especially with volunteers, but you'll likely need an MOU that covers what each participant commits to and someone to coordinate it.
The After-hours Help consortium is a case in point.  It began with five NGOs in the UK, including four NetHope members, who shared a need to provide service coverage for employees working after hours at home or travelling.  They decided to share a remote help desk service for hours outside UK business hours. The group has an informal oversight Board run by one of the member CIOs.  They contracted with Microland in Bangalore.  IFRC joined in early 2011. For us the value proposition was clear: increase our service desk to 24x7 for less than $2 per hour.  That’s affordable for even the smallest nonprofits.
6)      Sign-up for donated software from TechSoup and Idealware.[10]  TechSoup began by offering sales demo copies of WordPerfect to non-profits. They now offer hundreds of titles from nearly 50 technology-related companies in more 35 countries, primarily serving smaller NGOs.  They also support a community of practice, noted above.  The members support each other with advice and experience. No nonprofit should be going it alone and buying software and hardware retail.
7)      Partner with a corporation to get their laptops and other equipment coming off lease. Many corporations lease their PCs and laptops, often over two years with a $1 buy-out.  These are perfectly good machines for most NGOs and should last another three years. And the donating company may also be eligible for a tax write-off at fair market value.  That's a win-win. Ask for them.
8)      Rent your software on-line.  Non-profits need to get out of the business of managing infrastructure. Technology companies are much better at this, and the incremental costs for NGOs to do this themselves becomes less attractive as the use of technology grows. And it will!  The cost of renting applications is falling and many technology companies will provide these at cost for non-profits.
9)      Develop a partnered IT strategy.  Plan with other local NGOs and create an informal board of IT advisors.  Every NGO needs an IT plan, as much to avoid costs as to invest in the gains technology makes possible. This presupposes a strategic direction for where you want to go.  As the Cheshire Cat remarked, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”[11]
Going in any direction with technology may result in a downstream cost. This may especially be true for donated hardware, software, and even consulting services.  What is free today may be a cost you can't afford tomorrow.  If you think through a plan and to total cost of ownership (TCO) you can avoid this common mistake.[12]
Take the opportunity to plan together.  This may be counter intuitive for any organization.  Why would nonprofit want to collaborate on IT Strategy?  Because many of the services IT provides are commodity functions that offer no competitive advantage for doing it on your own.  See the shared after-hours help desk, above, as a case in point.  Shared donor management databases may not make sense, but sharing other applications and tech services may be a way to afford the technologies that one small organization cannot. 
10)  Form a cooperative for experiments like I4D.  Most NGOs cannot afford to experiment. Donors want us to implement the "tried and true." This can be the kiss of death for innovation.  Joining a group is one way to mitigate the risk, much as buying shares in a mutual fund reduces the risks of betting on individual stocks.  NetHope has run Information Technology for Development (I4D) pilot programs in half a dozen areas, including mHealth, mEducation and Microfinance.[13]  Once the proof of concept is established, members can adapt the application to their organization and take the successes to scale.  The cost of failed experiments is a sunk cost in the membership fee.  That’s a lower risk way of experimenting your way toward innovation.  Can’t find an organization like this that you can afford to join?  Band together with some other nonprofits and create one.  That’s what we did at NetHope.
That’s my list of ten practical things you can get started on tomorrow, … if you are willing to collaborate and share.  The question I’ll leave you with is why not do this; what’s standing in your way?

[1] See NTEN’s networking opportunities and Techsoup’s community forums.
[2] See and join their mailing list.  With nearly 6 billion cell phones sold to-date, it is the technology of choice to connect not only with your donors, but more importantly to your beneficiaries.
[3] See Interaction’s Working Groups.  For the CIO4Good listserv, send a note to Dave Simon at Sierra Club (dave.simon AT sierraclub DOT org and convert the caps).
[4] A Google search for “nonprofit listservs” has over 830,000 results as of February 2012. 
[5] See the GE Leadership Programs for example
[6] See Mahboob Mahmood and Gurpreet Minhas, “Corporate Universities and Learning Centers: A Primer,” April, 2011 
[7] I’ve written at length about my Imagine Cup experiences in my Blog.  For example, see:
[8] This is the iPhones or Android App’s store model applied to NGO applications.  See  
[9] This is exactly what two US-based NGOs did to afford an IT Leader; they split his costs and share his time.
[10] See the Stock arm of Techsoup at and the software advisory services of Idealware at
[11] As the Cheshire Cat said in Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.
[12] For a good review of TCO, see the Wikipedia entry here:

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."