NGOs: It's time to go digital. Here are 5 tips to get you started

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WASHINGTON — There are more mobile devices in the world than there are people. Uber and Tesla are now worth more than General Motors. In India, the digital biometric identification system has identified one-seventh of the world’s population.  

Yet only 52 percent of nonprofit CEOs believe that digital disruption will affect their sector within the next three years.

NetHope CEO Lauren Woodman thinks otherwise. She spoke with Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar last week about how to bring the benefits of technology into the nonprofit space. She offered both reasons to invest in digital transformation and practical advice for doing so.

Woodman began by outlining an evolutionary path for NGOs. One model is siloed, hierarchical, and slow to adopt new technology. With the rise of information and communications technology for development, or ICT4D, there has been a shift toward a second model: the NGO that works with more partners, involves technology, and prides itself on data-driven decision making.

Ultimately, she says, the sector is working toward a third model, where NGOs are networked and employ an open-data approach. It is one where recipients of aid are part of the conversation and asking for services based on what they need.

How can nonprofits leverage technology to work toward this next frontier? Here is Woodman’s advice for NGOs transitioning into the digital age.

1. Crowdsource data

It is no longer enough to start small and scale up. Engaging with communities can be a great way to gather a large amount of data in a short amount of time. For example, community members directed first responders through social media during Hurricane Harvey. In thinking this way, nonprofits can enable aid, rather than simply delivering it.

2. Hire and train for key skills that enable a digital approach

Changes in technology create a demand for new skills in the sector. Woodman believes basic familiarity with digital technologies and the ability to think creatively about their application will be particularly important. She also highlighted a need for data analysis and design thinking skills. Nonprofits can obtain these skills both through recruiting new employees and training those they already have.

3. Work toward a shift in donor outlook

Funding in the nonprofit sector often comes with restrictions. At this time, few donors are funding digital transformation. Targeted education can help donors see the need and give confidence in its promise. Establishing methodologies for digital transformation within the sector may be another powerful tool.

4. Share data across the sector

Closed groups of nonprofits — brought together by common geographies and issues, among things — already share data openly to improve programs. The next step is to scale up best practices from these closed groups to sector-wide data sharing. This will likely involve finding ways to anonymize data, so individual nonprofits are not called out for their results one way or another.

Why? Both donors and beneficiaries expect to have this type of data. And, “if we as a sector are not driving the conversation ... about what great performance looks like, someone else is going to define it for us,” Woodman notes.

5. Listen to the data

With new technology, we have more access to information on how our programs are working. Use it. Ask the tough questions: Are we doing the best we can for the communities in which we are working? Is there an opportunity to bring in a better provider? You may find that some programs are not working. This can be difficult to accept and tough to manage with donors. However, it is important to learn from and build upon the experiences the sector has had collectively.  

NetHope’s Center for the Digital Nonprofit, launching this fall, hopes to help NGOs achieve these goals.

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About the authors

  • Kate Midden

    Kate Midden is Devex's Engagement Editor. She oversees media partnerships, online events, social media, and Devex’s global opinions section. In the past, she has served as a press officer with USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, overseen media relations for the Center for Global Development, and managed consumer PR and crisis communications for Kaiser Permanente. She started her career as a radio producer for Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ.
  • Sumedha Deshmukh

    Sumedha Deshmukh is an former associate content producer at Devex. Prior to her time at Devex, she received her master’s of public policy from the University of Virginia and worked in federal consulting.