The Accidental CIO

Technology was supposed to be one of the saviors of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Two years ago, the world-renowned ballet company was in disarray. When it should have been celebrating its 35th anniversary, it was laying off dancers. A financial crisis had the nonprofit institution $2.5 million in debt, forcing a six-week shutdown of its dance school and the hiatus of its celebrated ballet troupe—a hiatus that continues to this day.

Following the shutdown, an emergency infusion of funds from New York City and private donors helped DTH reopen its school and reconstitute its board of directors. At the same time, DTH hired an executive director to provide much-needed management discipline, and it looked as if the dance company would turn the corner. Part of the turnaround strategy included plans to shore up the theater’s technology infrastructure.

In the fall of 2004, the company did manage to upgrade some basic IT necessities, but more work was desperately needed. So in the spring of this year, fund-raising officer Rodney Trapp led an interdepartmental task force to create a strategic IT investment plan for DTH. Yet, sadly, after painstakingly crafting a modest list of four key technology priorities, the entire plan was summarily dismissed by the company’s finance director. He thought the entire effort was a waste of time and human resources. Most of the DTH tech plan would never see the light of day.

Such is often the fate of technology initiatives in the parallel universe that is the not-for-profit sector. While there are numerous examples of nonprofits that have invested aggressively in information technology to help deliver on their social or charitable mission—the American Red Cross and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are among the notables—the experience at DTH is much more typical. Fact is, most IT managers at nonprofits must work on shoestring budgets, using outmoded technology, in an environment where their contributions aren’t given high priority.

Technology advocates at nonprofit organizations—most even smaller than DTH, with its staff of about 23—typically have that role “thrust upon them, without the authority to go with it,” says Jeffrey Forster, technology services director for the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, in Pittsburgh. Adds Forster: “The nonprofit techie is just a really lonely job.”

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