What is IT Architecture and Why do So Few Nonprofits/NGOs Get It?

What is IT Architecture and Why do So Few Nonprofits/NGOs Get It?

In the corporate world, IT Architecture is a topic discussed and planned with varying degrees of effort and effectiveness. Regardless of the effectiveness of planning and governance efforts, architecture is a topic of conversation within corporations, whereas I have never heard the term in my work with nonprofit/NGOs. With growing reliance (and in many cases dependence) on IT to deliver services, engage donors, and manage internal and external communications, nonprofits should be paying much keener attention to the architecture of their systems and putting governance controls in place to ensure adherence to architecture principles.

IT Architecture - What is It?
While there are varying definitions, IT Architecture is an articulation of how an organization aligns its information and communications technologies to its strategy. It provides principles guidelines for deployment of IT resources towards business goals. While the range of goals vary, corporations are often looking to place controls and logic into what is often a hodgepodge of applications, databases, hardware and networks.

Furthermore, IT Architecture provides rules and guidance for introducing new technologies into what is often a very complicated environment. A structured approach generally leads to better outcomes including more successful IT-related projects, shorter times for delivery and easier integration with existing technologies.

For example, a company may decide against an application powered by Microsoft SQL database software, because they've made an IT Architecture decision to use Linux and MySQL at the server level. The company would choose an MySQL-powered application instead because it would be easier to integrate with other databases and staff would not have to learn any new skills.

IT Architecture and Nonprofits/NGOs
For many years, the strategic technology plan was the focus of technology planning efforts. Most of these plans contained elements of IT Architecture, but not in a comprehensive manner. Not unlike some strategic plans, many plans were written and then put on the shelf. Furthermore, most plans didn't account for ongoing governance measures to help organizations incorporate new technologies in a rationale way that would provide the most value to the enterprise.

Recommendations for Larger Nonprofits
For larger nonprofits, IT Architecting is a must. There should be a dedicated team of IT staff and organizational decision makers (Executive Directors, board members, and other key staff) who develop an initial document that details:

  • Strategic goals served by technology.
  • Current infrastructure and applications with a shared understanding of how to to streamline and integrate existing technological infrastructure.
  • Guideliness for future IT implementations, including an agreement as to where the organization wants to be on the technology adoption life cycle (e.g. bleeding edge and experimental vs. late adoption with trusted and tried technology).
  • Ongoing governance policies and staff responsibilities.

Small to Mid-Sized Nonprofits
The fact is that for most small to mid-sized nonprofits there are little or no resources for planning architecture, both in terms of staff time and financial resources to invest in technology. While your nonprofit may not be able to engage in a full process of mapping your strategy to your IT infrastructure and capabilities, there are a number of steps, your organization might consider when making IT related decisions.

  • Before implementing a new technology, consider if the application fit within your current operating environment and do you have the appropriate resources to manage and integrate.
  • Be clear about what goals are to be achieved with new technology. Even with easy to use social media technologies such as facebook and twitter, they aren't always so easy to manage and keep fresh on an ongoing basis. Being clear about goals and responsibilities ensures accountability.
  • Do the items above even if the technology is free or donated (in fact, especially if its donated). While some due diligence is almost always done for purchases within nonprofits, we too often accept donations that really don't fit within our infrastructure or cost more to upkeep than to purchase outright. (I'm talking to you board member ink jet printer or decade old Windows XP corporate PC donation.)

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