The tech philanthropy move from product donation to digital transformation

Young people work at their computers. Photo by: Matthew Henry

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — At many technology companies, corporate social responsibility programs are shifting their work with development NGOs from product donation to “digital transformation,” in order to bring the sector up to speed on tech.

Tech companies have long offered donations or discounts to nonprofits that might not otherwise be able to afford their products or services — this enabled them to ensure their products and services see greater use around the world, while having an impact as part of their CSR efforts. But NGOs did not always see much benefit from these donations, particularly when they were not sure how to use the products to achieve better outcomes.

Tech startups that see these old CSR models as outdated are coming up with new models to partner with nonprofits, and many established tech companies are following their lead by overhauling their own philanthropic efforts. Increasingly, CSR programs are focusing on what they call digital transformation, by helping nonprofits integrate digital technology and data-driven decision-making across the organization.

"I’m definitely seeing a trend where I think we're all realizing that the ‘here's your software, go knock yourself out’ thing is old philanthropy,” said Neal Myrick, director of social impact at data visualization company Tableau and head of the Tableau Foundation.

He said this is happening because, “these companies realize that we have to build data literacy in order to get adoption, and you have to get adoption to get outcomes.”

Neal Myrick speaks at Devex World 2018: Turning data into information. Via YouTube.

Additionally, Myrick said, tech employees want to use their skills for good, so companies are looking for ways to connect them with the nonprofits who need their help.

One example of this trend is Tech for Social Impact, a new team at Microsoft Philanthropies. It is part of a gradual shift the company has made from donating products, to training organizations how to use the tools, to ensuring they actually integrate these products into their day-to-day work. These closer partnerships also enable Microsoft to better understand the nonprofit sector’s needs, so the company can work with NGOs on building the tools that organizations are lacking.

“While our donation and philanthropic programs have been necessary, and we’re going to continue to do them, we believe they’ve been insufficient,” Justin Spelhaug, general manager of Tech for Social Impact, told Devex. “When we take a look at the level of digital transformation among NGOs, the sector is behind the curve, and that is because of some very real barriers.”

Those barriers have to do with capacity, whether it be digital skills, time to devote to learning and using these tools, or the level of funding required, Spelhaug said.

"I’m definitely seeing a trend where I think we're all realizing that the ‘here's your software, go knock yourself out’ thing is old philanthropy.”

— Neal Myrick, director of social impact at Tableau and head of the Tableau Foundation

In a blog post earlier this month, Microsoft highlighted the way Operation Smile, a nonprofit that provides surgeries to people with cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities, uses its technology to drive greater impact. It uses cloud technologies from Microsoft Philanthropies, including the web-based collaborative platform SharePoint, to manage missions logistics, the cloud computing service Azure to store patient data in compliance with local privacy laws, and the business analytics service Power BI to evaluate surgeries.

Rather than just promoting the way Operation Smile uses its products, Microsoft teamed up with the nonprofit to produce a report on how to empower employees to implement and use their tools, as part of a larger effort to drive this transformation across the nonprofit sector.

This roadmap includes tips such as prioritizing access to technology, enabling collaboration around these tools, and advancing data security.

Spelhaug advised nonprofits to make a commitment internally to being data driven before starting the conversation with companies such as Microsoft. Then, “start by picking one strategic program that's critical for you and create a simple dashboard to get things started,” he said.

Still, 99 percent of nonprofit organizations have less than 50 people, and little to no information technology budget, Spelhaug added.

Or, as Megan Christenson, senior director of the civic accelerator at the Points of Light, which invests in startups with social missions, put it: “Sometimes lean and scrappy translated to lean and crappy.”

Christenson was speaking on a session about tech for good — and specifically the role that tech companies can play in a new wave of digital transformation in the nonprofit sector — at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley on June 5. Joining her was Corey Marshall, director of Splunk4Good, the corporate social impact program for the data analytics service provider Splunk, and Erik Arnold, who recently joined Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact Team from PATH, a global health innovation organization where he was chief information officer.

Arnold said that one of the major challenges nonprofits face is that donors increasingly demand outcome measurement, but organizations cannot deliver that data without investing in technology, and they often don’t have the funding to do so.

“We’re looking at: What is the role of the nonprofit; what is the role of the donor; what is the role of corporations like us — to make it easier to find opportunities to gather and drive deep insights from information?” he said.

Arnold called the lack of grant funding for technology the largest barrier to the adoption of digital transformation across the nonprofit sector, and said that while these CSR efforts can help to bridge the gap, progress will also require action from donors.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.