Talk to almost anyone who has spent some time working in or around nonprofit technology and the assessment of the current state of our sector is remarkably similar: Nonprofits have gotten better at using technology for social good, but still have a long way to go. True, there are some bright spots, such as community-driven hackathons and widespread social media adoption across the sector, but nonprofit innovation and technology adoption isn’t happening nearly as widely, or as effectively, as it could be.
It’s often pointed out that the culprit behind this issue is the paltry amount of technology funding coming out of the philanthropic sector. (When all else fails, blame foundations, right?) But I have a theory—not based on anything but my own casual observations—that there may be an even greater cause for this lack of innovation across the sector: Too many nonprofits, social service agencies, (and foundations) are just plain doing it wrong.
Because so little innovation happens in our sector, there may be a reluctance to call out players who go about it all wrong, but I think it needs to happen if a sector-wide transformation toward more effective innovation is to occur. This is not to say that organizations shouldn’t innovate—just the opposite. What’s important for nonprofit leaders to realize is that while innovation inherently carries risk, major missteps can be avoided by understanding some of the common traps that organizations fall into when it comes to applying technology to innovation.
The “Building a Better Mousetrap” Trap
“I can’t believe that people in nonprofit organizations can even consider the option of building new technology,” says Gavin Clabaugh, vice president of information services and chief information officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. “There are really smart, really gifted people that have designed tools and technologies and that will give them away, open source, to nonprofit organizations. If something needs to be developed, I tell organizations ‘bend, don’t build.’”
Outside of some nonprofit organizations that are steeped in tech (Code4America, HopeLab, and DonorsChoose, for example), few nonprofits should be developing new technology platforms, tools, and services. By holding themselves to the same standards as leading-edge tech organizations, many nonprofits do themselves a disservice by thinking only of Innovation with a capital “I” instead of looking at everyday innovations that can lead to better outcomes. Large organizations often assume that throwing lots of money at a project will ensure its success, but when it comes to poorly conceived technology initiatives, big organizations just fail bigger.
“We tend to be very binary in our thinking around innovation,” says Clabaugh. “We’re either going to innovate huge and fail huge or we’re not going to innovate at all.” A more prudent approach is to fail lightly and succeed lightly by using existing, often free, off-the-shelf tools and adapting those to users needs.
The Bright Shiny Object Trap
“‘Glitzy’ and ‘New’ are danger signs unless you have the technology budget and are on the bleeding edge of tech innovation,” agrees Laura Quinn, executive director of Idealware, in a recent report, “Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services.” Idealware and MAP for Nonprofits surveyed 180 Minnesota human service organizations on how they were using technology in effective or interesting ways. What they discovered was that the organizations that were using technology most effectively were those who found everyday tools to address common community issues.
“Don’t start with the technology,” says Quinn. “Start with the need. Don’t ask, ‘What is some possible need that Twitter could address? Understand THE need that you are trying to address and have a general understanding of the tools that are already out there that could be easily brought to address the problem. Then, envision a Venn diagram where your specific needs and existing technologies overlap, and start from there.”
The Ivory Castle Trap
“Everybody wants to build their own castle,” says Tina Lee, director of Bay Area outreach and innovation for the California State Controller’s Office. “In many organizations, there’s this very top-down, hierarchical approach to technology design and innovation.” Call it a variation of the Ivory Tower Syndrome. Groups of well-intentioned organizational leaders convene around a certain issue and decide to apply technology to a given problem without taking the time to observe what the people who they are designing for are actually doing.
The Stanford Design School provides free online resources and tools on design thinking. Effective human-centric design starts, ends, and iterates by observing end users. Human-centric design tries to optimize technology around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.
“Many organizations are rushing to build mobile apps,” says Lee, “without understanding that app discovery is one of hardest nuts to crack.” There are currently more than 500,000 apps available for the iPhone and the Android isn’t far behind. “Rather than building an app, then trying to convince users of its value, user-centric design looks at what people are actually doing, then searches for existing resources to solve problems,” says Lee.
The Free (as in “Free Kittens”) Trap
Organizations should also be cautious in understanding what “free” means. For example, when someone comes forward to voluntarily build or donate technology, many organizations jump at the opportunity. “There are lots of great, free resources out there,” says Idealware’s Quinn, “but just like free kittens, technology often comes with long-term costs that go beyond the initial acquisition costs.” Without assessing the potential costs of technology—free or not—an organization can head down a path it probably should have never embarked upon in the first place. It will then find itself, some time later, in the difficult situation of either funneling more resources to continue on the wrong trajectory or writing off the sunk costs and abandoning the project altogether.
Some general guidelines provided by nonprofit consultant Elaina Buzzell for using free technology resources include planning and budgeting for the project (just as important for free tools as for paid ones); “choos[ing] tools because they are a good fit, not just because they are free;” “accept[ing] that costs will arise around this tool;” “invest[ing] time, money or both in training;” and accurately “valu[ing] the time of your staff” in implementing the new technology.
Where Innovation Begins
According to Holly Ross, executive director of NTEN, change needs to happen from across all types of organizations—from both the technology leaders and the laggards. “If you are a high performing, outcomes-oriented organization and you understand what it means to create change, you have a responsibility to find the best possible way to do so and you should be out there trying to figure it out,” Ross says. “On the other hand, if you are a nonprofit that is not outcomes oriented, you need to get your house in order first. The technology exists to serve the mission and to amplify the opportunities to serve the mission. Without any real sense of impact, then I don’t think tech serves anyone.”
Change also needs to happen from the top down and from the bottom up. A new generation of digital natives is putting pressure on nonprofit organizations to get smarter about how they are using technology to further their missions. “There’s this generational change in leadership, so we’re definitely going to see change,” says Ross. “At the same time, we need to make sure that technology is a part of good organizational management in the same way that fundraising, finance, and leadership are. Management services organizations, for example, need to integrate technology into their capacity building and leadership training services.”
Too often, organizations both small and big dump precious resources into tech boondoggles that result in applications, tools, and platforms that completely miss the mark. Organizations confuse technology for technology’s sake with community-based innovation. These technology missteps are characterized as innovation gone bad, which then dampens further innovation and smart, creative risk-taking.
John Hoffman is director of business development at ZeroDivide, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development with the high-tech and nonprofit sectors.