Climbing the Tech Adoption Mountain: Seven Ways Nonprofits and Social Enterprises Can Leverage Technology for Greater Social Impact
With the intractable challenges facing today’s world, it’s easy to lose hope. But it’s important to remember that there’s a massive workforce dedicated to addressing these issues and making the world a better place. For instance, in the U.S. alone, the nonprofit sector contributes nearly $1 trillion a year to the economy — roughly one third the size of Germany’s GDP. And these organizations – along with countless for-profit social enterprises that share their goals – now benefit from a vast array of technological innovations that support their work and amplify their impact.
Recently, Originate and our partners at BCG Digital Ventures and the UCLA Anderson Venture Accelerator brought together the leading minds in the nonprofit and social enterprise world to discuss how today’s technology is impacting their businesses and benefiting the millions of people they serve. In a panel moderated by social good leader Devin Thorpe of Your Mark on the World, Peter Felix of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Rebecca Masisak of TechSoup, Margret Trilli of ImpactAssets, and Gunnar Lovelace of Thrive Market and GoodMoney shared their top advice for impact-focused organizations adapting to the challenges and opportunities of new technologies. Let’s explore their insights below.
Build a Roadmap for Tech Implementation
Peter Felix is the director of Inventory Control at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which has disbursed more than 1 billion meals to people in need. He spoke about the importance of building a technology roadmap when it comes to getting started. With buzzwords like AI, machine learning and blockchain garnering increasing interest in the social impact space, organizations of all sizes can feel pressured to adopt new technologies first, and ask questions later. But as Felix pointed out, moderation and planning are key to successful technology implementations.
Implementing new technology also inevitably leads to a culture shift, so change management is essential. And according to Felix, it’s important to begin with easy-to-accomplish phases, to ensure that staff does not get overwhelmed. “It’s encouraging for teams to have early successes to celebrate so that everyone buys into the new tech — especially in the beginning, when the changes may seem like extra work,” he explained. “Ultimately, everyone is happy when the time and knowledge investment pays off.”
Focus on Technology that’s Fundamental – Not Flashy
“A focus on mission-critical tech is essential for success,” said Rebecca Masisak, CEO of TechSoup, a 501(c)(3) organization that helps nonprofits adopt technology and train their workforces on using it. “I always tell our clients that it’s inefficient to spend time choosing between 250 constituent relationship management systems (CRMs) if the data that’s going into that CRM is siloed and disorganized.” It’s not the flashy technologies that excite Masisak the most, however. Rather, she spoke of focusing on the “plumbing” — the basic tech infrastructure (like Microsoft 365) that powers the day-to-day processes that influence how nonprofits collaborate, find insights on their programs, and reach even more people.
For Felix, a basic tech infrastructure supports his organization’s supply chain by generating insights derived from data. For instance, data allows the food bank to pinpoint surplus food items across the country that can then be transported to L.A. It also gives the organization the ability to review donations from corporate partners like Amazon and Walmart to better forecast orders. The food bank even uses data to stress test its supply against external factors like natural disasters and trade wars. “For us, technology is a tool to reach a goal,” said Felix.
Collaborate with Peers to Adopt Technology Tools
Our panelists all agreed that a key factor that makes the social impact space so dynamic is the caring individuals working in it. And this community of peers and supporters can be a valuable asset when assessing and adopting new technologies. For example, TechSoup’s business model is built upon collaboration: It connects with 200 corporate partners like Microsoft and Amazon, which offer nonprofits discounts on software and other technology tools through TechSoup’s website. It also hosts courses, webinars and events aimed at software training for nonprofits, where like-minded individuals can collaborate and share ideas about the tech that has worked best for them.
But according to Masisak, though the nonprofit sector is robust, much of it is dispersed, which can lead to “uncoordinated innovation.” She believes that in order for technology to thrive in the nonprofit world, purpose-built solutions must be created for the sector alongside common practices, so that nonprofits can adopt technology in a similar way.
Consider Novel Fundraising Approaches to Upgrade your Tech
Just a decade ago, the only way for nonprofits to raise money was by traditional means, such as donations and grants. But the JOBS Act of 2012 brought with it a range of new regulations which allowed for everyday individuals to invest in the companies they want to see grow.
Since then, many forward-thinking social enterprises and nonprofits have taken advantage of these crowdfunding regulations to jumpstart their fundraising efforts. To take one example, TechSoup recently engaged in a Direct Public Offering to grow its network and upgrade its tech offerings, utilizing Regulation A+. Like an IPO, Regulation A+ allows companies to offer shares to the general public, not just accredited investors. TechSoup arranged its Regulation A+ offering in multiple tiers, allowing people to invest in their growth with as little as $50, with options going all the way up to $50,000, aimed at foundations and other legacy donors.
On a related note, Gunnar Lovelace, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Thrive Market, recently founded GoodMoney, a digital banking platform that makes customers into owners and allocates 50% of their profits to social and environmental impact. GoodMoney uses Regulation A+ to make every single customer a part-owner in the bank over time (a first in the U.S.), which allows issuers to raise capital through a private offering to an unlimited number of accredited investors.
Use Technology to Solve Systemic Problems
“The future of technology will bring with it incredible potential to solve systemic problems,” said Margret Trilli, CEO of ImpactAssets, which manages over $1 billion in impact investments. When making deals, she looks towards technologies like the Internet of Things, AI and algorithms that can be applied towards education, clean tech, alternative energy and more. “Tech can solve problems that on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with tech,” she said.
A technology investment that Trilli and her team are particularly excited about is Hawthorne Effect, a search and discover platform for sharing clinical trials. Historically, the reach of clinical trials has been limited to wealthy people with connections to doctors and hospital systems. Because a massive swath of the population in need of life-saving treatments does not have access to them, many new therapies do not get the results they need to continue, and are abandoned. Hawthorne’s platform has increased patient retention for clinical trials by 80%, leveraging technology to solve a major systemic issue.
Distilled Identity, another ImpactAssets investment, develops AI and machine learning platforms that use bank and ATM data instead of credit card information to create more effective credit ratings for the thousands of people left out of the traditional financial services system. They hope this will have a ripple effect in empowering more people to borrow money, spend and invest – addressing another systemic issue, financial exclusion.
Stay Vigilant in Tech Implementation
Of course, when it comes to tech implementations, there are sometimes unexpected risks. Masisak pointed out that, along with teaching their teams how to use new technology for its intended purposes, nonprofits and social enterprises must also educate their workforce on the use of tech for nefarious purposes. To that end, her organization holds workshops to teach nonprofits about the dangers of cyber risk, Google AdWord manipulation targeting vulnerable communities, and more.
Leverage the Power of Positive Change
Despite the potential risks and downsides, our panelists concluded that technology will drive incredible ideas that will help the social impact sector solve global issues. One reason for their optimism is the fact that consumers are both increasingly comfortable with technology, and increasingly conscious of the need for positive global change. As Lovelace explained, that makes it possible for organizations and enterprises to use technology to appeal to people’s desire to do the right thing. “We use the power of technology to build positive experiences for our customers,” he said. “Consumers are looking for their products and services to provide them with a sense of community, activism and transparency.” Technology can help create both the feeling of doing good among customers, and the reality of doing good on the ground. It’s a remarkable time to be involved in the social impact space, and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of it.
Photo credit: Jackman Chiu, via Unsplash.