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Commentary: Mobility, Complexity and Cybersecurity Drive Tech Landscape

As a new year dawns, leaders at nonprofits and across civil society face a world that is only growing more complicated, complex and global. The COVID-19 pandemic is becoming endemic. Misinformation campaigns are spreading like viruses, threatening democracy and civil society here at home and around the world. Broken supply chains are disrupting refugee and relief programs. And as world leaders talk, climate change marches on.

There’s the good news: Technology and digital tools can in fact help us adapt, address and overcome these seemingly overwhelming crises. And nonprofits are the ideal conduit to leverage a range of technology — moving it beyond being a tool of profit and monetization to a supporter of human thriving.

In 2022, nonprofit tech will be driven by several trends that have already begun to reshape the sector. Here are four that will play a critical role over the next 12 months and beyond.

The Great Unmooring

A constellation of factors has turned centralized nonprofit organizations into flotillas of workers increasingly unmoored from their desks. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofit managers have had to find ways to quickly implement digital solutions to allow for productive and efficient remote working conditions — whether they are on the front lines of refugee camps or at a hometown library.

That degree of mobility will only increase in coming years. And we as a sector will have to respond to whatever comes next, to help people get help when that help is literally moving. This idea that organizations are going to be locked in place and have an address is so 2019. For organizations like TechSoup, the challenge will be to build a supportive tech infrastructure for unmoored nonprofits that increasingly attach to the public infrastructure from small devices.

One critical component is helping organizations move to the Cloud, not just with laptops, but also with mobile devices. Developing ways to trust mobile devices and make sure data is set up needs to be collected — perhaps offline and shared online later — is one component of a better Cloud. Making sure that we’re enabling people with the right access for data and information is also part of that better Cloud. That might mean creating ways of collecting host services other than phone numbers and street addresses. And so, how we think about a resource hub might evolve in response to that.

Increasing Threat Landscape

Once upon a time, cybersecurity meant sniffing every email to see if it smelled phishy. In 2022, a variety of factors, from the move to remote work to the rise of Ransomware-as-a-Service has widened the threat landscape, leaving organizations vulnerable to attack — whether from phishing, ransomware or security holes from out-of-date software.

This proliferation of threats also makes it more difficult for nonprofit managers to get in front of communities they serve because they’re out drowned out by ads, spam and scammers. This new threat landscape isn’t just about protecting ourselves and our data. It’s also about breaking through the noise to get in front of the folks with a trusted message. Maintaining those tunnels of trust with clients will be essential as the sea of mis- and disinformation grows.

Protection in this area is not just in the domain of technologists. Left to ourselves, we will disconnect all the computers and lock them in a room for safekeeping. Moving to the Cloud will help organizations take advantage of the threat protection work companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google already do to protect themselves and users. What’s the biggest single thing organizational leaders can do? Make sure your team is being trained in the complex landscape of cyberthreats so they can recognize bad actors and potential problems, be very clear in how you are protecting your data and then monitor your systems, and have a clear way of escalating issues that arise.

Tech Bear Hug for Democracy

What does nonprofit tech have to do with democracy? From our perspective, nonprofits and civil society play a critical role in holding open the space where inclusive democratic conversations can happen. Technology can help bring people into these vital conversations. This is not about partisan politics or get out to vote efforts. This is about a year-around effort to make sure that the nonprofit constituency is as involved as it can be in the conversations that are going to be setting their fate.

Whether it’s deploying decidedly low-tech solutions such as partnering with libraries to bring social services into the same physical space where these conversations are taking place, or using new technology applications that do multi-criteria decision-making, nonprofit leaders need to gather the opinions and realities of community members to fight for inclusion. This is an issue that needs to be taken on, head on. If we as a sector stay in our lane, our lane is just going to get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. And, that’s exactly what we see happening around the world.

Digital and information fluency are key so that organizations are not unwitting spreaders of misinformation. Many groups are helping civil society to stand stalwart, including Rand’s Truth Decay project (https://bit.ly/31BhMDb), the Knight Foundation (https://kng.ht/3qiGOBe), and our own Hive Mind (https://bit.ly/3kkdI0D).

Supply Chain of Trust

The supply chain crisis manifests itself differently for nonprofits than for factories or Amazon. Technology can help break the supply chain logjam — both of trust and food and other human needs that nonprofits provide.

The real supply chain issue that nonprofits are dealing with is supplying services. We’re not waiting on factories to produce widgets. With resources that are hyper local, fragmented, increasingly mobile and rapidly changing, our logistical challenge is how to connect services with needs, and how to make those services as clear as possible, knowing these other trends exist.

This is not an easy problem to solve. We often confer trust because of signifiers like NGO status or inclusion in a particular association. This tends to reward stable organizations. That’s great. But it doesn’t extend to newer groups that might not be able to affiliate for a wide variety of reasons. We think operationalizing trust is a community issue — not a technology problem. That is why we are convening a multi-disciplinary group of stakeholders to examine the issue and produce a report for the broader community (https://bit.ly/3wrx6xE).

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Marnie Webb is the chief community impact officer at TechSoup. Her email is webb@caravanstudios.org

As we celebrate our 36th year, NPT remains dedicated to supplying breaking news, in-depth reporting, and special issue coverage to help nonprofit executives run their organizations more effectively.


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