Make Technology Work for your Nonprofit
How technology can positively influence your nonprofit’s effectiveness (if only you can afford it)
Despite the prevalence of technology in modern communications, investment in technology to empower nonprofit organizations remains an area that receives little or no attention. The majority of nonprofits’ audiences are online so it makes sense that they establish and maintain an online presence to interact with their constituents where they are. A common issue for nonprofits is a lack of expertise in the technological field as well as a lack of resources to accomplish their goals. Some nonprofits may even have a steady stream of donations but simply lack the freedom to assign a portion of these proceeds towards developing their online identity and making technology work for them. Research on this topic was carried out by ZeroDivide last year, Amplifying Social Impact in a Connected Age, and by Idealware this year, Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services.
Part of the issue with fundraising for technological needs is the same as with other procedural elements of nonprofits. Donors want to know their donation is going directly to the cause that the nonprofit was established for in the first place and not toward business matters within the offices of the nonprofit. However, this outlook fails to appreciate the potential that technology enables in a nonprofit organization. Technology-related funding can have an exponential effect on the mission of a nonprofit. A donation that enables the technological prowess of a nonprofit can add considerably more than the same donation directly to the cause. For example, a donation that covers the annual social media costs of a nonprofit could lead to greater donations than the associated cost.
The barriers to technology-related funding are evident on both sides. A lack of understanding by funders can result in technology being overlooked in the first place and a lack of strategy in its implementation can be equally damaging to technology’s potential. There is a need within the nonprofit landscape for greater understanding of the potential to empower through technology as well as the strategy to make this so.
What is encouraging from ZeroDivide’s research is that nonprofits increasingly want to invest in technology. They see the opportunities of technology as more than an administrative tool. They see its possibilities as a new approach that can foster real and impactful change. The dilemma in the short-term is how to encourage technology funding by donors and how to make the information readily available for nonprofit management so that technology can become an active part of the overall strategy.
Two important findings of ZeroDivide’s report:
A 2010 study by the Mitchell Kapor Foundation and ZeroDivide... found that (a) the strongest determinant of an organization’s technology fluency was whether it had a leader actively encouraging change in the internal culture, and (b) that leaders advocating change related to technology share three characteristics:
• They are comfortable learning about and using new technology.
• They hire tech-savvy staff members that share the same characteristics.
• They understand the technology value proposition and how its strategic use can help advance their organizations’ mission.
Note that neither the leader’s age nor the size of the organization were found to be determinative — it is largely the openness and commitment to culture change that are most important.
Technology cannot be externally forced upon an organization, the push has to come from within. The advantages of being a technologically-enabled organization can be demonstrated to the management of a nonprofit but the impetus has to be their own for change to be embraced.
In our San Francisco gatherings, participants suggested the creation of a visualization of the TSP [Technology Service Provider] landscape — one that is interactive and updateable — showing offerings by region and type of service. Funders felt that this would be an important step in fostering increased investment in this provider ecosystem, and would be a valuable resource for connecting their grantees [nonprofits] with service offerings.
At present, TSPs are in competition with one another and there is no directory to assist nonprofits in finding the most suitable candidate, geographically, to serve their needs. This is something that would undoubtedly make the process of finding suitable technology partners easier for organizations but may not be endorsed by competitive TSPs. As a nonprofit organization that is also a TSP, WebServes welcomes collaboration with other TSPs for the greater good of nonprofits everywhere. A comprehensive directory of TSPs, listing their specific services and location, would make the move to amplifying social impact in a connected age considerably easier for nonprofits new to the internet, as well as acting as a useful resource for established nonprofits to enrich their digital presence.
A directory of TSPs would encourage industry standards and best practices and provide authentication. This would enable nonprofits to choose from a comprehensive range of reputable providers to find their ideal match. Accountability is a vital ingredient in business nowadays and a trusted directory of TSPs would allow nonprofits to collaborate with service providers without fear of reprimand from funders.
If nonprofits understand the benefits of technology they can examine their own organization’s needs and determine which tools can improve their services. Idealware’s report contains insightful research and case studies on this subject. One nonprofit surveyed found text messaging highly effective for communicating with a teenage audience. Another utilized a cloud-based database that enabled multiple organizations within a community to share client information so as to reduce time wasted inputting duplicated information. A third nonprofit used Facebook, posting regular photos, to recruit volunteers from a previously unreached audience.
There can be no doubt that technology can empower your nonprofit. The main obstacles to overcome are awareness and strategy. A comprehensive database of TSPs as well as training and guidance for nonprofits could make a substantial difference in making the adoption of technology by nonprofits seem more feasible. Once nonprofit managers are aware of the advantages of utilizing technology, strategy can be implemented effectively with cost-saving and time-saving measures that increase the reach of a nonprofit; increasing donations and volunteers.
WebServes is also an advocate for greater coordination of high-level strategies for funding technology use among nonprofits. WebServes is seeking support for an initiative to create a funding “pool” – a technology assistance fund – to assist its nonprofit clients/partners who need to implement projects based in web and Internet technologies but lack sufficient funds to do so. Research has shown that institutional funders are more likely to fund outcomes over enabling technology; choosing to fund programs before the technological means to execute the programs. A recommendation that WebServes would make to larger private and corporate foundations is to create a nationwide “Tech Fund” that would offer distribution of funds to NPO/NGO initiatives that are dependent on technology for their programmatic impact. Incentives could be added for innovative uses of existing tech, as well as the creation of new tools and methods.
It is time for the Nonprofit space to acknowledge what the For-profit sector has long known (and funded): Technology drives innovation and success.