TechSoup@PND

Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Funding Nonprofit Technology to Support Innovation

What does it take for an organization to innovate the way it delivers services? The answer may not be what you think; our research shows that significant dollar investments in technology are not necessarily the best way for nonprofits to improve their effectiveness. Rather, we found that subtle innovations can enable organizations to do more with less and still have enormous impact on their ability to deliver services. And by investing thoughtfully, funders and other support organizations can create significant opportunities for nonprofits to better serve their constituencies.

Last year, MAP for Nonprofits and Idealware partnered on a research project that surveyed a hundred and eighty human service organizations in Minnesota about the technologies they were using and the different ways they applied those technologies to improve their ability to deliver services. Based on their responses, we selected thirteen nonprofits for detailed follow-up interviews, which in turn revealed some remarkable stories of innovation in unexpected circumstances.

How The James Irvine Foundation Received its First Donations  
Jim Lynch, co-director of TechSoup's GreenTech program, interviewed James Irvine Foundation director of technology Jeff Brandenberg about how to get the most from Microsoft's software donation program now that it is open to foundations, and how he approaches IT service for his employer in an era of ever greater software sophistication as well as the "moving target" of technical solutions.
To read the interview, visit the TechSoup blog.  

One example is elegant in its simplicity: a staff member at a small organization observed that while all the teens in a mentoring program carried cell phones and used them frequently, few would answer phone calls or e-mails. So she began using text messages to communicate with them, and today her free solution has substantially increased the number of teens attending the organization's programs.

At another nonprofit, a single individual at a domestic abuse organization created a new report in an existing system to provide information to external probation officers who had been reliant on staff members. A simple change, but it transformed the relationship from time-consuming hassle to a real partnership.

Neither innovation came about as a result of a strategic or technology planning process, and neither had an additional cost associated with it beyond staff time. In both, an individual identified a need, connected it with existing technology, and improved his or her organization's ability to deliver services.

We believe other organizations can replicate their results. To help them, we identified a framework to guide them through the innovation process.

  • Identify needs. The organizations we talked to typically innovated solutions that addressed core day-to-day inefficiencies, problems, or opportunities to improve their service delivery by taking the time to step back and assess what they could be doing better or differently.
  • Understand technology. The organizations were generally aware of the technologies available to them — those they already had as well as other solutions relevant to their needs — and took the time to educate themselves about the available options.
  • Connect needs and technology. The majority of the organizations we talked to had some catalyst for their innovation, often an external factor. In many cases, there was a specific step that helped them connect their needs with a technology solution.
  • Effect change in the organization. Innovation will fail without support. The successful organizations we spoke with took steps to make sure their organizations were on board with the solutions being implemented and that sufficient resources were available to see them through to completion and sustain them into the future.

Everyday Innovation: Making Use of Technology

To better understand our survey respondents' needs and use of technology, we asked organizations what technologies were integral to their work. What did we learn? Respondents said they used Web sites more than any other technology, although databases were more important overall to their work with clients.

Databases are where much of the heavy lifting is done — e.g., running detailed reports or evaluating organization performance — and more than one of the successful organizations in our research had implemented database-related innovations or improvements. The United Way of Olmsted County, for example, combined a shared hosted database with a scannable photo ID card to reduce intake time for clients who visit participating service providers.

Another area of technology important to nonprofits was mobile devices. Nearly 40 percent of our respondents are using smartphones, mobile apps, or other portable solutions to collect data in the field. Headway Emotional Health Services, an organization that provides comprehensive mental health therapy, counseling and classes, implemented an innovation that combined both areas of technology by outfitting case managers with smartphones and moving its database to the cloud, enabling case managers, who work mostly from the field, to access patient data remotely. It also gave them more control over their own calendars and improved their efficiency by letting them schedule directly with clients.

In both of these examples, there were costs associated with the innovations, but they were affordable — and the innovations dramatically improved client and employee satisfaction as well as the overall efficiency of the organizations in question.

Helping Nonprofits Overcome Barriers

So, why aren't more organizations regularly thinking about innovations in terms of service delivery? Most organizations want to but feel it's a luxury they can't afford. Budget and staff constraints are part of what's holding them back from the countless opportunities for everyday innovation that can transform how, and how effectively, they advance their missions. Another barrier is perception. People often think of innovation as cutting-edge technology — flashy, shiny, and futuristic things like jetpacks, flying cars, and computers that integrate with our homes. Our research shows otherwise.

While we did find some examples of leading-edge technologies in use, for the most part the solutions we uncovered were low-cost and effective. While they may not be as eye-catching as a jetpack, their simplicity makes them easy to implement — and for other organizations to replicate.

Few organizations, however, appear to be thinking about the need to develop effective technology solutions strategically — even though it represents an enormous, untapped opportunity for nonprofits and the funders who support them. Based on our research, we identified several recommendations for funders:

  • Encourage grantees to focus on their needs as much as on the technologies available to address them. Projects involving cutting-edge technology often are attractive, but our research shows that innovation is just as likely to come from the application of less-exciting technologies to real needs.
  • Help organizations understand existing technologies. Many nonprofits struggle to understand even what technologies are widely used and affordable, let alone which ones could help meet more-specific needs. By helping create information to educate nonprofits about existing options and disseminating the information that already exists, networks can substantially increase the sector's technology knowledge.
  • Support consulting structures to help grantees innovate. Our report outlines a methodology for innovating services that includes engagement with consultants. Providing or supporting individual or group-consulting services appears to be an investment with a high return in terms of improved service delivery.
  • Provide cross-pollination opportunities. Research shows that conferences, peer learning discussions, and consultants all are helpful in terms of providing useful external input to organizations looking to connect their needs with appropriate technologies. Convening groups and making connections is a relatively low-cost activity with potentially high returns on investment.
  • Encourage innovative uses of existing technology. Funding or consulting programs specifically targeted at increasing the innovative use of existing technologies is another way to improve service delivery.

Next Steps

The inspirational case studies we collected and the relative affordability of many of the solutions organizations shared with us demonstrate that innovation isn't only for the deep-pocketed or well-connected organization. Our perception of innovation and how to approach it in a nonprofit context may need to evolve, but the opportunity for funders and other support organizations to lead the conversation is there.

Of course, our findings aren't just relevant to human service organizations. Whether working on their own or collectively as part of a network or coalition, nonprofits are well positioned to harness the power of innovation to improve the quality of their programs. And by spreading smaller investments more widely, funders can maximize both their impact and the opportunity to help their grantees do more with less.

The full report, Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services, is available for free download at www.mapfornonprofits.org/innovation.

This article was created by Idealware. For more articles about technology, go to www.idealware.org.