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Building for a better future is not "overhead"

Dreaming of—and building for—a better future is not “overhead.”  It’s time to change our thinking.

June 6, 2019

By Lauren Woodman, CEO, NetHope

Technology, particularly digital technology, has permeated every aspect of our lives. The way we personally navigate in the world. The way companies think about and conduct business. And increasingly, the way that international nonprofits serve their respective constituencies. While we still have far to go, global nonprofits are beginning to leverage the vast potential of digital technology to accelerate our progress and advance our missions to improve the world we share.

In the nonprofit world, for too long technology has been considered “overhead” – the necessary underpinnings to support an organization’s function, but not directly related to program delivery. We’ve been conditioned to take pride in our ability to keep our overhead low; prospective donors are routinely counseled to question organizations that spend “too much” on overhead.

Digital technology is not overhead; it is mission critical to the work of global nonprofits and merits funding and investment.

While well-intentioned, it’s a fundamentally flawed approach. There’s no pride in being cheap.  And while nonprofits must be (and almost universally are) frugal stewards of the precious resources with which we are entrusted, there is no benefit in short-changing ourselves and the communities in which we work. Particularly when what was labelled “overhead” is now mission critical. We must invest wisely and carefully, but we cannot miss the opportunity to invest for future success.

This was the impetus for launching The Center for the Digital Nonprofit in October 2017—to seize the opportunity of re-imagining how the global nonprofit sector delivers aid. This is accomplished through creative collaboration, bringing together the expertise of the technology sector with the on-the-ground experience of nonprofits.

The prospect of digital transformation holds tremendous promise, and it’s our time to embrace it. Here’s what embracing it looks like:

To help donors see the impact of digital technology in practice and potential, we’re inviting NetHope members and other global nonprofits to share their success stories and their dreams. In pursuit of this, we need to enlist engagement from our entire organizations, from leadership to field personnel. Our members can start by taking advantage of the resources, tools, and guidance offered through The Center. This puts them on a path to learn the art of the possible and how to leverage digital technology to drive outcomes. We can partner with the private sector in deeper ways and litigate our case to donors, whether institutional, individual, or corporate.

Funding institutions can recognize that digital technology is not a nice-to-have, separate line item attached to a specific project or relegated to a back-office function, but rather an essential, integrated component of aid delivery. They can shift their expectations about how we build and sustain capacity to achieve better outcomes and modify their funding models accordingly. They can recognize that with risk there is great gain and foster a spirit of “learning fast.”

Tech companies can step up to the plate and recognize the tremendous value of applying digital technology to world problems. They can endeavor to pit their expertise against these challenges, venturing beyond cash and products to making a whole-company commitment. They can harness the social good forces of Millennial employees.

Since all companies are now “tech companies,” everyone is invited to the table. Whether you recognize it or not, you may have valuable knowledge and assets to apply to solving world problems or increasing human potential. While the connections may not be immediately evident, entering into a dialogue with global nonprofits may surface compelling opportunities to contribute.

The Center for the Digital Nonprofit's six Founding Partner organizations are collaborating to advance digital transformation in the nonprofit sector.

I am encouraged by the example of our six Founding Partners, who have committed to traveling with NetHope and The Center for the Digital Nonprofit through uncharted territory. Avanade, Blackbaud,, Microsoft, Okta, and Oracle NetSuite have all taken a calculated risk. They are demonstrating true entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit. They have placed bets on this premise that digital technology can transform aid delivery, and they are contributing in profound ways that go beyond a cash investment or product donation.

For the next few months leading up to the NetHope Global Summit 2019, October 21-25, we plan to share resources and stories about the practice and promise of digital technology. Some of this will be drawn from our Founding Partners, who have strong track records of working with global nonprofits and are making significant inroads through their work with The Center for the Digital Nonprofit, and some will be from our own Members and other fellow global nonprofits.

In the final analysis we will make the case that funding digital for good is not only worthy, but a mandate. We can adopt new ways of doing things through digital technology to improve life on this planet. This gives me great hope.

Dreaming of—and building for—a better future is not “overhead.”  It’s time to change our thinking.

Visit the blog series on the pathways to digital transformation:

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