Nethope Logo

Building responsible digital organizations in the nonprofit sector. It’s imperative.

I focus on responsible innovation because I believe that ethical, humane technology is key for our individual and collective well-being and our ability to tackle problems for our society and our planet.

November 18, 2020

Rapid advances in technology are enabling nonprofit organizations to reach and support more people, more effectively. But as we embrace powerful technologies, we must do so responsibly – considering the very real risks, alongside the tremendous benefits. How do we build cultures of responsible innovation and ensure we’re intentional in our use of technology?

By Leila Toplic, Lead for Emerging Technologies Initiative, NetHope

I am a technologist, a humanitarian, and a former refugee. I’ve been working with technology since I discovered computers in a refugee camp in the mid-90s. Today, in my work with nonprofit organizations like NetHope’s Members (nearly 60 global NGOs) and technology companies like Salesforce, I focus on responsible innovation because I believe that ethical, humane technology is key for our individual and collective well-being and our ability to tackle problems for our society and our planet.

As societal and environmental problems grow in scale and severity, nonprofits are struggling to reach an increasing number of people in need with limited resources. There is a real sense of urgency to find new ways and new tools to tackle crises like displacement, hunger, and infectious disease outbreaks. The good news is that rapid advancements in technology are making more things possible, including greater reach and faster and more targeted response. All this is driving increased technology adoption in the nonprofit sector.

But, powerful technologies come with risks. There are a number of examples of technology being used to (intentionally or unintentionally) exclude and disempower individuals and communities, erode human rights, and undermine our institutions.

So, as the digital transformation of nonprofits accelerates and technologies like AI grow in reach, complexity, and ubiquity, those of us working in the nonprofit sector have a responsibility to the people and communities we support to understand the risks that technology poses and know how to develop and use technology responsibly.

As a sector focused on helping communities and protecting human rights, nonprofits are critical for building an ethical, responsible future for all.

For this reason, ethics was one of the themes for this year’s NetHope Virtual Global Summit. The Summit brought together more than 1,300 representatives from 60 global NGOs and 60-plus technology partners and supporters to share, learn and explore how with technology and through collaboration we can solve some of the toughest global challenges.

At the Summit, I had the opportunity to host a set of conversations that explored topics ranging from ethical leadership and designing responsible digital organizations to AI ethics, misinformation in the age of social media, and ethical considerations in contactless biometrics. This blog post focuses on some of the key considerations and practices for building responsible organizations – and while it’s geared to nonprofits, the core of it is intended for all of us that develop and use technology to solve global challenges. The stakes are higher than ever before, so we all need to reflect – and act.

Here’s where to start:

Build a culture of responsible innovation.

We, in the nonprofit sector, spend a good amount of time talking about what technology solutions we could develop and use to help people in need and solve societal and environmental problems. But, too often conversations about responsible innovation end up revolving around an innovative technology (eg AI) or the responsibility is examined at the individual contributor level. However, the environment matters – ethical considerations in a specific technology solution, program, or partnership and the actions of an individual are a reflection of how responsible the organization is.

Responsible organizations enable responsible innovation. A responsible organization is a culture where individuals are motivated, guided, and supported by the environment to make ethical choices every day.

At the Summit, we explored several dimensions that foster the culture of responsible innovation in the nonprofit sector and I want to highlight two – intentionality and accountability.

We talked about intentionality as being intentional at all stages of the process of embedding organizational values and principles in ethical technology solutions. For example:

  • Being intentional about whether to use technology at all. This means evaluating the benefits of the technology solutions (eg contactless biometrics) alongside the 'cost' it might bring to those it's meant to support (eg privacy).
  • Being intentional about who should be involved in conceptualizing, designing and implementing solutions – and, how. On the point of How, it was highlighted that we need to prioritize active participation of impacted communities, not just engaging them in consultation.

These and other ethical choices require accountability. Making accountability an imperative in an organization starts by asking the following three questions:

  • Who is accountable? In a culture of responsible innovation, accountability starts at the top and cascades down through the whole organization. As shared in the AI Ethics workshop at the Summit – knowing who is accountable enables us to identify when mistakes are made, act on the feedback from those affected by the issues, and redress possible harms.
  • Who are you accountable to? In addition to people we serve, nonprofit organizations can be accountable to a range of stakeholders (donors, partners, community volunteers, regulators, staff, etc) and it is important to decide which accountabilities to prioritize rather than trying to be accountable to all, equally.
  • What are you accountable for? In a responsible organization, the question of What may include a range of accountabilities that support responsible innovation. For example – accountability for helping people understand the value of their data, accountability for acting on the feedback from your community.

Building the culture of responsible innovation requires leadership, policies, and processes to ensure consistency, continuity, and sustainability of responsible practices across the whole organization. This brings me to the next point.

Operationalize responsible innovation as a systematic process.

In her keynote at the NetHope Global Summit, Ann Skeet (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics), compared ethics to yoga practice – things you do over and over again to encourage ethical behavior. Responsible innovation is a commitment to making the most ethically responsible decisions possible, every day. How do we enable that in practice?

In our conversations about designing responsible digital organizations in the nonprofit sector, Em Fackler and Caitlin Murphy (International Rescue Committee), Karl Lowe (Catholic Relief Services), Bo Percival (Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team), and Amos Doornbos (World Vision International) shared several practices that nonprofits can apply across their organizations to create an environment conducive to responsible innovation and promote ethical behavior by all.

  • A set of ethical values and principles that are broadly communicated and embedded in all organizational strategies and processes (eg hiring, partnerships).
  • Ethical leadership that drives a responsible innovation agenda. Responsible innovation begins at the top – with leaders who promote ethical values and principles and create the conditions for ethical behavior across the whole organization.
  • Ethics expertise and resources that provide guidance, support, and sometimes act as deliberative bodies. For example, the IRC has a Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer and resources supporting their work.
  • Ethics training and dedicated time to build ethics literacy internally and externally. For example, every year IRC staff have a day set aside (IRC Way Day) to learn about a whole range of topics including responsible innovation. This month, World Vision International is hosting an interactive workshop focused on designing and operationalizing responsible use of technology in nonprofit organizations.  
  • Channels for listening that enable organizations to connect insights (from across the organization) to action and foster an environment of trust and support.
  • Policies, guidelines, frameworks, and checklists that provide practical extensions of organizational values and principles to all parts of an organization and create systemic conditions for individuals and teams to make ethical choices in their own work. CRS has a Responsible Data Framework that operationalizes CRS values and principles through a set of questions such as ‘What kind of data are you collecting about an individual and how are you going to safeguard their data?’. IRC uses their Principles for Partnership that are rooted in the organizational values – equality, transparency, results-oriented approach, complementarity – to guide all of their decisions related to partnerships.

These are just some of the practices of responsible digital organizations in the nonprofit sector, and most nonprofit organizations will be the first to admit that there is room for improvement.

As humanitarians in the 21st century, we sit at the intersection of societal challenges and some of the most powerful technologies ever created. It is through responsible organizations that we chart the course for how technology is built, used, and governed. So, building responsible organizations in the nonprofit sector is an imperative.

If you are interested in learning more about responsible organizations and tech ethics please see some of the resources we’ve put together below. And, if you want to get involved and contribute, please get in touch:


Markkula Center for Applied Ethics resources:

NetHope Resources:

Twitter @NetHope_orgFacebook NetHopeorgYouTube iconLinkedIn Company NetHopeInstagram nethope_org