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Commentary: Technology Is Not The Solution NPOs Were Promised
Commentary: Technology Is Not The Solution NPOs Were Promised

We are bombarded by messages every day about technology, all promising that it’s the solution we need for fundraising or data management or employee benefit tracking or just about everything else. In a reality where demand on the programs and services provided by nonprofits continues to increase with instability in the markets and the continued pandemic. The desire for solutions is real and strong and compelling.

Unfortunately, it’s only an illusion that technology can solve everything for us.

Technology is a tool, not a solution.

If we were baking a cake, we wouldn’t consider the mixer or the measuring cup to be a solution. Similarly, if we were building a house, a hammer or a sander wouldn’t be lauded as the solution to our needs. We want the tools to be well designed and elegant enough for our purpose, but we focus on the outcomes. So, why do we expect things to be different in our work to meet our missions?

A dynamic database or constituent relationship management platform (CRM) is only as good as the data we put in it and the ways we put it to work. A peer-to-peer fundraising platform is only a valuable tool after and because of the work to engage and support community members to be connected to the organization and inspired to fundraise for you. A staff communications app is only helpful with an organizational culture that encourages and prioritizes collaboration.

When we talk about technology as a solution, we shift our minds away from thinking about the mission and toward the tools themselves. This means conversations about programmatic decisions, for example, can become biased by the focus on data presented in reports from the CRM instead of broad or diverse community inputs.

John Jay College in New York City partnered with data scientists from DataKind to answer the question: How might we better identify students at risk of dropping out and support them in graduating. The data scientists tested nearly two dozen models before finalizing the program that made recommendations to staff for implementation.

The tools never took action, made decisions, or triggered resources. Instead, the tools set up staff to do their work and to focus where their impact was best made. After two years of using the program, John Jay College celebrated the 900 additional students who graduated – and not the data science.

We Are The Solutions We Need

Nonprofit managers have traditionally left technology decisions to technologists, and programmatic, mission-related decisions to the subject matter experts. With few, if any, technologists on staff, managers are left to try to navigate in a digital world without technology designed to support their mission.

Technology products touted as great successes — the perfect CRM to revolutionize donor management or the greatest new app for better client engagement — if eventually deployed at all, require a lot of time, training, and budget to maintain and ultimately might not even last.

What if we did things differently? What if we recognized that it is not possible to create a solution without the humans involved and the humans affected? What if we reimagined decision-making and tech design to include many stakeholders?

Consider Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), a nonprofit where managers decided they wanted to better manage their operations to address food waste and food insecurity. When they engaged a tech firm to help design a new internal management system, they didn’t just talk to their technical staff. A diversity of staff, volunteers, restaurants, and clients engaged in the ongoing work to suggest, discuss, vote on, and track feature requests and technical work plans. The transparency and open process created a platform for development that powered RLC’s expansion from one city to eight cities across the United States.

Technology matters when it is in service to the mission. If developed in community-centered ways, as the John Jay College and RLC examples show, it is a tool that can help us achieve our goals. When we make decisions about how best to advance the mission, we should consider all the tools we have in our toolbox, including the power of community involvement, the lived and learned expertise of staff and community, and technology that minimizes harms.

Let your values lead.

When we bring technology decisions under the umbrella of our missions, strategic plans, and needs of our community, we can align it with our values. This is key because what we value is what we build — when it comes to our goals, our organizations, and our technology. Let’s be clear about our values and use them to drive inclusive conversations and decisions every day. We suggest that creating an equitable world requires that we value:

  1. The knowledge and wisdom of lived experience
  2. The participation of a diversity of people in everything from decision making to planning to building
  3. Accessibility as a priority
  4. The multiple ways that change is made, balancing immediate needs with systemic change
  5. The strength of collectively creation a vision
  6. The pursuit of continued learning, skill building, and experience. 

 

We are the solutions we need. Technology is only a valuable tool when it meets our needs and supports our mission, not when we bend our goals or approaches to the tools on hand. To build an equitable world together we will likely use many different technologies and build new ones over time. But today and tomorrow and many years into the future, we will continue to find and create solutions together as people with visions bigger and broader than the tools.

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Afua Bruce is the Principal of ANB Advisory Group and the co-author of The Tech That Comes Next. Amy Sample Ward is the CEO of NTEN and co-author of The Tech That Comes Next.