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The Humanitarian Technologist’s Dilemma

Earlier this year, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) held its fourth event dedicated to exploring how technology can be used in global development.

January 16, 2013

This was originial posted on the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Earlier this year, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) held its fourth event dedicated to exploring how technology can be used in global development. With more than 170 participants, CRS held intensive sessions on how technology increasingly plays a role in solving challenges across all verticals—from financial services and field work to data, communication, mapping, business, education, health, poverty, and disease.

Events like the CRS conference showcase emerging trends and sets of data demonstrating that information and communication technology (ICT) can greatly benefit humanitarian work in the developing world. The rise of multistakeholder forums such as the mHealth Alliance, TechSoup, and NetHope provide proof that sectors want to collaborate—or at least converse—around technology. And, thanks to cloud computing and mobile technologies, there is a higher adoption of technology into service projects.

Despite this interest, and despite evidence that technology can help nonprofits achieve greater scale with their programs—NetHope’s work with The Rockefeller Foundation to build out its Innovations for Development program is a great example—most foundations do not consistently encourage investments in technology as part of their requests for grant proposals.

In partnership with Intel, NetHope recently surveyed 80 of the top global foundations that have a presence in developing countries to learn about the technology requests they make of their grantees. We discovered that only 37 percent of respondents perceived technology as “essential” and more than 70 percent of respondents said that their foundations do not require or only occasionally require the inclusion of technology in their grant proposals.

The survey also revealed that the biggest barrier to including technology in grant proposals is that foundations do not have access to or knowledge of the many proof points that link ICT solutions to end beneficiary outcomes. Respondents believe technology is an enabler, but they do not see enough case studies to demonstrate its value. Other barriers included a lack of capacity to understand and evaluate ICT in different contexts, and a lack of familiarity with how to shape asks for ICT that best suit beneficiaries.

It leaves me wondering: What can we, as a community of people invested in social innovation, do to support NGOs that want to embrace technology solutions to improve their programming? Some ideas include:

  • Form an action team of donors and nonprofits. There needs to be collective demand from nonprofits and donors to start requesting technology in grant making. Our survey results show that there is clear interest in this subject. More than 70 percent of respondents said they would be interested in participating in further discussions on how to accelerate technology adoption in nonprofit programming. In addition, a large number of NGOs have already volunteered to be part of an action team to address this issue. This action team could comprise a mix of NGOs and donors to address barriers preventing increased technology adoption. The open question is: Which donors would be interested in helping to lead such an effort?
  • Chief information officers need a seat at the fundraising table. Nonprofit CIOs need to help their organizations better communicate success stories about technology solutions and articulate business cases that resonate with IT outsiders. They can partner with donors that are formulating requests for grant proposals, and encourage them to include standard and consistent language in their requests for grant proposals that call for increased technology adoption. CIOs can help ensure that donors understand the value of technical solutions that more effectively enable and evaluate nonprofit programs, and how to appropriately request them.
  • Nonprofits need to collaborate to mitigate risk and demonstrate return on investment. ROI is best measured in terms of impact to beneficiaries, so proposals that emphasize co-creation, co-implementation, and co-review among many nonprofits create a more attractive proposal for donors. They also build the ideal cooperative environment needed to support next generation technologies. According to Gartner’s findings on the top technology trends for 2013, technologies such as the hybrid cloud, strategic big data, and integrated ecosystems require coordination and collaboration between IT departments, resources, and implementers.

In the end, multistakeholder support is essential as we push for technology to become a larger piece of grant proposals. We need to leverage the relationships and trust we have built with donors to ensure that the shift is backed by nonprofits and funders alike. If more foundations are willing to fund technology, together we can collectively shift our fundraising culture, moving to an era of co-created, co-implemented technology solutions that benefit more people in need.

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