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Digital challenges and opportunities

By engaging a broader range of actors in solving the world’s most pressing challenges, digital technologies unveil new opportunities at the community level.

July 1, 2019

Above: Peter Batali, founder of the South Sudanese refugee-assistance organization called CTEN in Uganda's Rhino Settlement, shows the technology that is allowing CTEN to train and equip refugees with the digital skills necessary for educational and social development.

By Jean-Louis Ecochard, The Center for the Digital Nonprofit

This is part two of a series of five blogs to guide nonprofit leaders on what it takes to thrive in their digital transformation journey (view Part One). These ideas leverage research from MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) complemented with The Center for the Digital Nonprofit studies of the digital transformation experience of nonprofits gained through our open tools and guidance such as the Digital Nonprofit Ability™ (DNA), the Digital Nonprofit Skills™ (DNS), and the social sector accelerator of Imagine, Design, Execute, Deliver™ (IDEA).

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath wisely advise considering two opposite questions for any initiative: What would cause it to fail miserably? What happens if it succeeds beyond our wildest dreams? Threats and opportunities are often top-of-mind topics in evaluating new programs.

Perhaps the main challenge facing most nonprofits that can lead to failure is the scarcity of donors for test-and-learn digital initiatives. Many donors have, for decades, gained the perspective of treating technology as part of overhead costs. In the search for efficiency, funds for such initiatives have almost all been squeezed out, as new costs of fiscal compliance and operational optimization have crept in. At a time when nonprofits see the promise of accelerating mission results with digital transformation, the donor community has not yet abandoned the tech-is-just-overhead habit. Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, is starting the important discussion of funding digital for good and encouraging major donors to  discontinue the tech-is-just-overhead mentality, and to #FundDigital4Good.

To be sure, we do not mean to imply that funding is the only challenge nonprofits will encounter. There are many others, that are equally as important, such as gaining the right people skills, safely navigating digital responsibility and information security, and the moral and ethics of the safe introduction of the internet into vulnerable communities.

Opportunities often come from non-traditional actors. Becoming digital is increasingly accessible to all types of organizations. NetHope is observing growth in community-led digital innovations. Beneficiaries and communities are leveraging the digital economy to provide their own solutions to the local problems they know well. For example, in 2017, four Kenyan female teenagers decided to fight female genital mutilation—an illegal practice feared by many girls living in rural Kenya. You might not think Synthia, one of these four innovative adolescents and the daughter of uneducated parents living on very low income, could develop an “app-for-that.” But then, you might be equally surprised to learn that the digital solution these girls invented also won second place at Google’s 2017 Technovation Challenge.

Ground-up digital transformation

You may be intrigued to learn how refugees and locals in Uganda use the internet to change lives. Displaced by deadly conflict in South Sudan, Peter Batali, a twice-refugee Sudanese, created CTEN to help refugees and young Ugandans access online learning platforms, transforming prospects for those struggling to afford school fees.

Connected to the internet by NetHope, CTEN makes it possible for everyone in the refugee settlement Rhino Camp to keep tabs on news from home, connect with displaced loved ones, experience technologies, and educate themselves.

When I met him in Uganda, he explained that CTEN had recently deployed an adult e-learning platform. I learned that their first certification was in enterprise architecture—one point to show the importance that the digital world plays in their future.

With these examples, one can understand why we think that it is highly possible that the digital transformation of our sector may happen faster from the ground up.

By engaging a broader range of actors in solving the world’s most pressing challenges, digital technologies unveil new opportunities at the community level.

Equally, global nonprofits can change the way they work, and digitally transform faster by collaborating with each other through NetHope, finding assistance through the open resources, tools, and guidance available through The Center for the Digital Nonprofit.

In the third industrial age, we used to say, “stay tuned,” but as digital technologies enable networking and collaboration, I now say, “stay connected.”

Part One in the series: What it takes to thrive in the digital transformation journey
Part Two in the series: Digital challenges and opportunities
Part Three in the series: 4 pathways to digital transformation
Part Four in the series: 4 business models and 8 key capabilities
Part Five in the series: 4 moments of truth

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