A funny thing happened on the way to implementing 21st century technology in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits pulled well ahead of their philanthropic underwriters in the innovative use of technology to support their missions. In April 2010, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) will be hosting another of its ever expanding, content -rich conferences on nonprofit’s use of technology. The event is typically under-attended by foundation folks, although the original intent of the founders was that NTEN would spur technology innovation for philanthropies as well. By all accounts, the NTEN conference is a dynamic, inspiring and educational annual event. In sharp contrast, I was part of an effort some years ago by a variety of philanthropic personnel using technology in their respective program areas to spur more innovation in that space. The group was called the Innovation Funders Network (IFN). Having failed to get philanthropies on the NTEN bandwagon, the thinking was that more insular foundations needed a sandbox of their own in order to share ideas and develop technology innovation. IFN lasted only about three to four years (and two conferences) before disbanding for lack of interest and financial resources.
In fairness to the philanthropic sector, there is an extremely competent TAG group affiliated with the Council on Foundations whose membership primarily includes the administrative IT staff of medium and large foundations. The Council on Foundations undertook an effort last year to identify the priority issues facing philanthropy in the 21st century on a broader programmatic scope — an effort I was also a part of as a consultant. A paper was produced and is now being actively promoted to its membership, and more broadly to make philanthropies aware of the priority issues. What will come of the effort implementation-wise is a work in progress. However, it’s telling that the number one identified priority was the simple application of standard data fields and taxonomies to the grant application and reporting process. It’s a process similar to most foundations requesting input from grantees, but made highly unique and over-complicated because philanthropies in aggregate still spend millions if not tens of millions of dollars to develop their own unique grant tracking systems and processes.
Despite the downturn, many philanthropic institutions still have the money to spend on technology, and many are using it to benefit their back office processing. Too much money is not always a good thing however, when it spurs development of unique, traditional, one off solutions. There are a number of additional reasons to explain the dichotomy of resource-poor nonprofits making the most of cutting edge technologies to effectively support their program missions while philanthropies lag in this area:
• Ironically, an issue that has always been a challenge to nonprofits – high turnover and low salaries — is now an advantage in the area of technological innovation. Young people at the start of their careers continue to populate the nonprofit workspace. The difference now is that they were weaned on social networking technologies and ubiquitous, affordable consumer devices and it is a part of their communication DNA. By comparison, philanthropic staff tend to be one to three generations older and not as familiar/comfortable with the new technologies or their application.
• Behaviorally, the new technologies work for the nonprofit and against the traditional philanthropic organizational culture. It’s the nature of nonprofits to reach out, engage and network with their constituents and the current set of online technology tools are specifically designed for this purpose. By contrast, traditional philanthropy creates a firewall between itself and its grantee, limiting outreach and social networking with constituents.
• The affordability of current technology cannot be overemphasized. The historic barrier to nonprofit access of these tools was financial, both in terms of the tools and the trained personnel to use them. There now exists a ubiquity of useful web applications, from surveys to online solicitations — including specialty applications for nonprofits like advocacy and human rights. Nonprofits and philanthropies both like to think of themselves as unique, but the former has been far more inclined to use standardized affordable technology than its philanthropic counterparts who still have the resources and inclination to build unique solutions.
It is both inspiring and a healthy evolution of the sector that nonprofits now have the access, impetus and personnel to apply the new technology tools. What is distressing is that their philanthropic counterparts still lag behind in their understanding and use of these same tools. Philanthropy in the 21st century is being reshaped by online networked technologies and new types of philanthropic initiatives. witness the Iranian post-election crisis and Haiti relief. It’s incumbent for traditional philanthropy to get ahead of the technology curve if it doesn’t want to become a historic artifact of the 20th century.
For a list of nonprofit actors spurring technology use among nonprofits see:
eRiders.net – Mission Driven Technology Support for Non Governmental Organizations.
Idealware.org – For the latest review of said tools.
Netsquared.org challenges website sponsored by Techsoup featuring the latest cutting edge applications for the social sector and other similar challenges.
NTEN.org – Nonprofit Technology Conference and website.
Socialsourcecommon.org – A social network of nonprofit software tool users sharing their favorites.
TechSoup.org – The largest International distributor of software to the nonprofit sector.
Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.