Opinion: COVID-19 as the catalyst for NGOs' digital transformation

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To enable humanitarian and development nonprofits to meet the urgent needs of the moment, digital transformation must be seen as a cornerstone of all operations. Photo by: Canva Studio from Pexels

While much of the global media attention has been focused on the impact of COVID-19 on higher-income countries, there is an evolving global humanitarian emergency that is being overlooked. Many international NGOs on the frontlines are struggling with the continuity of their field operations as traditional sources of funding have dried up significantly.  

The need for humanitarian and development action has never been greater, but the threat to the continuity of sector operations and the risk to personnel is substantial. Meanwhile, major donors and grant-makers, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are radically shifting their priorities to meet the needs of the moment.  

This is where the need for digital transformation comes in. It has long been touted as something that NGOs needed to do, but someday. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the conversation to the here and now, and not necessarily on a timeline that nonprofits and donors would have chosen on their own.

As organizations implemented emergency social distancing measures and closed offices, this has required even field staff to work from home. For organizations not already well on their way on a digital-first journey, this has forced a significant, “emergency” digital transformation — often unplanned.

As was recently stated by technology-focused nonprofit membership organizations NetHope, NTEN, and TAG in a call to the global philanthropy community, “This global crisis requires two cures — one to keep people safe and healthy from COVID-19, the other to enable the world to work, mostly by using technology from home.”

An aspirational goal suddenly becomes a necessity

Digital transformation, simply put, is the integration of modern information and communications technology within an organization at every level. This transforms the way an organization operates, delivers on its mission, and achieves more impact. For many years, advocates of digital transformation in the international humanitarian and development sector have looked at what technology has enabled within industries, governments, economies, and societies. They advocate that with a comparable strategy and investment in digital capabilities, the nonprofit sector stands to reap substantial benefits.  

Instead of seeing digital investment and capacity building as taking away from service delivery in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital investment must be seen as fundamentally enabling the mission and impact to continue through a historic disruption.

Even prior to the current COVID-19 crisis, the value of digital capacities in delivering better humanitarian and development impact had not gone unnoticed by the donor community.

In April 2020, the U.S. Agency for International Development published its first digital strategy for the global development community. This echoes a similar strategy released in 2018 by the United Kingdom Department for International Development that aimed to ensure that development action would “use the latest digital technology to push the development system to become more effective, transparent, and accountable.”

But digital transformation has always meant more than just the adoption of technology.  Fundamentally, that’s been the easiest part. To truly transform, organizations have to unify people, process, culture, and technology, which is no small challenge.  

Challenges in digital adoption

While almost all NGOs have used digital technology for years, many of these organizations have struggled to go digital in the austere, low-resource environments that much of the sector’s work occurs in.

Operating within these constraints means staff often need to go into local offices to access reliable power, computers, printers, and the internet. In many cases, these challenges and others mean that in the field, often pen-and-paper records are still being kept, and there is an emphasis on face-to-face meetings. These challenges that NGOs have in going digital have not been surprising. According to DFID, 4 billion people still lack internet access, and that lack of digital access would often include NGO staff at the country level.

These difficulties have meant that in many areas, the kind of routine access to digital technology many people take for granted is seen as expensive and impractical.

Uniting to tackle the emergency digital transformation challenge

NGOs themselves can take active steps to de-risk the situation and make an “emergency digital transformation” successful:  

Lead with “impact first.” Prioritize efforts that hold the promise of delivering the most value to the mission over lower-impact, niche use cases.

Ensure that digital leaders are included in the senior-most business continuity discussions and operational planning.

Intentionally co-create a new way of working in collaboration with a representative and inclusive sampling of the workers who will use the new tools and techniques.

Go beyond headquarters and ensure effective ongoing conversations with field staff about their digital capacities, needs, and challenges.

Share the load. Where practical, explore solving common digital challenges with other similar mission-focused organizations. In many cases, developing a shared platform may allow more scalable solutions at lower cost to be deployed more quickly.

Don’t forget that risk reduction must go hand-in-hand with innovation, especially in a crisis. An emergency can create incentives to ignore principles of security, privacy, responsible data, and good design just as those things are needed the most.

To enable humanitarian and development nonprofits to meet the urgent needs of the moment, digital transformation must be seen as a cornerstone of all operations, now, and into the future. Historically, many grant-makers have been reluctant to fund broad infrastructure efforts within nonprofits, preferring to fund specific programs and service delivery efforts. This chronic underinvestment in technology has “left significant impact on the table,” according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Instead of seeing digital investment and capacity building as taking away from service delivery in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital investment must be seen as fundamentally enabling the mission and impact to continue through a historic disruption.

Of course, some work must be performed in person and cannot be done through technology alone. Someone still has to distribute food aid, or deploy the water, sanitation, and hygiene program, or provide medical care to internally displaced persons in a camp.

But digital transformation helps the resiliency of these roles as well, even if that work cannot be done totally online. For example, an organization that has undergone digital transformation and is able to largely work remotely may be able to better focus its limited supply of personal protective equipment on those essential field staff who have the greatest risk and need.  

Digital is the way forward

According to a new survey of NetHope NGO members, 22 international humanitarian and development NGOs collectively operating in 93 countries around the world urgently need approximately $30 million in digital capacity investment to effectively respond to the acute needs catalyzed or accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is needed for power, devices, connectivity, applications, virtual private networks, and cloud-based software and collaboration systems.

Grant-makers would be well-advised to heed these calls to action, and fund digital capacities on a co-equal basis to other urgent funding for the COVID-19 pandemic response. Grants should be structured to provide maximum flexibility to enable NGOs to meet their needs as the underlying situation remains very dynamic and challenging.

Effective use of digital tools and technologies in this time is necessary because lives are on the line. The nature of this particular crisis — with its associated social distancing and ongoing persistent threat to human health and economic life — means that the use of digital capacities is not just necessary for impact during the immediate emergency response, but also to lay the groundwork for the longer-term recovery and development of affected populations and communities.  

To learn how other organizations are leveraging digital tools and technologies to deliver services to their communities, watch Salesforce’s on-demand webinar, "How COVID-19 is Creating a Shift in Nonprofits' Service Delivery."

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Rakesh Bharania

    Rakesh Bharania is director of humanitarian impact data at Salesforce.org. He has spent more than 25 years in the humanitarian sector, focusing on the intersection of emerging technologies and international humanitarian crisis response and development.