What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

The-IT-Crowd-006I’m not talking about what we should expect the “digital” people to know — or the IT staff. These folks are always going to require a deeper set of particular skills that are going to vary greatly depending on their role and the particular organization. I’m asking a bigger and more abstract question: what skills should we expect of everyone who works in an organization trying to make change in the world — from the CEO to the administrative assistants, and everyone in between.

Is it simply enough to expect “proficiency with Word, Excel and Outlook?” Or, in 2014, should we be expecting more?

I think we can and should expect more.

Let’s start by unpacking the notion of “proficiency” with “basic office productivity software.”  There’s more here than meets the eye. Here’s my list of tasks I’d expect someone who has solid “intermediate proficiency” with the basic tools that are essential to modern mission-driven work to be able to perform.

1. Format a document with style-based formatting, both in a word processor and in a website content management system
2. Create, share and organize online documents and spreadsheets.
3. Use “tracked changes” or similar document revision features to collaborate on a document with others
4. Perform a basic mail merge from a spreadsheet, and be able to translate basic mail merge concepts to online tools such as broadcast email systems
5. Compose and send a lightly-branded broadcast email message that looks good on a mobile phone
6. Sort and filter a list in a spreadsheet
7. Use common spreadsheet formulas to analyze data like SUM, AVERAGE, MEDIAN
8. Create a simple chart or graph that follows most of Edward Tufte’s rules of good information design
9. Crop and resize an image for use on the web or in an email
10. Create a lightly formatted but professional-looking set of presentation slides that are compliant with an organization’s brand guidelines
11. Set up and use an LCD projector
12. Host and deliver a presentation online through webinar or online meeting software.
13. Use text/video chat software like Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. for real-time communication with colleagues
14. Manage one’s calendar online
15. Book appointments with colleagues and partners electronically
16. Use a password manager to generate and use secure passwords for online services
17. Build a simple online survey and interpret the results
18. Create rules or filters in an email client to organize your inbox
19. Track tasks with a team using tools like Trello, Asana, Basecamp or Evernote
20. Export a list of names or other data from one system in CSV format and upload the list into another system
21. Create and manage an email discussion list
22. Look up and edit contact information for constituents in a CRM database system
23. Bonus: design the agenda for and facilitate an effective small group meeting

Bet you weren’t expecting 23 items. (Hey, did I leave anything important out? Leave a comment!)

Seriously: imagine how much more efficient and effective our organizations would be if we could count on all of our colleagues and allies to have mastered these basic skills.

I’m not naive; this is a high bar. Is the solution then to raise our hiring standards? Maybe. When I’m hiring folks, I certainly attempt to gauge how solid their technology skills are. But I realize that there are a lot of smart, bright and capable folks out there who couldn’t tick all of these boxes. That’s OK. College is supposed to teach you to read, write and think — it’s not supposed to be vocational education.

This means that employers need to be ready to train their people in the practical skills they need to excel in the workplace. Part of the job of any social mission organization is to bring in smart, bright and capable people and help them grow. This takes a strong organizational commitment to making those investments — and a strong organizational culture of peer learning. And you can be sure I am looking to hire people who are motivated and ready to learn (and to teach!).

Folks who are already in the social change workforce: you should see mastering as many of these skills as possible as an essential part of your job. These are the building blocks of 21st century social mission work.

Update 7/4/2014: edited slightly to incorporate great feedback from commenters below and on social media. Thanks, keep the feedback coming!

Minor updates on 8/16/2016. Thanks Natalee Hill!

7 thoughts on “What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?”

  1. Dear Jon,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post on baseline skills for nonprofit professionals! I don’t have an immediate critique, because I need to ponder this.

    In 2004, I wrote a blog article on what every nonprofit executive needs to know. (You can find it here: https://deborahelizabethfinn.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/what-every-nonprofit-executive-needs-to-know-about-information-technology-redux/) I’m not sure I’d make the same list today, but here is a list of skills I came up with for folks in the C-Suite:

    -How to compose, send, read, and delete email, using the organization’s standard application.

    -How to create and save a simple text document, using the organization’s standard application.

    -How to do the daily back up of the system.

    -How to bring down and bring up the network server.

    Was I too ambitious in 2004, or not ambitious enough?

    Warm regards from Deborah

  2. I’d guess that some skills around use of social media platforms, apps and online databases could be added here. Things that come to mind are perhaps under item 5 above — say using Hootsuite or IFTTT to set up an automatic schedule of communications you want to share with your organizations’ online communities on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and the like. Ability to quickly find or check facts via online research tools ranging from Factiva to Google Scholar or PLoS. And above all? Willingness to tinker around with new apps that any team is considering using. (Things like Dropbox and Evernote were new not that long ago!)

  3. Thanks for not making a Word-centric list – I use LibreOffice! What I would add: (1) ability to switch to a new version of software, or to a new software platform for a particular function, without having a complete, utter meltdown. (2) ability to define what he or she needs out of software in specific terms related to his or her job. (3) ability to use various “find” functions – to find a particular word or phrase in a document, to find a particular file on a computer, to find a particular record in a database, to find what you’re looking for on google or bing…

  4. Great article Jon and one close to my heart. People+technology is a really interesting intersection. I’d add Prepare PowerPoint presentations to this list too. A lot of organization use it but not everyone knows how to use the company template or make changes to an existing document. I’d also say there’s a meta-skill here that the organization itself should posses which is to create a friendly learning environment. It’s all to easy, in its absence, for frustration at different skill levels to be the culture of the org. You mentioned training above which is part of it but peer-learning and spontaneous collaboration should be too.

  5. What average annual salary do you feel would be needed to attract and retain the average NP employee that had this skill set, as opposed to a for profit entity?

  6. Great comments, all, thank you!

    Deborah: it is amazing how much times have changed since 2004, eh? (And how much remains the same!)

    Lora: you’re right, I sort of overlooked social media basic here. Everybody in a nonprofit needs to able be an effective social media communicator — at least occasionally.

    Jayne: Excellent points, particularly #3. THE ability to learn quickly and with good cheer (about anything, not just tech!) is pretty much my #1 hiring criterion. 🙂

    Sam: But I couldn’t agree more about the importance of building an organizational culture that supports continuous learning. Thanks for shining the light on that! (PS I addressed “presentation software” in item #10. )

  7. Great question, but hard to answer with a single number. I think it depends on the role and responsibility one is asking them to assume, the size of the organization and the other skills and experiences the person is bringing to bear. Nonprofit compensation is a topic for a whole separate post that I may get around to writing someday. 😉

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