Cracking the Code of Technology Capacity Building

Ava Kuhlen

Technology is changing how we operate in the world. But the social sector is rapidly being left behind as many organizations struggle to understand and use technology to its fullest potential. How can philanthropy increase technology know-how, adoption, and use in the social sector? 

At the Taproot Foundation, we work to harness human capital, through pro bono service, to help social change organizations overcome challenges in core functions like marketing, financial management, and organizational strategy. In our work, we’ve learned a lot about the fundamentals of successful capacity building. We’ve also learned that strengthening organizations’ technology muscles is a different type of capacity building.

Here are three reasons why technology capacity building is unique — and what it means for philanthropy:

1.) Technology is not a core function.

Technology supports all that an organization does. It helps to increase staff productivity by automating processes. It helps deliver services more effectively by providing real-time connectivity to constituents. It helps an organization make informed decisions, creating more cost-effective programming.

Technology is used, wherever applicable, to solve a problem or capitalize on an opportunity for an organization. It isn’t a functional area itself, but rather underscores all of an organization’s work, from strategy to operations.

2.) We’re asking the wrong questions.

If technology supports all areas of an organization, then we can’t talk about technology as a standalone need. Many funders may ask grantees, “What is your technology challenge?” In response, we hear mostly about technology applications that don’t work: websites that are clunky, CRMs that don’t capture the right information, donation pages that don’t interface with internal systems, etc.

But what if we changed our question? What if we asked, “What does programmatic scale mean to you and what holds you back from achieving these results?” Or, “Where do you struggle to adequately communicate with and reach those you serve?” In answers to questions like these, we may work together to uncover where the most promising opportunities lie for technology to strengthen — or completely transform — the way an organization works or delivers its services.

3.) We’re undervaluing technology assessments.

If the effects technology can have on an organization range from strategy to operations, it’s no wonder that many nonprofits feel confused or overwhelmed by what technology means for them. When discussing technology, we’ve heard many nonprofits say, “We don’t know what we don’t know” — and they feel paralyzed about where to start.

Outside support can allow nonprofits to take a step back and understand fundamentals at their organization that might affect their technology success. Fundamentals are things like a culture of training and learning, technology champions in leadership roles, employees whose job description includes technology maintenance and support, or onboarding and off-boarding processes for personnel. Pro bono service is one way an organization can develop the ability to better prioritize technology projects; identify organizational risks, assumptions, and constraints; and analyze current systems or processes that may affect their technology solution. Creating a strong infrastructure is a nonprofit’s first step towards technology transformation.

What this means for philanthropy:

Reimagining how philanthropy builds technology capacity opens up a range of new opportunities for funding and impact. Here’s how funders can put these principles into action:

  • Reframe grantee applications to focus on grantee aspirations: Consider asking open-ended questions such as, “What is stopping you today? What do you need to grow? What would you do with unlimited resources?” By uncovering these larger organizational opportunities, funders and nonprofits can invest in technology where it matters most.
  • Encourage the use of outside technology practitioners: Technology changes fast. Staying current on trends, new threats, and new developments is hard for everyone, let alone nonprofits with limited technical staff and other pressing priorities. Pro bono service can bridge the technology gap between what a nonprofit knows about technology and where it needs to be.
  • Couple technology funding with grants for other organizational areas: Since technology underscores all aspects of an organization, consider adding funding designated for technology strategy, staff training, or maintenance into existing grants. For example, an organization receiving program effectiveness funding would benefit from simultaneous support to determine how to collect and analyze their data. Or an organization receiving funding for a program expansion could benefit from support to train staff on best practices and protocol for working remotely.
  • Provide funding for baseline technology assessments: Funding technology assessments helps a nonprofit identify a solution that truly meets its needs, saving them resources and expenses down the line. This larger analysis builds critical capacity by helping the organization plan for the long run while managing day-to-day needs.

For many resource-strapped organizations in the social sector, technology can be a daunting and overwhelming challenge. By reframing the technology discussion, funders can empower nonprofits to understand exactly where technology can advance their work and vision. Helping nonprofits create an infrastructure that supports technology success — through pro bono service, funding technology assessments, or technology-specific grants — is an often overlooked, but critically needed, opportunity for philanthropy.  Technology capacity building is unique, but reframing our approach makes it achievable.

Ava Kuhlen is director of external relations at Taproot Foundation, which connects nonprofits and social change organizations with passionate, skilled volunteers who share their expertise through pro bono service. Follow Taproot on Twitter at @Taprootfound.

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