Nonprofits today experience unprecedented challenges that technology can help alleviate. But even as the demands of nonprofits continue to grow, gaps in technology are widening. How can we help nonprofits use technology to operate more efficiently?
We gathered some of the top powerhouses in the field to share their thoughts.
You can watch the full recording below or read on for a discussion recap. I also recommend checking out the June 2021 TechSoup global survey on nonprofit digital readiness - which is the largest survey conducted of the NPO sector, ever. Okta for Good is proud to sponsor such work.
All our panelists agreed that you should start with the humans behind the tech — both on the nonprofit and corporate side.
After being in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, Jay Hirschton is now CEO of the Full Circle Fund, where he helps connect nonprofits to corporate sponsors and volunteers in San Francisco. He emphasizes focusing on the relationship between corporations and nonprofits. Every corporate partner is onboarded with training to "understand the power and privilege that they bring to the table." Victor Cordon, Senior Program Manager of Philanthropy at Okta echoes that "we can never fully absolve ourselves from inherent power dynamics as funders."
Despite working in technology for 20 years, Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, an organization that helps connect nonprofits with technology, prioritizes community over tech. They state that corporations have a responsibility to consider intersectionality, gender, and racial equity when rolling out any technical solutions.
As the woman who single-handedly digitized the Girl Scouts of America's $860 million cookie program, Sarah Takatani Angel-Johnson has plenty to say about digitizing nonprofits. "You can't start with tech. You have to start with humans," she summarizes. Despite a deep technical background at IBM, she challenges herself to think of herself as a change agent first, then a technologist.
Nonprofits face enormous demands with few resources. "We live in a system of oppressions where a million organizations are working to solve four basic needs for humanity," Sample Ward clarifies. Resources may be even more scare when applied on an international scale, Angel-Johnson elaborates, using her current work as CIO of Save the Children as an example.
Even if a system seems like a "Frankenstein" solution that combines multiple technologies or methods, it's important to work with nonprofits directly. That means not only focusing on what's missing, but also on a nonprofit's existing assets and resources.
Sample Ward advises organizations to avoid problematic white philanthropy by asking nonprofits:
Angel-Johnson encourages organizations to "truly listen [to nonprofits] with humility and vulnerability" when talking to nonprofits. If your technological solution or expertise isn't the right fit, it's better for everyone to know upfront. Cordon offers that, even if your technology isn't the best fit for a nonprofit's needs, you can commit to keeping your network and community open to help them find a solution.
Hirschton illustrates this nonprofit-first approach to digital transformation with a metaphor:
Imagine that you started a nonprofit that grows trees, and you have a one funder and they only give you water. The trees would die.
Ask yourself: what if we put nonprofits at the center of design process? For example, he learned that the best pro bono work has been when he pairs executives with causes based on their skill set versus personal passions. This nonprofit-first thinking has led to more successful work volunteer opportunities.
While volunteering technical knowledge is powerful, each panelist agreed that cash is king. "Give money first, then product and technical knowledge second," Sample Ward advises.
Angel-Johnson explains that nonprofits are often approached with the following:
In order to avoid this issue, talking directly to nonprofits is crucial before starting volunteer efforts. "Doing it right is not the same as doing it now," Sample Ward summarizes.
Another way to optimize digital transformation is to fund optimization in addition to experimentation. They elaborate:
Fund experimentation, yes… AND fund v 5, 6, 7. Fund more than just the “new” stuff. We all know that v1 is never perfect or done. So be sure funding is coming for the more successful iterations down the road.
Knowledgeable volunteering is still incredibly helpful for nonprofits. Hirschton encourages listeners that ,"you control what you do with your time: most people on this call can un-frankenstein a tech system."
When helping nonprofit partners, sometimes all you can see are problems. Angel-Johnson calls her current role as CIO at Save the Children as one of "the hardest jobs she's ever had" —and that's after 20 years in the corporate world!
But don't be discouraged. Amy Sample Ward shares their advice for when things get rough. "If you aren’t confronted with the fear that you don’t know what you’re doing," they say, "you’re not tackling big enough problems."
One of Okta for Good's core focus areas is developing "tech for good" ecosystems. Not only are they a Pledge 1% Builder (and host of today's panel), but they fund research and innovators in this space through their philanthropy program. Their product, Okta, is a password and identity platform with many nonprofit and corporate customers.
Got questions, advice, or experiences that you want to share? Let us know in the comments below or on the Social Impact Forum.