Tech savvy: How to build digital considerations into your strategic planning

Your organization has decided to integrate technology considerations into your strategic planning. But how? Katie Gibson and Marc-André Delorme offer advice on what to do – and what not to do.

Your organization has decided to integrate technology considerations into your strategic planning. But how? Katie Gibson and Marc-André Delorme offer advice on what to do – and what not to do.

(Cet article est disponible en français.)​

In a previous article, we assessed the current state of affairs and the case for considering technology in the strategic planning process. In this piece, we share the best ideas from practitioners on how to do this – no matter your organization’s size or digital maturity.

Get the right people around the table in the planning process

A key enabler is bringing a technology expert to the planning table. You need the right expert, not just any expert. Why?

Not all non-profit tech leads are strategic. “It is important to understand that technical strategy is different from many other types of technical roles,” says Helen Knight, vice-president of information technology at Legal Aid Alberta. “This probably isn’t a role that can be fulfilled by the guy who brings you printer ink. Technical strategy requires both experience and expertise.”

Planning processes often move beyond the comfort level of more junior tech experts. “If the ‘accidental techie’ is just staying within what they’re comfortable with, they can absolutely provide some of that advice,” says Marcus Harvey, consulting and IT services manager at Infoxchange in Australia. “But usually in the planning stage, there are a lot of ideas thrown around that are outside of their previous experience. And it makes it very hard for them to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ because they haven’t seen it before and don’t have the background to be able to work out what’s sensible or not so sensible.”

Technical strategy requires both experience and expertise.

Helen Knight, Legal Aid Alberta

Indeed, including the wrong person can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that tech is not a strategic consideration. “If your IT lead is a junior person, don’t invite them to the strategy session,” says Chantal Forster, former executive director of the Technology Association of Grantmakers.

And engaging more senior tech experts can insulate your junior staff lead from blame for bad decisions. “As the IT guy, you don’t want to be responsible for what you do and what you don’t do,” Harvey says. “Because at the end of the day, it’s the business and the staff that have to get that value or do without [the technology]. And so they’ve got to be part of that decision.”

So who do you need? A senior tech expert who is an “architect rather than just an operator,” says Charles Buchanan, CEO of Technology Helps. Someone with “a bit of wisdom” who has “seen a lot of things and can say very quickly what’s sensible and what’s foolish,” according to Harvey.

You need someone who has seen a lot of things and can say very quickly what’s sensible and what’s foolish.

Marcus Harvey, Infoxchange

Having a board member well versed in technology helped Philanthropic Foundations of Canada prioritize technology in its strategic plan. “This is a perspective we wanted around the table,” CEO Jean-Marc Mangin says.

Ideally, an organization has built tech capacity across all levels – staff, executives, and board. Islamic Family and Social Services Association is such an organization. CEO Omar Yaqub explains that “a very fundamental digital literacy” is required for sophisticated technology conversations. He analogizes digital literacy to fluency in a language: “Why do we write our strategic plans, for the most part, in English or French or whatever language we speak? Because it’s our natural mode of being. And so I think for technology to be a part of the planning process or part of strategic planning, you need native speakers.”

Likewise, the executive director in Furniture Bank’s early days was comfortable with technology and made it his focus. Dan Kershaw, the current ED, brought a strong technology background from the private sector. He believes that “until digital is ingrained, leaders should champion the digital cause themselves” and that the CEO has to be the chief digital officer. At the same time, he recommends recruiting staff with digital skills. “Go beyond the ‘What’s your proficiency with MS Office or Google Apps?’ in hiring people!”

Plan B

In a perfect world, the strategic planning process includes an ED/CEO with tech expertise, an internal strategic tech leader, board members with tech expertise, and a strategic planning consultant well-versed in tech. We dub this the “peloton model” of strategic planning. For most non-profits, this is unrealistic. So what is plan B?

One option is to engage an external IT or tech strategy consultant to support the planning process – the “pedicab model.” Some technology vendors offer this service. However, not all tech experts understand the non-profit context. It is important to find an expert who is familiar with both technology and the specific needs of non-profit organizations.

Another option is to ask your strategic planning consultant to team up with a tech expert – the “tandem bike model.” It has the advantage of bringing deep strategy and tech expertise to bear. At a sector level, it will also, over time, strengthen the tech expertise of strategic planning consultants. “Ask your strategic planning consultant who their technical expert is, and what services they provide,” Knight suggests. They may offer a list of experts to choose from.

If engaging a consultant is too expensive, consider a volunteer. “Look to your network for people with titles like chief information officer, enterprise architect, and business training like an MBA as well as technical training,” Knight advises.

The sequencing of the work matters

Ideally, technology planning and strategic planning happen in an orderly, integrated fashion. However, it may be difficult to line up technology planning and strategic planning perfectly. Consider what should happen before, during, and after your strategic planning process.

Before you embark on strategic planning, you need two things.

First is an assessment of your digital maturity and IT infrastructure. “You can only build a plan for your future when you know your current state,” Harvey says. We discuss technology assessments and audits in greater detail below.

Second is an assessment of current trends. “Understanding trends around digital and tech is a critical part to explore the context of the work, which then informs what the organization’s strategy should be,” says Dan Sutch, director of CAST (the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology).

Examining the internal and external state of play can mirror a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, which is likely already an input into the strategic planning – only this time, it has a clear focus on technology.

During strategic planning, the tech-focused assessments, audits, and environmental scans should be considered alongside other planning inputs. This is also when it is critical to have a tech expert around the table to bring a technology perspective to the discussion.

After strategic planning, more granular technology planning may be required.

This stage of tech planning focuses on how to implement the overall strategy. According to Sutch, this “needs to align with the overall strategy development or follow very closely afterwards as part of operationalizing it.”

Incorporate an annual strategy check-up to refine and adjust your digital approach.

Dan Kershaw, Furniture Bank

Consultants like Technology Helps are frequently asked to help non-profits develop a strategic IT roadmap or other plan to operationalize the strategic plan.

Dan Kershaw recommends, “Incorporate an annual strategy check-up to refine and adjust your digital approach.”

Look beyond the non-profit sector for inspiration

Your stakeholders do not live in a non-profit bubble, and neither should you. It is important to look outside the non-profit sector to understand how technology can advance your work. This wider view helps organizations “get a sense of what truly can be done” and “what is truly possible if you look at your technology properly,” according to Almin Surani, global non-profit digital transformation lead at Avanade. This broadens the conversation beyond the details of back-end systems.

Charles Buchanan recommends asking, “‘What are other people doing around core business functions?’ For example, if you’re moving people around the city, who does that? If you’re moving kids, don’t necessarily look to the organizations that are moving seniors. Look to the companies who are moving workers.”

This also helps you meet your beneficiaries’ expectations. Strategy consultant Jeff Skipper has coined the phrase “innovation expectation syndrome”: “When we see an innovation in one area and we think it’s great, that expectation moves with us into other spaces. I think that makes things really challenging for non-profits.” For example, if your clients interact with businesses through an app, they may bring that expectation to their interactions with your organization.

Start on your journey well before it’s time for strategic planning

Ideally, the strategic planning process is not when you first turn your mind to technology. “Non-profits need to start sooner, before they get to the strategic planning stage, and actively build relationships with people in the technology space – just as they are building partnerships for fundraising and program delivery,” explains Jason Shim, a Canadian non-profit technologist. “That ensures that you have resources within the organizational network that you can tap for advice by the time you get to the strategic planning conversation.”

Non-profits need to start sooner, before they get to the strategic planning stage, and actively build relationships with people in the technology space.

Jason Shim, non-profit technologist

This may mean recruiting strategic technology experts to your board of directors or upskilling current members. Furniture Bank’s Kershaw recommends that organizations “build digital literacy at the board level to ensure governance that supports technological growth.”

It may require hiring differently. “You don’t have to hire a computer scientist, but you need someone who can think strategically about technology,” the Technology Association of Grantmakers’s Forster says.

Or it may mean engaging a long-term fractional tech consultant. “You might have to get a consultant in and pay them a little bit more once a year for the budget planning process, and then have an hour every quarterly review, or something like that. But having that advice stops people going down really bad paths that are expensive and costly to get out of,” Harvey says.

But if you’re just starting out, do these two things

You can’t go from zero to 100. Many organizations have low digital maturity or have been burned by bad experiences with technology. So where should you start? What, specifically, should you do?

Do a technology audit or assessment

First, take an organizational technology audit or assessment. This is a review of your current state, along with recommendations. Audits can be conducted by IT staff or consultants. A variety of assessments are also available online.

You need to know your current state before you can plan for the future. “If you don’t know what your technology environment is, you should undertake an audit before any business strategy work starts,” Harvey says. “I don’t know how you could provide useful guidance, input, or advice on implications if you don’t know what you’ve got.”

If you don’t know what your technology environment is, you should undertake an audit before any business strategy work starts.

Marcus Harvey, Infoxchange

Buchanan recommends that organizations “do a scan of what technologies they have and what they do for them. They might find duplication. Or they already have the technology to do that.”

An online assessment tool can help you understand your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Assessment tools include those offered by CanadaHelps, TechSoup, NTEN,, and others. While they will not be tailored to your organization, they will offer some useful insights.

With additional time and resources, you can hire a consultant to complete a technology audit. This will help you prioritize competing technology investments. A consultant can work with staff to understand how technology is supporting, or undermining, your mission. With this analysis in hand, “you can then align the technical biggest challenges to your strategic goals and identify which technical investments would make the most meaningful impact for the mission,” Knight says.

Educate your executives and board members

Second, bring in a guest speaker or trainer to educate your executives and board. A technology expert who is well-versed in the non-profit sector can cut through the “overwhelm” and help decision-makers understand the importance of technology to your organization’s mission.

“Bring in non-profit technology experts to help you understand what is possible, help you brainstorm, and give you a realistic picture of what is possible,” says technology consultant John Kenyon. Skipper adds, “I’m a firm believer in education. The board must be educated because we need them to sign off on the budget.”

Tech topics to include in every strategic planning discussion

Each strategic plan is unique. Likewise, each will address technology in a unique way. The details will vary enormously across organizations. But there are some rules of thumb.

Three big-picture questions should be asked, Sutch says.

First, how does digital help you deliver on your strategy and mission? This enables you to seek efficiencies and prioritize investments.

Second, how is digital used by the community that the organization serves? “If their digital behaviours have changed, then strategically and operationally the organization needs to respond to this – ensuring their work meets the needs, behaviours, and expectations of the people and communities they serve,” he says.

Third, how does digital/tech change the strategy and mission of the organization? This can include new forms of technology-facilitated harms as well as new digital solutions.

Several experts recommend that cybersecurity be considered in every strategic planning process. Others emphasize the importance of staff training. Often, “non-profits report they have the tools to do the work but lack the training or skills to use the tools properly,” Kenyon says.

Tech projects to prioritize

In your planning process, you may decide to pick one or two tech projects to prioritize. But which ones?

Start where you are. “Look at how you are using tech now. Identify your points of pain with technology. Discuss how you could align technology to directly support your strategic goals,” Kenyon advises.

Look at how you are using tech now. Identify your points of pain with technology. Discuss how you could align technology to directly support your strategic goals.

John Kenyon, tech consultant

And start small and simple. “Do something that will deliver some wins, and people will see the value first,” Harvey says. “Don’t go ‘We’re going to transform the organization! Everyone get on board!’ Even if you get people on board, there’s a higher degree of failure. So build experience, build trust.”

To increase confidence and trust, be realistic about what tech can, and cannot, accomplish in your organization. “It’s not a silver bullet,” PFC’s Mangin says. Ask yourself, “Given your level of resources, what can be done?”

Tech can be a vertical or horizontal priority in the strategic plan

Technology shows up in strategic plans in two ways. In some, it is a stand-alone strategic objective or priority. For example, a priority of Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s latest strategic plan is “reinvent [our] digital ecosystem.” In others, technology is positioned as an enabler of other objectives. “Achieving some goals in your strategic plan will be possible without involving technology, but that number is decreasing every year as technology becomes ubiquitous,” Knight says.

Achieving some goals in your strategic plan will be possible without involving technology, but that number is decreasing every year as technology becomes ubiquitous.

Helen Knight

There is no right answer. But if you are just starting on your digital journey or need a significant upgrade, you may want to prioritize tech as a stand-alone objective. This unlocks resources like budget, staff time, and board time to devote to building digital maturity.

“Where there are fundamental limitations, and the organization is constrained by technology, you’re more likely to see it as a pillar in its own right,” Harvey explains. “Because the organization is going ‘We just can’t move forward. We can’t grow. We can’t build our data and evidence base. We can’t enable our staff to be efficient. We can’t keep our staff.’”

“If you’re one of those organizations that is significantly behind, then it’s probably its own pillar or priority, just to get an upgrade,” Skipper says.

This was the case at Malvern Family Resource Centre (MFRC). “While the pandemic pushed many front-line social service organizations, including MFRC, into quickly adopting client-facing digital tools, they weren’t well coordinated, and more medium-term plans to improve back-end systems couldn’t be prioritized,” ED Josh Berman says. Now, “digital and operations transformation” is one of the strategic plan’s four “strategic enablers.”

I don’t see technology as an independent pillar. I see it as something that should be a medium for everything.

Omar Yaqub, Islamic Family and Social Services

More digitally advanced organizations, like Islamic Family and Social Services Association, may naturally consider technology across the entire strategy. Its latest strategic plan lists technology enablers for various strategic priorities, such as providing team members with technical training and using data to inform decisions. “I don’t see technology as an independent pillar. I see it as something that should be a medium for everything,” CEO Yaqub says. “So if we’re thinking about ‘How do you move from a learning culture to a teaching culture?’ we can’t do that without thinking about ‘How do you think about LMS [learning management systems]? How do you think about YouTube shorts? How do you think about delivering?’”

We also need sector-level enablers

Some targeted sector-level interventions could also clear the path for non-profits seeking to integrate technology considerations into their strategic planning.

Fund technology planning

We are not aware of any Canadian funders that invest in technology planning as a core activity.

Foundations on the whole are not technologically advanced. Forster calls it a “chicken and egg problem.” She says that “in some ways non-profits are a bit ahead of foundations in terms of use of tech. Foundations struggle around the strategic use of technology,” so they are less likely to fund grantees for strategic technology work.

This may be changing. “The good news is that funders who are funding tech are starting to look at technology funding as not just funding the tech, but funding the strategy, the skills, and the tools as well,” Forster says.

There are no sector funders for this strategy work. But if you get some proof and successes, there are some who might get behind you.

Dan Kershaw

Of more than 400 grants Furniture Bank has received over 20 years, fewer than 10 were linked to technology-related transformation – and all of those came in the last 10 years. “In a nutshell, there are no sector funders for this strategy work,” Kershaw says. “But if you get some proof and successes, there are some who might get behind you.”

Similarly, in other jurisdictions, only a handful of foundations fund technology planning. One is the Strategic Technology Program offered by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving in Connecticut.

Technology company Okta has been an early and vocal champion of non-profit digital resilience. Victor Cordon, director of social impact, exhorts foundations to prioritize non-profit technology granting. “Three years since the start of the pandemic, and non-profits continue to grapple with a technology infrastructure which ballooned to support remote work and digital program and service delivery,” he says. “There is a pressing need to invest in the digital resilience of non-profits so they are better prepared to cope with future shocks. However, core funding to support technology remains desperately lacking.”

There is a pressing need to invest in the digital resilience of non-profits so they are better prepared to cope with future shocks.

Victor Cordon, Okta

His advice: “Start with your community of grantees to understand their tech stack and how they’ve aligned technology to their organizational strategy, if at all. Identify any opportunities to invest in their tech capacity, whether on an individual basis or as a community of grantees in a cohort model.”

Some funders, such as Centraide of Greater Montreal, provide financial support for strategic planning initiatives. However, Centraide has not received funding requests for strategic plans that specifically include tech considerations or broader digital strategy. Centraide may play a role stimulating demand and supporting supply.

Build consultant capacity

Strategic planning consultants are a key driver of change. If they can build strong technology planning into their processes, this could scale across all the organizations they serve. One option is to train strategic planning consultants in technology. “Capacitate the roster of strategic planners,” Forster says.

Another option is to facilitate connections between strategic planning consultants and technology strategy consultants. They could then assemble their own tandem bikes. “Bring the tech experts into a room with the non-profit consultants and have them get to know each other,” Avanade’s Surani recommends. “So when a non-profit consultant gets hired, they know who to talk to and bring into the fold.”

Get tech experts on boards

A sector-level intervention focused on recruiting and placing tech experts on non-profit boards could also move the needle. Other jurisdictions have focused on this work, such as the Digital Trustees program in the United Kingdom. Okta has recently invested in the work of Board.Dev in the United States.

Expand leaders’ understanding of what’s possible

Many non-profits “don’t know what they don’t know.” This constrains their ability to fully leverage technology.

A sector-level intervention could focus on educating non-profit leaders on the possibilities. Kershaw recommends using a hackathon model to create digital solutions for a specific non-profit subsector. “Until they can see it, they can’t imagine it. Hackathons bring so many different perspectives to accomplish something together and see what’s possible.”


All non-profit leaders should consider how to harness the strategic planning process to build digital capacity. As Kershaw says, “Survive and thrive in the age of uncertainty: make tech a core part of your strategy to streamline operations, boost outreach, and amplify impact.”



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