David Lehr

Sustainability for ICT Offerings

SustainA recent report, “Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use,” by the United Nations Foundation and The Vodafone Group Foundation highlights emerging trends by NGOs in the use of mobile technology to affect social change in global public health, humanitarian assistance and environmental conservation. While this report offers some great insights on how to use technology and telecom tools to address some of the world’s toughest problems, it leaves out one of the most important challenges that NGOs, and most ICT for Development projects face; how toensure sustainability.

To shed some light on this tension, I spoke with Ken Banks, the founder of FrontlineSMS (a tool for mass text messaging) about sustainability and the choices he is currently grappling with. FrontlineSMS was initially funded by Ken’s hard work, and more recently by the MacArthur Foundation, to fulfill his belief that “all non-profits, whatever their size and wherever they operate, should be given the opportunity to implement the latest mobile technologies in their work.” Today, FrontlineSMS is free for non-profits and is being used by over 40 NGOs in programs around the world.Free, of course, can only go so far. Even with a continuous source of funding, the use of business models brings a discipline that is generally healthy. One option for sustainability would be to use a type of sliding scale, charging based on the ability to pay. Perhaps those who are better resourced–such as companies and government agencies – would pay, while organizations with more limited funds–like most community-based NGOs – would still get served for free. What happens to those who fall in between; the public development agencies like USAID and DFID, or the large NGOs such as CARE, Save the Children or the Red Cross? They clearly have more funds and resources than your average grassroots NGO, and it could be quite easily argued that they should pay at least something.

Deciding on the criteria (is it based on the organizational size, on the project budget, on their total budget, number of staff, etc.) and the resultant pricing or usage terms (an organization-wide license, by project, per year, etc.) remains challenging, though it should be noted that these are exactly the same questions that a for-profit business faces. FrontlineSMS does not want to discriminate between the non-profit work of one organization and the non-profit work of another by their fee structure. What these fees might be and the definitions of affordability and better-funded are still open questions.

One option that technology developers have, and that FrontlineSMS has leveraged, is the ability to become open source. As an open source adherent, Ken has tapped into the wider developer community to help build and improve on FrontlineSMS for free! There is also a growing online user community that is providing support to other users and lessening the bottleneck that might occur if the FrontlineSMS developers had to provide this by themselves. By allowing others to provide customization, FrontlineSMS is enabling a business opportunity for system integrators, better customer support for those hiring the integrators and the likelihood of ongoing improvements that will flow back to all users.

While open source may not be an option for everyone, it is a rare organization that does not have to deal with sustainability. Addressing this issue as intergral part of the product design is certainly one way to help meet this challenge.