Interview with Lisa Rau
Lisa Rau wanted to create something rewarding, something of her own, something of value when she created Confluence. As she discusses here, entrepreneurship is scary but incredibly satisfying: "with the risks come the rewards."
Lisa Rau is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Confluence (www.confluencecorp.com), an information technology support services firm created specifically to assist nonprofits with their information technology needs. She is active in the technology-for-nonprofits movement both locally and nationally, and is widely recognized as an expert in the strategic use of technology for nonprofits. Since 2001, her company has grown to provide direct support to over 325 nonprofits in a variety of IT areas, from technology consulting, to routine network and desktop support to the creation of complex database systems and designing and implementing websites. In addition to managing selected Confluence engagements, Lisa’s direct service work includes strategic information technology planning and consulting.
Lisa is a frequent invited speaker in nonprofit forums and has given a variety of courses and presentations for the technology-for-nonprofit community. She is on the faculty of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement's Learning and Leadership Institute, and is a guest faculty at the Tidewater Community College’s Academy for Nonprofit Excellence.
Lisa serves as a Peer Reviewer for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations’ Standards of Excellence program. Prior to founding Confluence, from 1993-2001, Lisa was a senior executive at commercial information technology services firms where she had profit and loss responsibility for IT services contracts of over $35M in annual revenue. She has had responsibility for a wide variety of technology engagements, from one person to fifty-person teams, working for a range of customers in the nonprofit, commercial and government sectors. A previous Visiting Professor of Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Science Department, Lisa has published over fifty professional articles in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. She has a B.S., M.S. in Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Exeter.
Lisa has been a Vice President on the Board of Directors of the YWCA of the National Capital Area from 2002-2004, and currently serves on the board.
An Interview with Lisa Rau Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Confluence
Date: April 27, 2009 Lisa Rau: Confluence
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO for the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT. Today we're interviewing Lisa Rau, the CEO of Confluence Corp., as part of our NCWIT series "The Entrepreneurial Toolbox," and Lisa's going to talk to us today about everything you want to know about working with non-profits. We thought it would be especially interesting for this series to take advantage of Lisa's extensive experience working with non-profits and how they use technology and how it applies to social entrepreneurship. So, welcome, Lisa!
Lisa Rau: Thank you! I'm glad to be here.
Lucy: And with me today is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hello, I'm happy to be here. This is going to be an exciting interview for us because while our Internet radio show is strictly business, we do integrate various things where we help support non-profits and do interviews and provide links and so on, and so I can't wait to talk to Lisa.
Lucy: Well, Lisa is a real role model in computer science. She has a Ph.D. in computer science and undergraduate degrees in EE and also has been in the IT industry for over 20 years. And she has extensive experience, as I mentioned, working with non-profits and I recently had the experience to chat with Lisa about this. So, very excited to talk to you about the non-profit space!
Lucy: So, Lisa, tell us a bit about Confluence. What do you do?
Lisa: Well, our mission is to provide information technology support and focus, of course, on the non-profit sector, and that's a wide variety of different kinds of things that's really based on what the non-profits have been asking us to do.
Lucy: How did you come to focus on non-profits? What led you into that type of business?
Lisa: Well, that's a good question. Many years ago, I had met a friend and a colleague who told me about his work providing technical support to non-profits and he was describing the wonderful people and the organizations and their mission that he interacted with and how rewarding he found the work was, and so when I next found myself in between jobs, a bunch of things all came together and that's where we came up with the name "Confluence." It was a "no time like the present" kind of thing and wanting to work for myself as an entrepreneur after 15, 20 years of working for someone else, wanting to create something of value, and then I had one of my close friends and colleagues, Jeff Sullivan, agree to come on board with me. We just jumped in.
Larry: That's interesting. You've got to be certainly following your heart with a bunch of passion at that same time.
Lisa: Absolutely. Well, of course we did our due diligence to make sure that there was a sound business model and that there really was a need for what we were thinking of offering, but since we couldn't be the do-gooders, we thought the next best thing was to help the do-gooders do better.
Larry: Well, you know, they say there's quite a movement, almost a groundswell, of people really wanting to give back to the community. Of course, they've got to make a living and everything. So, for our listeners out there, could you explain the difference between working for a non-profit versus a for-profit?
Lisa: Well, it ended up being different than I expected it would be coming from the for-profit world as I did. Of course, the non-profits are really focussed on their mission, and my experience has been that they tend to be less able or interested in investing in technology. I've been doing this for over eight years now. Most non-profits are really small, also. I think 90% are under a million dollars in revenue, so the majority of these organizations are just very small, so their use of technology is more limited and they also tend to have less in-house expertise. And they don't have, for example, a CTO, so they're going to turn to other outside organizations like ours for strategic support. And tech support providers in the for-profit world, there's a role for a CTO, but we as providers to non-profits have to be more versatile and strategic to provide a wide range of advice to them.
Lucy: I have a follow up question to that. I also now run into more people now who are doing what I would consider non-profit work in a for-profit business model. So, do you see much of that, Lisa, sort of like "doing well by doing good for others." Do you see that type of business model very often?
Lisa: Well, there's two types of business models that I've seen, and one is the classic, more social entrepreneurship where the idea is to use the profits for social benefit, or to leverage profits made in a for-profit business for philanthropy as in the Google Foundation and the Gates Foundation and so on. But I see a real role for traditional for-profit firms to support the non-profit sector. It's a very hard business because they don't have a lot of money and they are so small, but it does allow you to both come up with a sustainable business model, because that is a requirement for for-profit businesses, which I think is a better way to address the technology needs than having non-profit technology providers that may not have to provide a sustainable service.
Lucy: Listeners to our podcast series will remember that we interviewed two non-profits, Witness and Kiva and their founders, and were really excited about their use of technology in a non-profit delivery. In Witness's case, it's the use of video to expose social atrocities around the world, and Kiva is microfinance. So, Lisa, where do you see the most innovative use of IT in the non-profit space?
Lisa: Well, I think those are both really good examples of innovative use of technology, but from a bang-for-the-buck perspective, I think that what those systems really do is just get into more of the cultural mainstream and raise awareness for social causes and the potential for technology to assist with social causes, rather than the bottom line amount of money, for example, that's going to go through Kiva, or the real change that's going to happen just one by one. So, I think that the opportunity for social change is much more to create an environment as part of our culture that non-profits and social-oriented ventures are worth supporting and whether it's Green or whatever your passion may be. We have seen some other innovative uses, the Kiva and Witness that you cite are certainly very well-known ones. We've done a bunch of really fun things, like one of my favorites is for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. We created a little application where you send a nugget through on a Google Maps kind of integration across 50 states and whoever gets their little chicken nugget across the 50 states wins, which was kind of a fun use of technology.
Lucy: Cute. That's cool.
Larry: Right. Have you ever done anything with Ashoka?
Lisa: I have interacted with Ashoka. I haven't worked for them. Our company hasn't worked for them. I know a number of people who work there, actually one of my clients is from Samaritan Inns went over there to work for them. They're wonderful leaders.
Larry: Yeah. All right, now what are some of the challenges, Lisa, that non-profits should be looking out for as it relates to IT?
Lisa: Well, the main one is that a lot of people offer non-profits free or a low-cost donations. Sometimes the organizations think that because it's free they should try to use the technology, and it's very much a buyer beware. The other challenge is just that they don't really have as much internal expert advise, the smaller organizations, in selecting the right technical approach or managing technical projects. So, because these are often outside the organization's expertise they can be risky. We see a lot of overpaying, simply due to a lack of technical expertise or a lack of real experienced managing technology projects. So, I think a little bit of real expertise can go a very long way, and would be a good investment for organizations trying to think strategically.
Lucy: So, the biggest mistake a non-profit can make in IT is?
Lisa: Well, I think probably not spending enough, being "penny wise and pound foolish," I'd think, the most common mistake. I don't know if that counts as biggest. The biggest in terms of dollars is probably choosing the wrong software system.
Lucy: Probably worse is having some money and spending it poorly.
Lisa: Exactly. That's a lot of that "penny wise and pound foolish" mentality. I also think not understanding the strategic importance of technology, and how with the right investments you can save money for your mission just fearing technology and not trying.
Lucy: Absolutely, the case. Well, now you've worked with lots of non-profits, and now I want you to put yourself in the seat of somebody starting a non-profit. What would you do first?
Lisa: Well, the first thing I'd do would be really look around to see who was doing what else. I've noticed independent of our technology focus that there's just a lot of duplication out there. A lot of people startup non-profits because they want to do something that they love, and they don't really care if someone else is already doing that. So, it's a fairly inefficient delivery system. So, I would want to make sure that my non-profit was addressing a real gap in service and dealing with real needs. I would also want to outreach to other partners, and really try to work collaboratively with the other members of the environment.
Larry: Boy! Lisa, this has been a great interview, and it's really a pleasure. Since you're the expert, what is the question or so that we haven't asked that we should have asked?
Lisa: Well, certainly starting a business is very, very scary. I think it was the best decision I ever made. I certainly have never regretted choosing to do something with the potential for meaning. It's been extremely gratifying from that perspective, but very scary. Even though the non-profits are a very difficult business to work for, because again they are small, it's incredibly rewarding to see what they're doing, and being a part of the wonderful works that they're doing.
Lucy: So tell us, in closing, where is Confluence heading? What's the future for you?
Lisa: Well, we're still growing, which is good news in this economic downturn. We're always looking for good people. We've been forming a lot more partnerships this year with other for-profit companies to provide complimentary services. The main thing from a technology end that we've been doing recently is we've been implementing a bunch of new Websites, a lot of focus on the social networking, what's the so-called web 2.0 technology? That's been a big part of what we've been doing recently. Of course, just as any business grows, we've been changing and we're looking at internal reorganization. It doesn't sound too sexy, but that's the reality of businesses as they grow. They have to change.
Lucy: So, say a bit about the social networking and how non-profits can and should take advantage of that new channel.
Lisa: Well, it's another one of those kind of buyer beware areas, because there is so much buzz. A lot of what we do is just explain to our clients what that really means and what their options are. A lot of them want to dive right in and have a lot of little widgets on their Website to interact with their audience, but there's no one there to monitor that or to feed it to make it a vibrant community. So, it ends up kind of a detraction. So, we're very much interested in ensuring that what gets deployed is appropriate for the environment and not a field of dreams. We have seen a lot of movement towards that. It's been a little slower, but non-profits are all about building community outreach, advocacy, education. These are all things that social networking can be very instrumental in.
Larry: So, if I understood you right, it's better to have one or two widgets that you can really work with, rather than the whole group of 7-10?
Lisa: Absolutely. I've even seen organizations try to start small with just say a blog, and they're not able to keep that up, because they don't realize that the technology is the easy part. It's the organizational part, where someone actually has to write the blog, and post it, and review comments, and so on, that has to be on there to keep it fresh and worthwhile.
Lucy: Well, that's really true for us at NCWIT. We find that we have lots of distribution channels, and keeping the content supplied to those channels is really quite tough. It's more than a full-time job.
Lisa: That's exactly what I'm talking about, and building things smartly so that they're not overrun with spam, and not insecure, and so on.
Lucy: Well, so maybe in closing, let me ask this; so I'm the CEO of a non-profit, and in advising me, where would you tell me to start in technology? What would be the first thing to look at or the second thing to look at? What kinds of things do you often say to people like me, as it relates to this example?
Lisa: Well, I'm a very big fan of a process that we do, not just self-serving there, but it's a strategic technology assessment that comes in and interviews all of the stakeholders and inventories all of the assets. That process can give the organization a complete understanding of where the opportunities are, so they that can then prioritize them and come up with a specific plan for the next couple of years. That really helps a new organization to get started.
Lucy: That sounds like a good process.
Larry: Yeah. It sure does. By the way, starting in March 2001, it's kind of like starting in March 2009, economic wise.
Lisa: Exactly. Lucy: Oh, starting over. Yeah. I got it. It took my brain a little while, but I did finally get that. Well, Lisa thanks very much. It was great talking to you.
Lisa: Thank you. It was wonderful!
Larry: It was a pleasure. Once again, Lucy, I don't know how you and your team line up all these magnificent people, but NCWIT.org, you've got some wonderful connections and interviews, but lots of information. I must say that it's a pleasure for w3w3.com to host, and also to have a special channel for all of these interviews where you can tune-in 24/7. Make sure you tell your friends about it, and by the way, Tweet about it if you would like.
Lisa: Tweet about it, only if Lisa says it's OK.
Man 1: Is it OK, Lisa?
Larry: All right.
Lucy: OK. Thank you very much, Lisa.
Lisa: OK. Thank you both.
Lucy: That was great. We really do appreciate it, and I'll be in touch.
Larry: All Right.
Lisa: OK. Transcription by CastingWords