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Technology as an Enabler in the Social Sector

Globalization, development of communication technologies and international trade have facilitated smooth communication and collaboration among countries of the world. Alongside are non-government organizations (NGOs) actively involved in solving pressing issues of the day. In fact, in the U.S., the number of NGOs has increased by 31% between 1988 and 20081. Moreover today, NGOs address problems in diversified fields such as disaster management, human rights, medical treatment, disease prevention, anti-discrimination, welfare for children and the elderly, as well as environment and ecological protection.

Significance and Role of Technology in the Social Sector

This journey towards solving the most critical of the world's problems is not without its challenges. NGOs often find themselves in a competition with other organizations for the attention of donors and of the society. They are also often short of skills and resources needed to exert meaningful public influence. Technology has been proposed and considered an effective solution to help NGOs address those challenges 2

Technology as an Enabler in the Social Sector

Technology is known to boost innovation. For NGOs, technology is able to change the way they communicate with the outside world — leading to a more efficient and transparent transfer of information. This helps improve credibility among donors and society at large. For instance, the data and analytics section of an international NGO has described its data management system as siloed by sector, with many time-consuming, inefficient manual processes, disparate reporting and analysis, and fragmented data sharing across multiple data repositories and databases. They invited ThoughtWorks to conduct an assessment of the data management processes, to explore opportunities and make recommendations for improving workflow, efficiency, and infrastructure.

Technology is able to greatly improve the operational efficiency of projects, significantly reducing resource input and increasing the efficiency of communication. For example, most international NGOs need to deliver a variety of supplies to dozens of countries, during which they face multiple issues. They often need to manually track delivery status. Since most supplies are delivered to undeveloped areas, the receivers struggle to confirm receipt and provide feedback about the delivery. Without this feedback, organizations are unable to analyze delivery data and make informed operational decisions. 

Earlier this year, this NGO worked with ThoughtWorks to create a material flow management and supervision system that uses Short Messaging Service (SMS) for logistics supervision and tracking in remote areas. It displays feedback as a graph enabling the user to make corresponding decisions quickly, ensuring transparency and correctness of material transportation, thereby reducing waste in the material flow process.

Technology as an Enabler in the Social Sector

Technological innovation in projects has the potential to increase efficiency and improve staff working conditions and experiences. For example, an NGO was required to reunite children who’ve been separated from their guardians during natural calamities or as a result of war. To achieve this, social workers were placing photographs and basic information of the displaced children on several large whiteboards in refugee camps. This proved to be energy-consuming, inefficient and not scalable. Each social worker had to be responsible for many children and establish profiles for them, requiring every social worker to maintain numerous complex text archives. To make this process simpler, they partnered with ThoughtWorks to design a product, capable of quickly recording, updating and uploading information of the displaced children via a mobile phone. It reduced their workload and improved their efficiency, as the software is able to quickly match the information of displaced children with the details provided by guardians using a sophisticated algorithm.

Examples like these are plenty and show that in an environment with limited resources, extraordinary requirements and fierce competition, the effective use of technology is essential to create the impact they wish to have.

Technology Pain Points

We’ve seen in these previous examples how technology can be instrumental in increasing efficiency, as well as in making reporting realistic. Nevertheless, NGOs are often unable to benefit completely from technology due to multiple reasons:

Limited Budget
The budget of small and medium-sized NGOs is barely enough to purchase the software and hardware necessary for daily use. In 2008, only those NGOs with a budget of over USD 100,000 used the Internet, 31% of which were able to access broadband, and only NGOs with a budget over USD 5 million had their own technology staff for maintenance of systems3. The conditions have since improved, but most NGOs still lack funds and capabilities to invest in the development and maintenance of their IT solution.

Tactical Use of IT
Since NGOs are focused on achieving their mission of social influence, technology within the organization is often deprioritized, despite its usefulness. In most cases, there’s limited technical expertise within the NGO, which results in the lack of strategic insights around the use of technology. Thus, the capability and effect of technology isn’t understood.

Strategic Technical Leadership and Competency
Although some NGOs have their own full-time technical staff, only a few organizations have their own complete development and maintenance team, often relying on volunteers or interns. In general, there is a lack of experience and dearth of relevant skills for design, development and maintenance of solutions.

Tackling the NGO’s Requirements

The needs of an NGO are no different from that of commercial organizations. In fact, the crunch for monetary and human resources, combined with the objective of creating meaningful impact on human lives, makes their needs more complex. Here are a few tools and ideas to help build technology that works for NGOs and organizations with similar challenges.

Technology as an Enabler in the Social Sector

Design Efficiency
Efficiency and budget are paramount for any solution. By designing solutions using open source products, it is possible to prioritize both efficiency and budget. The preferential consideration of open source frameworks enables not only quicker designs, but also easier maintenance of the solution once deployed.

Technology Consulting
Providing technical consulting for organizations in the social sector requires hands-on experience at the intersection of social work and technology, navigating environments low on resources, people and connectivity. 

Mature Development Teams
A mature development team ensures the successful delivery of a project. Technical excellence and a focused approach ensures that the solution and its design are able to meet the requirement of end users efficiently. Timely feedback to the users during the development process is useful, allowing them to report as necessary to their donors and key stakeholders.

In the entire development course, it’s ideal to have a strict testing process to guarantee the product quality. In the later stage of product delivery, a standard testing and acceptance process should be adopted to enable the customer to inspect the delivery quality.

The Intersection
Pursuing social and economic justice is one of the pillars of ThoughtWorks. We want to create a social impact in addition to building a sustainable business and achieving remarkable technological advancement. Our desire intersects with the work NGOs are doing globally, and that is why we are eager to enable NGOs with technology where applicable for their success.

References

The Strategic Use of Information Technology by Nonprofit Organizations: Increasing Capacity and Untapped Potential Darrene Hackler and Gregory D. Saxton. (2007).

Sources

Wing, Roeger, & Pollak, 2012
Cnaan 1989; Te’eni and Speltz 1992; Kolleck 1993; Elliott, Katsioloudes, and Weldon 1998; Berlinger and Te’eni 1999; Burt and Taylor 2000, 2003
Darrene Hackler and Gregory D. Saxton, 2007