The Aspiration Manifesto

Jonathan Eyler-Werve

December 14, 2011

This is written by Allen Gunn and co. at Aspiration, an organization that helps nonprofits make better technology decisions. I love this thing. I send so many people to this page, that I wanted to post it somewhere with slightly bigger type. I’ve linked the original and definitive version of the Aspiration Manifesto. – Jonathan


Aspiration is a values-driven nonprofit technology organization. Our work, our passion, and our focus derive from a set of philosophies that come down to a single unassailable conviction: technology and technologists should be in service to nonprofits and their missions, not the other way around.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, or at least readily verifiable via grizzled veterans of nonprofit technology struggles:

Our manifesto is posted as a love-fueled rant, and we invite you to read it in the same spirit :^)

To Elaborate:

Nonprofits should strive to remain in control of their technology destiny.

This is always challenging, and it requires a poignant and visceral understanding of the alternative. Organizational processes should drive technology thinking, not the other way around. Organizations should pay earnest attention so as to understand what they are requesting and what is being delivered, whether it be by staff or external providers, and even when it is not simple to grok. And all staff should be treated as engaged stakeholders in technology planning.

Thinking first about measurable, achievable goals, developing concrete strategies, selecting technologies proven to support realizing such goals, and explicitly designing and documenting replicable processes to employ selected technologies, should be the paradigm of all nonprofit tech endeavors. Even when resource limitations dictate otherwise.

Power dynamics in nonprofit technology are all too often broken.

Techies, especially technology consultants, have too much power and not enough accountability in many relationships. Nonprofits feel disempowered by the majority of technology engagements. Designing processes that hold techies accountable to nonprofit mission, and that place them in a position of creating simple, usable solutions instead of dictating non-trivial technology terms which only they understand, should be a primary objective of any nonprofit’s technology strategy and process. Technology expertise should never be synonymous with disproportionate decision-making authority.

Technology discussions and planning should remain firmly rooted in the language of the end user.

Vocabulary is a powerful barrier to organizational autonomy and empowerment. Nonprofits don’t care about acronyms, jargon and buzzwordology; “XML RPC”, “CRM”, and “syndication” are closer to profanity than profundity for the typical nonprofit staff member or activist. They care about social justice and making the world a better place. They want tools that support their vision, not distract from it. Technologists who talk tech early and often are doing nonprofits a disservice by exploiting specialized vocabulary to get to “done” and on to the next techsploit without fully explaining their intentions and associated implications, or enabling the organization to move forward on their own terms. Techies who shortchange meaningful discovery, who fail to document requirements and intended functionality in language and formats that all end users can understand, and who fail to treat excellent training and clean hand-off as more important deliverables than the associated technology, are paving solution cul-de-sacs for the organizations they claim to serve.

Technology challenges are organizational development opportunities in disguise.

Designing and redesigning web sites, developing online communications strategies, deciding who gets to blog, Tweet, and update social network status: these objectives tease out underlying issues of how an organization represents its work, talks about itself, and empowers its staff and allies to convey the same. Technology projects too often go awry not because of tech issues, but because an organization is not prepared to address the foundational dynamics that underpin effective technology utilization. Organizations should be prepared to do heavy lifting in challenging existing process (and/or the lack thereof) and associated control dynamics, and should treat technology engagements as opportunities to move to more transparent and accountable ways of doing business, communicating and affecting social change.

Technology is for building and strengthening relationships; it is not a replacement for the same. 

**A “Donate Now” button is not a virtual and instant ATM; it is a doorway through which some of those who have come to respect, appreciate and support an organization’s work will hopefully some day and more than once pass. Establishing a mailing list and renting an online action platform will not transform a nonprofit into the next TrueMajority; such steps only create the opportunity to develop meaningful dialogs with online audiences in order to build trust relationships, mobilize citizen power and positively impact communities. Technology provides conduits and multipliers for organizational messages and services that reach present and future allies to realize change. It does not inherently or magically convert the non-initiated, win the campaign, or achieve just outcomes. Even if that technology is named Twitter.

It’s about the data, not the software and hardware.

It is a tragedy of nonprofit budgeting that software (web site, CRM, fundraising, office tools, etc) and hardware (desktops, laptops, routers, gizmos, etc) enjoy dedicated line items in organizational budgets, while the more abstract and essential technology components known ubiquitously as “data” rarely surface as identified investments and cost centers for anything other than project-specific work. The amount of staff time and salary invested in creating and maintaining organizational data dwarfs the hard costs of the associated tools. Nonprofits should center their technology strategy and resource allocation around the creation and curation of data, instead of fixating on the cost of applications and processors that edit and store that data. Data is each organization’s digital power; proprietary technology should not serve as a jail or cage that bounds that power. Which means…

Technology is a vessel to create, maintain and carry data into the future.

Data will outlive technology every time, so nonprofits should plan for end-of-lifing platforms and tools, and for migrating data . Technology selection decisions are not unlike marriages; divorce is sure to be painful if and when that day comes, and it all too often comes. Nonprofits should maintain data in open and accessible formats, and verify portability, migration and integration options on a regular basis. Even when programmatic fecal matter is hitting the proverbial fan and ones and zeros are the last thing on the organizational mind. Thus…

If it is not free (as in speech) and open (as in open), it is worth trying to avoid.

While the promise of free and open source software has sometimes been oversold, and is only some of the time realized in the nonprofit sector (CMSBrowserCRM!), closed and proprietary solutions continue to dictate licensing, workflow and data formats to nonprofit users. Tools that lock in organizations, that charge usurious fees, or which fail to give nonprofits flexibility and control of their long-term destiny should be de-prioritized in favor of those which are designed to give nonprofits sovereign control of their operations and processes. Closed tools which are “too important to avoid” should catalyze movements of those passionate and willing to create healthy, sustainable free and open alternatives.

Process-driven technology is good technology. Technology without process is bad technology.

Many have opined that “nonprofit workflow” is an oxymoron. Rare is the nonprofit that formally defines its business processes. Rarer still is the organization that specifies and adopts technology specifically to support defined processes. Too often, selected technologies end up dictating process and workflow. Technologies should not be adopted until the workflows they support have been described, and stakeholders in those workflows have verified both accuracy of the workflow and affirmed that the technology plan supports the way they do their job, rather than defining the same.

What has worked offline for generations still deeply informs what works best overall.

Technology has not changed the game so much as it has changed the process of winning the same. The game is the same as it has been since before anyone walking today on this earth was alive: build power in movements to catalyze social change and justice, and hold corporations, governments, and random controlling parties accountable for the leverage they exert and maintain. Tech fetishism is never a substitute for great organizing. Technology will not set you free, in fact quite the opposite.

Nonprofits should (almost) never write their own software. 

**…and should better learn how to reuse existing software. When they do create code, they should work in constant consultation with others who have survived the process. Software provisioning is not like pizza delivery; you don’t order a case management system or a web site or a CRM solution and have it delivered piping hot on a short turnaround to be consumed care free. Developing custom software is like planting an ambitious spring garden; only the experienced and the previously unsuccessful know that watering and weeding tasks and associated time commitments will dwarf initial implementation efforts, and understand how to plan for the ineluctable winters. If the mission of a nonprofit is to create software, that’s all fine and good, but if the mission of a nonprofit is other, they should avoid the perils of trying to become a software development shop and instead study what existing tools others are using to achieve relevant outcomes. “Our needs are different than everyone else’s” is an unsustainable vanity of the sector that leads to bad technology decisions.

Less is more, and iterative is good. 

**Too often nonprofits treat technology projects like a trip to the market from a remote location. They try to pack in as much as they can in one pass, so they won’t have to deal with it again for a while. But doing technology right is never easy, and every new function added to a technology deliverable increases exponentially the likelihood of delays and less-than-successful outcomes. Adopting essential feature sets defined by user input and focused on delivering concrete value, and then incrementally enhancing those tools based on user feedback, is a more realistic and sustainable way for nonprofits to successfully adopt technology. Such approaches always cost less in the long run, if not the near term. Let users drive priorities and vision for new tools, but also make them justify their requests in terms of actual value delivered and measurable impact to mission. When in doubt, leave it out.

And last, but perhaps most important: nonprofits should never forget who technology leaves out, and what it leaves undone.

A number of those most in need of the social justice impact that nonprofits strive to realize exist beyond the reach of the latest shiny internet fad. Technology is a powerful, seductive and essential vehicle for communicating vision, winning campaigns, buttressing programs and supporting operations. But technology doesn’t make a better world, people working for positive social change make that better world. The most impactful technologies are those that get individuals away from their screens, and out into their communities to strengthen the social fabric and build movement power. Technologies should always be assessed with regard to their ability to be inclusive, and to drive real change as opposed to virtual momentum.

We welcome your feedback on our guiding principles; they are a work in progress borne of many nonprofit technology engagements over many years.

We learn by gratefully working with the many and varied nonprofit organizations and communities we serve, and we invite you to work with us.

— Aspiration

( — CC by)

Image: Aspiration