IT spending lessons from the oft resource-constrained nonprofit world

In the corporate world, even constrained by economic uncertainty and budget cuts, organizations allocate scarce resources toward technology to provide a competitive advantage. 

It’s different in parts of the nonprofit sector. 

“Technology in the corporate world is usually to try and help the bottom line,” said Rui Lopes, CIO at the nonprofit HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. With limited resources, the goal for every branch of HIAS is to help the beneficiary. 

In the technology stack, this leaves little room for upgrades or extra tools, even with the support of corporate partners providing technology services.  

HIAS is an international nonprofit working toward humanitarian aid and refugee assistance. Its beneficiaries, refugees and displaced people, represent some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. 

Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, HIAS operates globally, providing services for refugees in 16 countries including Kenya, Costa Rica and Venezuela. The bulk of its revenue is allocated toward refugees and immigration, in the U.S. and internationally. 

In 2019, HIAS brought in $58.4 million in revenue, earned from a combination of contributions, grants and government aid, among others, according to its annual report. Of its expenses, which totaled $59.9 million, 80% went to refugee assistance. Just 14%, or $8.5 million, was allocated toward management and general support.  

For Lopes, the answer to the resource constraints became a platform approach, where services are integrated under one provider, in this case Microsoft Dynamics 365.  

It follows the 80-20 rule, he said. Technology platforms need to do 80% of what an organization needs to be impactful and efficient. The last 20%, HIAS can fill in. 

Cloud technology made the shift toward platforms possible. It also solved operation challenges for global organizations, even in locations with limited bandwidth. Saving money comes from modernization of a technology stack to streamlining solutions. 

“When I came to HIAS, the organization, for all intents and purposes, their IT was Jurassic Park,” Lopes said. “The organization had not matured, had not been educated on, had not seen the benefits of a digital transformation, of an IT strategy, of an expansion of IT resources around the world.” 

It takes education and patience to sway stakeholders technology requires investments. To succeed, Lopes had to connect investments to the beneficiary so people could see the benefits. 

“If you can eliminate complexity, it trickles down into the spending,” Lopes said. Frugality is emphasized and Lopes is called to be creative, because the need for laptops or physical equipment never disappears. 

The corporate world is complex and sprawling, he said. If organizations fail to look at their technology sprawl in totality and minimize complexity, spend becomes exponential. 

The case of the case management system

The adoption of a platform-based system became a pilot in Kenya, where HIAS has several branch offices. There, an individual may seek services from several of its branch offices and in each case provides basic information.

“As we came into that Kenya pilot, the issue was, the data’s all over the place. It’s in somebody’s laptop, it’s written on somebody’s paper on somebody’s desk because that’s how the process happens,” Lopes said. 

This can pose a risk to securing personally identifiable information. In Kenya, where it’s a criminal offense to have gay sex, if a LGBT refugee’s information got into the wrong hands, it could put that person in danger, Lopes said.

The answer in adopting the system became simplicity. Before HIAS adopted the Dynamics platform, behind the scenes it had to understand what’s possible with the platform and which part of the “existing solution can be customized, and if it’s customized how far we should customize,” said Alex Mouratchanidis, IT Developer & Business Analyst with HIAS.  

“If we customize, are we going outside the best-practice spectrum or we’re still staying in the industry standard,” Mouratchanidis said. 

The tech team worked to standardize the entire system so it required less customization for individual end users. They also had to consolidate disparate information in a logical way to import it into the platform. 

As it completes the Kenya pilot, the goal for HIAS is to have all core system intake in all its countries on the platform in 2021. 

The case management system secures and makes records accessible to all staff on a centralized platform, Lopes said. IT can permission “almost everything, from data to user level.” 

“We are centralizing that data, we are creating one source of truth,” Lopes said. “Our data is now more accurate. 

“We do not have the resources to hire a project management office, a series of project managers, tons of developers,” Lopes said. “So if you synthesize that, all it boils down to is we need a platform, we need a development platform that is very easy to put together [and] minimize the custom coding.”