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Strong technology leadership is a welcome gift to St. Paul nonprofit

Strong, customer-focused technology leadership and a friendly touch made Paul Harder a SearchCIO-Midmarket.com 2012 IT Leadership Awards finalist.

A world class infrastructure on a shoestring budget: It sounds like an IT fantasy or an outlandish vendor pitch.

But at The Arc Greater Twin Cities, based in St. Paul, Minn., it's very much a reality, thanks to Director of Technology Paul Harder. He's a finalist in the SearchCIO-Midmarket.com 2012 IT Leadership Awards. The Arc is a nonprofit organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. It also operates a small chain of thrift stores, its main source of revenue.

I do a lot of educating about what we do and how we do it, and we've been pretty successful.

To be in good standing with major funders and review councils, The Arc must spend 70% of its budget on mission-related programs. That leaves 30% or less to be divvied up among administration, technology and fund raising. Despite such financial constraints, through Harder's technology leadership, The Arc has an impressive cache.

So, how does Harder do it? Despite his affable demeanor, Harder insists he's a "ruthless negotiator." There are technology deals to be had for nonprofit organizations -- if you know where to find and how to ask for them.

"I point out the discounts we can get as a nonprofit, the tax advantages to the people we buy from and the reasons why donating to a nonprofit is a tax advantage," Harder said. "I do a lot of educating about what we do and how we do it, and we've been pretty successful over time."

A peek inside The Arc

With just 30% of The Arc's total revenue available to support administrative and technical functions, Harder must work with very tight fiscal constraints. Despite these challenges, however, he has developed an impressive cache of IT products. Here is a glimpse at The Arc's platform:

-- K.G.

Harder also attributes his ability to do more with less to his IT team, a very lean, four-person operation (which includes himself). During his 13 years of technology leadership at The Arc, he has managed to hire staff with a mix of exceptional skills and a desire to give back, he said. What they give up in compensation, he tries to make up for with a positive, familial, empowering workplace.

"We have really good chemistry, I guess my management style works with them, and we maintain a level of uptime as good as anybody in technology," Harder said. "We don't have any outages here; when we do, it's [due to] the few SaaS [Software as a Service] applications that we have."

Having tools -- and techies -- is one thing; making the best use of them is a different matter. Harder has met this challenge through his approach to technology leadership. His IT team recently completed a project that is adding value to both the business and the experience of those who use The Arc's services. The organization now offers a program called E-Learning. It's an online alternative for parents who can't attend on-site workshops because they are caring for a child with a disability. Two years in the making, E-Learning has been attached to a new Web page called My Arc for user-friendly access, not only to E-Learning but to other online resources as well.

Other customer-focused projects are on the way. This summer, for example, The Arc will launch a customer loyalty program at its thrift stores. Internally, Harder and his team have customized the organization's fund-raising software -- SofterWare Inc.'s DonorPerfect -- to track contacts with donors and prompt staff at the appropriate times to seek donations.

Harder said his time at The Arc has been the longest stop in his 41-year career in IT. If his career ends here, that will be fine with him.

"The Arc is a wonderful place to work. I'm supporting people doing good work in the community for people who really need it," Harder said. "I've been in just about every facet of the economy, from the government side to the private sector to the nonprofit sector. At this point in my career, I don't need a lot of money. It feels good to work here."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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