I was speaking with a friend of mine who works at a very large nonprofit organization (very large as in over $100 million in annual revenues). They serve thousands of clients every year with job development, alcohol and other drug abuse treatment, affordable housing, psychological counseling and a variety of other supports. As a result of the many contracts and grants they have to do this work, they operate in excess of 15 databases to track operations, case management, fiscal operations, etc. They have a full-time IT staff, desktop and laptop computers, and handheld devices out the yingyang. I asked what they are doing with all that data. “Actually,” my friend said, “we don't do anything with the data.” #OMG.
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She’s not the only one. As I’ve been speaking with colleagues around the sector, I’ve been surprised to find that while we’re surrounded by tech and that we rely on it relentlessly, we’re very far from tapping into its full potential. Tech absorption in the nonprofit sector has been notoriously slow (the only sector that appears slower is government), and it begs the question, why? Is the nonprofit sector just full of mission-bent do-gooders, many of whom are aging in place, that aren’t savvy enough to do more with their iPhone than, you know, use it as a phone?
I don’t think so. These are folks who understand highly complex and nuanced project finance structures, the intricate challenges of building community, and the ins and outs of performance-based contracts. The reason why the nonprofit sector hasn’t really cut its teeth on the leading edge of tech innovation is because it really doesn’t have much incentive to do so.
#WTH, you say? Well, think about it:
- Nonprofit leaders have not been given much exposure to applied tech innovation, which is a vast field, to understand what tools might prove useful to achieving their mission;
- Even if they were better informed, there’s very little internal capacity to develop an implementation from scratch (despite what you may think, the IT department is not full of computer scientists);
- Even if they could find or commit to building the internal capacity, there really aren’t that many funders and public contract providers out there willing to embrace a risky applied tech infrastructure project just for kicks (in no small part because many of our beloved colleagues in the philanthropic and public sectors are equally unaware of potential tech applications);
- Even if they had the information, the capacity, and the resources, they wouldn’t have the ability to properly scope the work, or the network to locate the consultants or tech businesses able to do it.
So while our nonprofit leaders may wish for apps that collect info in real-time in the field, or APIs that eliminate duplicate data entry, or interactive visualizations to educate stakeholders, or algorithms that can predict clients at high risk of relapse, none of that’s actually happening. The good news is that it’s only partially their fault.
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It turns out that our friends in the tech sector have their own challenges in understanding and connecting to the nonprofit sector. Part of the challenge lies in the very different cultures between the tech and the nonprofit sectors. You see, in the nonprofit sector we have problems in search of solutions; in the tech sector we have solutions in search of problems.
Nonprofit leaders are trying to figure out how to build that affordable housing development, or educate disconnected youth, or find work for ex-offenders. The problems are, all things considered, actually fairly well-defined. The quest is for the highest impact, least costly solution. Nonprofit leaders tend develop as generalists, and accomplish their work through careful cultivation of specific partners and resources directed at solving specific challenges. Their tools are historically not tech based, but people based, and supported through grants and contracts (usually with rigid restrictions about how the money is used).
Private sector tech leaders are more frequently compelled by a vision for a product or process. While they may envision an application, or at least a target market, their ultimate goal is profitable, scaled adoption. If they were initially aiming to support diabetes care, but wound up with a tool that was super popular in child education, then, ok, child education it is! Tech leaders develop as specialists whose main challenge is to locate the niche they can occupy to earn revenues. They are driven less by mission than profit, even when they are nonprofit.
When a tech sector leader has a great idea for a social impact tool, they go about it in classic B-school style–iterating quickly through agile development, using lean start-up approaches to build the plane as its heading down the runway. This can grate against the cultural norm in the nonprofit sector, where bureaucratic funding processes dampen rapid innovation and constrain experimentation, and where experience has taught nonprofit leaders that real change to entrenched social problems can be slow and incremental.
And so we have a bit of a perfect storm: nonprofit leaders have little capacity and incentive to build connections with speculating tech sector leaders; and tech sector leaders tend to operate without consulting the existing nonprofit universe because they fear they can't keep up. Add to this that the philanthropic and public sectors have limited understanding of applied tech, and that impact investment remains both highly fragmented and issue-sensitive, and you wind up with a situation where pretty much everyone is just doing their own thing and not really talking to each other.
Can’t we just get everyone together for some cheese, crackers and drinks, and maybe knock around a few applied examples that we can take apart and examine a bit? Then exchange some business cards and start thinking bigger about what’s possible?
When I was a young man, consciousness raising was still very much in vogue. But you know the good thing about sitting in a big circle and sharing our experiences, at least as far as I was concerned? It worked. I got better informed and it broadened my perspective.
We should be doing the same tech innovation in the nonprofit sector, regularly, so that we can begin to build relationships and tease out needs and opportunities both by discipline (economic development, education, social service delivery, housing, health care, etc.) and application (computer science, social media, apps, visualizations, data analytics, etc.). I know we’ll find out the two things you always discover when you join disparate groups: we have more in common than we thought, and we can do more working together.
(Photo credit: Flickr user See-ming, CC BY-SA 2.0)