Managing Knowledge Enables Nonprofits to Fulfill Their Mission
By Rachael M. Stark, Deborah Elizabeth Finn, and Kevin Palmer

Knowledge management
All nonprofits need to manage their organization’s knowledge—be it donor lists, operational processes, or other types of information—and while it need not be a huge and overwhelming task, it does take time and effort.

Knowledge management—also called KM—is the process of choosing and using tools and systems to effectively gather, organize, share, and use information, of any topic and type, within and between individuals, organizations, and groups.

Signs that lack of knowledge management is undermining your organization’s effectiveness include the following:
  • Employees are unable to locate crucial information when a staff member gets sick, takes a leave, retires, resigns, or goes on vacation.

  • The executive director (or another top-level staff member) is scheduled to retire, but his/her most crucial organizational knowledge is not written down, and there is no strategy in place for conveying it to his/her successor.

  • Project teams generate multiple versions of key documents, but it’s hard to gather all the changes in one place. No one knows for sure which version is the final one, and the wrong version may be used by accident.

  • No one in the nonprofit organization is certain about the history or current status of its relationship with a specific project, funder, or partner.
Here are key issues to consider when implementing a KM system:

1) Organizational Commitment
KM need not be a huge and overwhelming task, but it does take ongoing time, effort, attention, and support. This can be difficult and tedious. There is no technology or tool that can replace the human effort involved. KM involves taking a hard look at the nonprofit organization’s data, information, and knowledge #147; with the goal of deciding what needs to retained and how the remaining information should be organized. It means that leaders, staff, and board members must commit to learning, using, and helping maintain the new structure.

2) Expert Assistance in Managing Knowledge and Organizing Information
Seek help and advice from experts who can play a bridging role in the nonprofit sector between the people who use information and technology and the people who create it. They can negotiate and “translate” between people and groups with different skills, perspectives, expertise, and terminology. Seek help and advice from consultants or staff members with skills in library science, knowledge management, and nonprofit technology strategy.

3) Technical Implementation of a Knowledge Management System
Matching the right tool to the right job is essential to managing knowledge effectively. For a large and complex organization, a large and complex commercial tool may make sense. For a very small organization, a well-designed and conscientiously used file naming system and spreadsheet may suffice. For nonprofits of medium size with medium sized information sets, KM tools specifically designed for nonprofits may be a practical choice. Nonprofits need to weigh the advantage of easier scaling in the future—when size of information may expand and complexity of information may increase—with systems that feel manageable in the present.

4) Organizational Culture that Encourages Knowledge Sharing
  • If individuals are rewarded when they “spill the beans” and share knowledge, they are likely to spill all their knowledge beans into the common pot.

  • If knowledgeable individuals see their KM workflow incorporated into an efficient overall work flow and realistic work hours, they are likely to keep their information current.

  • If individuals see that they are rewarded and not punished for sharing all kinds of information—including information that may feel uncomfortable or unflattering—they are likely to share all they see.

  • If knowledge is shared easily, fairly, and smoothly between different people, projects, offices, and departments, then the connections between them can be strengthened.
While transitioning to knowledge sharing can be stressful, nonprofits can benefit beyond the obvious potential for improving the day-to-day effectiveness of their operations. As workflow and outcomes are subsumed under knowledge management, it can nurture a more collaborative and transparent environment in which staff members see how their work contributes to the larger goal of making the world a better place.

This article is based on a white paper developed by Annkissam, a Boston-based provider of technology solutions for nonprofits, authored by Rachael M. Stark, Deborah Elizabeth Finn, and Kevin Palmer.
February 2015