Are You an Accidental Techie?

by Maru Willson | Dec 16, 2013
In small offices, including among many Exponent Philanthropy members, it’s not uncommon for an organization’s technology to be managed by someone without “technology” in his or her job description. Within many circles, this person has come to be known as an accidental techie.

An accidental techie might be an administrative assistant asked to create online board books, a program officer who works with a vendor to customize new software, or a board member responsible for keeping everyone’s computers secure. These inadvertent experts may research options, troubleshoot problems, or oversee the implementation of new tools.

Exponent Philanthropy member Rachel Ayn Pickens, program officer at the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, became an accidental techie at her foundation because she was young and had prior experience with social media. “Everyone assumes young Millennials will know what to do because we grew up with technology,” says Rachel. “Age may have something to do with finding yourself in an ‘accidental techie’ role, but it’s not everything. It has more to do with wanting to learn and being willing to teach yourself what you need to know.”

And the role doesn’t just fall to those in administrative or operational positions. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, most organizational leaders will see technology become an increasingly important component of their work—making it necessary to consider technology planning and use.

Are you an accidental techie, or do you know one? Here are some tips to help accidental techies overcome intimidation, manage new technology, and stay current on technology trends.

Keep Your Mission Front and Center

It may be most important for accidental techies to adopt this mantra early and use it often: Technology is a partner in achieving our mission. More than just something to be tackled, technology can represent a way to reach your mission more efficiently and effectively. Connecting your mission to technology under consideration is also vital to gathering buy-in from others in your organization, as well as helping others think creatively about the possibilities offered by prospective technology.

Above all, the mission that drives your work is more powerful than any intimidation that may come with choosing or using new technology. If you need help to define or clarify a mission for your philanthropy, we have many resources to help at

Align Today’s Technology With Your Needs

When faced with today’s array of technology options, you’ll want to think next about your organization’s needs. Technology emerges for a reason—to meet basic needs with better speed, efficacy, or reach—and you’ll want to rely on your organization’s needs as a guide.

With your needs as a filter, you will quiet the buzz of the technology scene and focus only on those options that can help you address your needs. You’ll also avoid the trap of purchasing the latest technology just because it’s new, or because someone told you to.

“Our CEO has more than 20 years in the field of philanthropy both as a grantor and a grantee,” shared Rachel. “It is a clear fit for her to determine what we need our online database to do. Our latest step was to connect with GuideStar’s API (application programming interface) so that a potential grantee’s tax information is right where we need it when reviewing grant applications.”

  • Keeping good records—Accounting ledgers, hanging files, and rows of cabinets used to be the recordkeeping norm; today software and electronic storage are saving organizations time, money, and space. Almost every process to run a grantmaking organization can be fully automated and secured in a database or other software program; no real estate needed.

  • Meetings—Whereas meetings used to be scheduled by phone or mail, with in-person participation as the only option, advances in technology have made it simpler than ever to schedule events, engage remote participants, and evaluate outcomes afterward. From shared calendars to videoconferencing solutions to online survey tools, today’s technology is particularly suited to serve your meeting needs.

  • Networking—Connecting with others used to happen solely in person, through handshakes and business cards; now networking also happens through social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+) and more rapidly than ever. According to McKinsey Global Institute, whereas radio took 40 years and television 10 years to reach an audience of 50 million, Facebook took just 1 year and Twitter just 9 months to reach an audience of the same size.

  • Telling your story—Today’s video options (YouTube, Vimeo, Skype, Google Hangout) not only allow you to host meetings with participants from afar, they also allow you to tell the story of your work—and the work of your grantees—in your own words. For example, see to hear from members of Youth Philanthropy Connect, a special project of the Exponent Philanthropy member Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, about why they give.

Position Yourself for Success

Taking on an unfamiliar or “accidental” role can certainly feel risky. The good news is that common strategies can help you succeed, including many strategies you may use in other aspects of your work.

  • Know your organization. The most successful “technology adopters” are adaptive organizations—that is, a group of people who can overcome obstacles and manage change by asking questions, challenging assumptions, and generally communicating well. This certainly sounds like a good grantmaker; does it sound like your organization?

  • Consider costs carefully. Inexpensive, short-term fixes may be just what you need, or may be terrible (and terribly costly) in the long term. Be sure to carefully evaluate the costs involved in maintaining your status quo versus those involved across the lifetime of shortterm or long-term solutions (e.g., training, integration, maintenance). Fellow Exponent Philanthropy members can help you to estimate these costs; search our Member Directory or join our Member Discussion List.

  • Call for backup. A little professional help can go a long way in minimizing your time away from other
    duties. Rachel calls on a technology firm to assist in the maintenance, backup, and security of her foundation’s network and database. “I save my organization money,” she says, “because I do as much as I can with what I know, and then call the firm to supplement when more expertise is needed.” Exponent Philanthropy’s Professional Directory and Member Directory are great places for referrals.

Stay Current

Organizations often come to rely on their accidental techies to keep others up-to-date on new and popular technology. Here are just a few ways to stay in-the-know:

  • Join a peer network of others who use technology in their work. is a great place to find community.

  • Register for a course from a vendor or a capacity building organization (e.g., Idealware, NTEN, TechSoup) to keep your skills sharp and make sure you get the most functionality from the tools you’re using.

  • Sign up for updates from vendors so that you’ll be the first to hear about new products or upgrades to existing ones.

  • Benefit from conversations happening online by subscribing to blogs and online magazines, or following interesting people on Twitter.

  • And, of course, talk with others about the tools they find useful.

“In small-staff organizations like ours, the more you know, the stronger you are,” says Rachel, who enjoys continually learning about ways to serve her foundation—and its community—through technology and other means.

In fact, as she and many accidental techies demonstrate, there is very little that is accidental about the care with which they bolster their staff, board members, grantees, and communities through technology.

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