Sustainable Digital: Some Tech Tools To Help Nonprofit Staff Work Smarter

By Bob Lawson, Founder of Sustainable Digital

Working for a nonprofit has many rewards, but there are frustrations. There are never enough hours in the day, it seems, to accomplish all you need to accomplish.

Before you succumb to the temptation to work more hours, think about working smarter. Some useful tech tools can help you get more done.

Nonprofits are not always good about keeping up with their for-profit cousins when it comes to adopting new software and smart phone apps. This means there are dozens of useful tools out there, just waiting for you to discover.

As you’ve likely noted, the nature of software has changed. Until recently, you purchased software, loaded it on your computer and used it until it was no longer useful. Today, many tech services are cloud-based, meaning that you access it through your web browser. And instead of a hefty upfront fee, there’s a small monthly charge.

Of course, big systems like Microsoft Office are now also available in the cloud with monthly pricing, but by and large, it is the smaller packages that may surprise and please you. And if your needs are modest, you may find a free, starter version of many tech tools sufficient – or find that there are discounts for nonprofit organizations.

Let me share with you some examples.

Some tools that may help:

Here are a few tech services that you might find useful at your nonprofit. There are dozens and dozens; this is just a sample:



Video introduction:

HipChat is one of a group of utilities that help you reduce the flow of email to your inbox while organizing your communication within teams. This may sound pretty boring, but read on.

So many things should not arrive in your inbox: Simple notifications and 2-word replies, not to mention all the things you’re copied on that you really don’t need to know. Instead of email, channel this communication to Instant Messenger. We all use it in one way or another, even if by a different name: Text messaging on your smartphone, Skype IM, Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp.

HipChat is an instant messenger on steroids that allows you to organize these chats by project, topic or group (such as senior management or HR). The chats are organized and they are saved and searchable for the future. And you can do more, such as attach and share files, add lists of useful links, or even make video calls.

You can use HipChat on your office or home computer, as well as via Android and iPhone apps. This keeps the information flowing seamlessly, even when people are not physically in the office.

HipChat is similar to Slack ( and other communication/collaboration services such as Microsoft’s Yammer. There is free, no-frills version of HipChat available for an unlimited number of users.

Tableau Public


Video introduction:

Just when you figured out how to make charts and graphs behave in Excel, along comes a much better tool.

Tableau helps you import data from a spreadsheet (either Excel or Google Sheets) and assists in the visual presentation of that data in a chart, in a graph, on a map, or all of the above. These visual presentations are easily manipulated using filters and other controls, helping you bring the data to life.

These presentations are stored on Tableau’s servers, enabling you to share via email links and social media. You can also embed them on a website.

Tableau Public is free, which is good, since a full-featured version will run you almost $1000 per user. But even there, a 2-year free license is available to most nonprofits with budgets less than $5 million a year. Details at:



Video introduction:

Managing projects can be hard. Most people find themselves with countless to-do lists, an overflowing inbox, and documents scattered across their hard drives. It works, but computers where meant to make our lives easier. You can do better.

Trello uses a visual interface that allows you to manage a project a bit like you would if you were using Post-its and manila file folders — but much more efficiently, since you’re doing it all online.

A Trello Board is analogous to a project and within that Board you have Cards that are arranged together in lists (or what you might consider decks). Cards can contain task lists, uploaded files, images, text or comments. In short, there is most everything you’ll need for the successful completion of your project.

And when something changes, as projects often do, simply use your mouse to rearrange and reorganize the pieces of your project.

For a more conventional project management system, try Teamwork (, but Trello’s ease of use makes it the favorite of many.

Zoho Expense


Video introduction:

Just behind root canal surgery, preparing expense reimbursement reports is one of the most painful things we face in this world. This cloud-based software allows you to organize your expenses by taking a photo of each receipt with your smart phone. The system then attempts to read the receipt and enter it in our expense report. You can also enter expenses manually, or you can forward receipts to Zoho Expense by email for things purchased online, such as plane tickets.

Car mileage is simplified by using GPS to track your beginning and end points and calculate your mileage.

You can then prepare your full expense report and send it to your supervisor for approval and reimbursement.

Expense reimbursement is still painful, but it is much better using a tool such as Zoho Expense, especially if you travel often.



On a less serious note, you may like to test out this time management tool that takes the form of an Extension to the Chrome Web Browser from Google. In short, it allows you to limit the time you spend on certain websites. After a set amount of time on a site, the extension shuts you down and won’t let you back to the site until a certain amount of time has passed.

On deadline? Use the Nuke option and immediately shut down your access to all the distracting sites you’ve listed.

I’m not saying you have a Facebook addiction. Personally, I’m wedded to the New York Time and Washington Post. But whatever your addiction, StayFocused can help. It can also block specific apps on your smart phone.

Of course there are many ways to bypass StayFocused, but playing games with ourselves can help our productivity, at least some of the time.

Controlling costs

As you have seen, over time you will find one app that helps you with travel expenses, one you use for data analysis, another for project management, and so on. As a result, you may well find your organization subscribing to many separate services. Be forewarned. It can be confusing to track when payments are due and the many separate logins that you will accumulate.

Keep good records of what you have purchased and be sure to check with staff regularly about what is being used and by how many staff. The money can add up if you fail to cancel subscriptions to services that are no longer used.

Start with a free version of a service, even if you feel you’ll quickly out-grow it and need to pay. Not every service you test out will prove useful, so don’t pay needlessly. But also remember that if a service is being adopted by your staff and used regularly, then paying for the service is likely a good investment.

Before reaching for your credit card, have a good look through the service’s website in search of discounts for nonprofits. Many times you’ll find one. And if it is not listed on the website, send an email. Never hurts to ask.

You should also work to standardize some of the tech tools you use across your organization. No need to be overly authoritarian about it, but there are often benefits to your staff standardizing on specific tools.

In summary

It’s easy to conjure up tech horror stories about system crashes, lost data and software that’s impossible to learn. Remember, though, that time marches on and things change and improve. Driving a car today is simpler than when they first hit the roads a hundred years ago. The same goes for digital technology.


Your computer and smart phone are immeasurably easier to use now than 5, 10 or 15 years ago and the software and apps do more. Most importantly, today’s programmers are solving real problems and more often than not, they are doing it in ways that make sense to our human brains.



Have a tech tool you use that might help others? Share it in the comments below so others can learn.



Bob Lawson is the founder of Sustainable Digital, based in Putney, Vermont. The firm offers technology training and audits for nonprofits and international NGOs. More information can be found at:


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