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Technology: A Double Edged Sword for Non-Profits

                In today’s world start-ups and long-standing industry leaders alike are expected to be technologically savvy. Massive research development costs, state-of-the-art websites and i-phone apps, and constant updates are concerned industry standards. It is well documented that technology is a crucial component of any company’s success however somehow that standard breaks down when applied to non-profits.

                Earlier this week I had the fortune of being part of a panel put on by the Soho Apple Store and Resolution Project to the discuss “Technology for Social Change”. The benefits of technology brings to creating social change are clear whether seen through the “Mobile Revolution”, rise of microfinance, campaigns like “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”, and financial instruments like Social Impact Bonds. However it was the question on the “Drawbacks of Technology for Non-profits” that posed the most food for thought.

               There appears to be an unspoken rule that non-profits do or not or should not care as much about technology as other companies should. After all you don’t need to spend money building your database or develop an app to feed people, teach children, or provide water to villages in developing nations. Despite the potential value of technology in helping non-profits accomplish their missions they are often overlooked as early-adopters or even “regular-adopters” of technology. This standard of technology insufficiency for non-profits is a self-fulfilling’s prophecy as few if any corporations or individual donors want to hear about non-profits making “technological investments” or “hiring technical talent”. Instead they simply look to put their money somewhere they can receive instant gratification for the good they have done. While there is nothing wrong with doing so, it is rather the aversion to supporting social organizations as they aspire to re-create social systems that presents the real problem.

                Why are regular businesses expected to compete on technology, efficiency, and innovation while non-profits are expected to make do with the bare-minimum and maintain basic efficiency? This double-standard makes less sense when considering that the work that non-profits and socially driven organizations do is of arguably even more importance. While in past years non-profits relied on traditional fundraising mechanisms and were easily defined into a few tried and true sectors (e.g. soup kitchen, tutoring programs, women’s shelters) today’s non-profits are not so simple. Given the universal push towards global social change led by the United Nations impending Sustainable Development Goals at the close of 2015 and the capacity of technology to empower millions around the world it is more apparent than ever that non-profits need access to greater resources.

                With globalization and technological advancement has come the opportunity to create great change resulting in a new class of organizations such asThe Resolution Project, Venture for America, and Catchafire all of which are unique in their ability to bring practices seen in the private sector to the public sector. However, this is exactly the push we need to see if we are to hit benchmarks like eradicating global poverty. Thus, rather than pushing away non-profits looking for technological advancements or top-tier talent it is important to invest in these organizations. These are the organizations that will be able change the landscape of social impact through new innovations (e.g. microfinance) and bring together all sectors of society to implement change on a macro-level scale.

                I will leave you with one final thought: Think of a world in which socially driven organizations had access to the same resources and talent pools that the private sector did. Imagine the sheer volume of change being enacted on a yearly, monthly, or even daily basis in such a world. Fortunately for us this shift is happening as non-profits with sustainable revenue models or pure social ventures become more and more prevalent. However, given the magnitude of the social challenges we face this shift needs to happen even sooner. Rather, than a select few non-profits gaining access to technology and top tier talent it should be an industry norm (with the same levels of scrutiny as the private sector). Tools like Salesforce or the development of a mobile app shouldn't be aberrations but rather standards. Only then will the social sectors mobility rise to levels needed to combat global challenges and implement large scale change.

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