Elly Brown

Technology Plus Humanity – An Equation for Social Collaboration

What is technology’s role in the social sector today and how does it advance philanthropy?

The 2011 Columbia Social Enterprise Conference panel on “Bold New Ventures: Visionary Philanthropists and Impact Investing at the Cutting Edge” kicked off with thoughts from moderator Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. Berman reflected on the i-generation spawned by Steve Jobs and the increasingly central role of technology in our daily lives, including philanthropy.

The panel included various representatives from the funder and nonprofit sector community including Doug Borchard, managing partner and COO of New Profit, Mike O’Brien, CEO of iMentor, and Bonnie Oliva, director of InVenture Foundation.

The two social entrepreneurs, O’Brien and Oliva both decided at the genesis of their respective organizations to center their services on the deployment of technology to advance social impact. Through its online platform, iMentor created a successful mentoring model without sacrificing the quality of relationships. Under this model, mentors meet with mentees once a week and conduct a majority of their interactions online. The flexibility and the ease of access lowered barriers for potential mentors and significantly increased the participation rates compared to more traditional mentoring programs. iMentor became a national model and now partners with 24 organizations to replicate this model through sharing knowledge online and providing capacity building support.

InVenture Foundation, a hybrid social enterprise, provides capital, guidance, and financial tracking needed to empower microbusiness owners in lifting themselves and their communities out of poverty. The micro-entrepreneurs, selected through a strict due diligence process, create an online profile and seek investments through the technology platform. After the investments bear fruit, the investors of the micro-entrepreneurs are paid back their principle and can choose to reinvest the profits of their investments, Social Enterprise Expansion Dollars (SEED), into other potential investments.

Borchard also described the case of Single Stop USA, a Pathways Fund grantee, to illustrate a powerful application of technology in supporting an organization’s outcomes. Single Stop USA is an organization that helps community college students stay in school and complete their degrees. Recognizing the financial barriers that many students face in completing post-secondary education, Single Stop USA developed a “Turbo Tax-like” online technology that allows students to identify eligible state and local financial benefits.

For all three organizations, technology overcomes access issues and enables the successful matching of resources to their target beneficiaries. It also serves as a convenient tool to track interactions and the performance of their programs.

A theme emphasized throughout the panel was the importance of incorporating the human experience into the technology, a concept that Apples’ Jobs fully embraced. In a March speech introducing the iPad2 (more details from a recent Economist article), Jobs outlined this aspiration: “Technology alone is not enough… It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Societal impact cannot be created by technology alone. Technology is an enabler; it addresses solutions for accessibility, scalability, and efficiency. O’Brien referenced this idea when speaking to the brilliance of technology’s ability to solve problems but limitations when relying on technology alone. For example, when incorporating a new technology into a school, O’Brien emphasized, “it will not work if you don’t have emphasis on teacher training and implementing that solution into how the school functions.” Deploying technology without analyzing its effects on people and processes will be set up for failure.

Despite several examples of success highlighted in the panel discussion, the social sector has yet to unlock the potential of technology and its ability to increase donor activity in a formalized matter. According to Borchard, some organizations such as Donors Choose, Kiva, Global Giving, and InVenture Foundation, are leading this effort and learning what works. Particularly when engaging with individuals, donors and investors are seeking transparency around how their specific contribution has been invested. This highly granular approach in tying donations to specific investments creates a tangible connection for donors. For example, Donors Choose may identify a $600 contribution as earmarked to set up an ecology program in a particular school. Although best practices are emerging with some examples of successful applications, we are still years behind an effective social media model that transforms the way organizations find funding.

Posing a question to the panel, O’Brien seemed to underscore the panel’s outlook on technology and philanthropy: “Instead of a bricks and mortar replication model, can we use a combination of technology and consulting to partner with other organizations to do something that is more collaborative?” The key challenge facing technology in the social sector is enabling and incentivizing organizations to share best practices, collaborate, and further the field. Jobs’ successful recipe of cutting edge technology coupled with a dose of humanity might just be the winning combination to “make our hearts sing” in the social sector as well.

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Social Enterprise, Technology