In Silicon Valley and across tech circles around the country there is growing desire to put technology to work for social good. The world is facing grave challenges and at the same time technology is giving us hope that change is possible.
The story of the ‘great tech hope’ has captured our imaginations. The story that isn’t told, however, is that the innovative examples lauded by Fast Company writers and on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative distort our sense of how technology is truly used in the social sector and what nonprofits really need.
As companies build tech pro bono programs, charitable foundations fund technology and nonprofits continue to emerge to meet the needs of fellow nonprofits, it is important to understand the current state of technology in the sector and where investments will yield the greatest social impact.
The majority of nonprofits have technology needs that can be met with off-the-shelf solutions. This includes solutions from Microsoft Office to basic web tools. For these organizations, they need professionals who can help them select the right solutions and then train them on their effective use.
This market is well served by NPower (small pro bono projects) and CompuMentor (donated software). These organizations are doing great work and need to continue to be supported to help nonprofits in need of the basics. For software developers, the greatest opportunity to serve this population is in the creation of single piece of software that can serve the needs of thousands of nonprofits by plugging a gap in the market.
The second largest group of nonprofits includes those that rely on technology for core parts of their fundraising, operations and/or programs. For them, with some modification, existing online solutions can be easily modified to meet their needs. For example, they could use SalesForce.com to manage their fundraising database but it would need configuration which typically requires external help. Or, they may need to use a CMS to build and manage their site.
Of the three segments of the nonprofit sector, this one is in the greatest need of additional resources and solutions. These projects often need real tech professionals to become engaged but they are not typically sexy or technically challenging projects. There is fatigue in the technical community for doing more pro bono website and database configuration projects. At the same time, the resources to pay these professionals at market rates are out of the reach for most nonprofits. This creates a major opportunity for innovation in the field to bring on new platforms that can be configured easily and without needing technology professionals to be as highly engaged.
We estimate that fewer than 1% of nonprofits fall into this category – nonprofits that are fundamentally tech organizations for whom technology is a core competency and the basis for their model. These organizations include the likes of Kiva, Charity:Water, DonorsChoose, VolunteerMatch and iMentor. These organizations rely on a full spectrum of technology resources including innovative developers and UI designers. They push the limits of the role of technology in addressing social issues.
This market is fairly well served today and since tech is a core competency of these organizations it is relatively easy for them to manage external tech resources. It is such a small segment and the needs are intriguing, so the right talent is attracted to these organizations. Benetech and open source platforms provide key support as well.
There is a critical need for a wide range of tech solutions and resources to make the great tech hope a reality. As more technology companies mature and start to think about their investment in the community and as tech millionaires develop their philanthropic strategies, we need to urge them to not just invest in the sexy, highly customized opportunities, but to ensure that the basic, critical (while perhaps mundane) needs of the nonprofit sector are served.