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Innovation in the NGO sphere: Embracing technology and beyond for social good

| May 22, 2024

In the NGO sector, technology serves not merely as a tool but as a catalyst for transformation and social impact. As NGOs confront global challenges such as climate change and social inequality, integrating advanced technologies provides a pathway to enhance their services, rejuvenate their missions and broaden their impact. The Kestria NGO & Not For Profit Global Practice Group has convened four esteemed experts from around the globe to explore how embracing technology can drive innovation, improve operational efficiencies and expand outreach in meaningful ways.

Key takeaways:

Technology as a catalyst for impact: The article underscores the transformative role of technology in the NGO sector, enhancing service delivery, expanding outreach and rejuvenating missions. NGOs globally are leveraging technology to scale operations and address challenges like climate change and social inequality.

Innovative funding and partnership models: It highlights innovative funding strategies, including social investment bonds and partnerships with the private sector, which help NGOs secure necessary funds and amplify their operational capacity.

Challenges and strategic leadership in NGOs: The discussion points to the challenges NGOs face, especially in integrating technology and securing funding. Effective leadership is crucial, requiring agility and a strategic vision that aligns technology with the core mission of social good.

Attracting investment for technology-driven projects in NGOs

Karun Shenoy from New Zealand, Chair of the Board at English Language Partners New Zealand, oversees an organization that teaches English to former refugees and migrants, employing over 300 staff across 21 centers. They are mainly funded by government grants, which make up 80 to 85% of their budget, supplemented by smaller grants and donations for specific projects. His engagement with broader NGO networks suggests that New Zealand NGOs enhances scalability and funding through mechanisms like social investment bonds, supported by both government and private sectors, focused on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals. Crowdfunding, social entrepreneurship, impact investors and strategic partnerships further expand their initiatives.

For Kingsley Moghalu from Nigeria, Chairman of the Board at Africa Private Sector Summit, the primary argument for attracting funding into nonprofits, particularly for technology, is the inherent limitations these organisations face in terms of size, reach and impact. Unlike the private sector or government, NGOs must clearly communicate their vision and mission to justify technology investments. The emphasis is placed on the need for technology to scale operations and enhance impact, acknowledging that businesses and governments are increasingly adopting technology. Thus, NGOs also require technology as a crucial ally to overcome challenges of scale, impact, and occasionally, governmental hostility and legitimacy concerns, arguing that technology significantly boosts the efficiency and effectiveness of nonprofit operations.

As per Srima McQuillan from Australia, CEO at Global Infrastructure Hub, the organisation innovatively initiated a "Shark Tank" style competition using its limited funds as prizes, including in-kind services and cash, to launch a new infrastructure technology (InfraTech) program. This initiative drew hundreds of applications for small tech grants. The successful demonstration of the need and market for InfraTech resulted in significant interest from countries and major donors in subsequent years. By investing their core funding in this manner, they showcased the potential of infrastructure technology - an area still not fully explored. This approach was risky but yielded significant long-term benefits, effectively demonstrating the concept by putting their own resources on the line.

Bell’Aube Houinato from Senegal, Director of Mano-River Cluster at Plan International West and Central Africa Office recently explored human-centered design and incubation experiences for youth, utilizing extensive technology. The NGO community is diverse; generalizations are limited as local African organisations and international ones face different technology funding and development opportunities. Local organizations must effectively communicate their impactful work. Innovative tools and methods are increasingly available, supporting initiatives like human-centered design and technology that reach remote populations. In Africa, NGOs face unique challenges such as conflict and crises. In regions like Mali and Burkina Faso, technology, such as mobile phones for cash transfers, helps us deliver life-saving aid in hard-to-reach areas, raising awareness without physical presence. This highlights the crucial role of technological innovation in our efforts.

Strengthening partnerships across sectors 

As Srima McQuillan shared, Microsoft and Google provide critical free services to qualified NGOs which offers significant leverage for NGOs. Other companies, including technology companies, consultants and other service providers, often have pricing discounts of up to 80% off the retail price for NGOs but they must ask and/or go through an alternative sales process to get the discount. However, particularly in countries like Australia, NGOs face pressure to generate self-sustaining revenue to reduce dependencies on government grants. ‘As an example, an organsiation which redistributes grocery surpluses to the disadvantaged has opened a facility where corporations and individuals participate in cooking events and food waste seminars which provides a small revenue stream but also fosters strong donor relationships and increases brand awareness. These events demonstrate that NGOs can be innovative and start the challenging journey to self-fund which may not be possible for all NGOs, especially those with remote operations. The move towards financial independence in the NGO sector is significant. At the Global International Hub, we introduced a public course on infrastructure to generate revenue. The course is in its infancy and we hope that the revenue stream will grow over time. For charities that rely on donations from individuals, finding ways to grow recurring donations such as through programs which allow individuals to donate via payroll deductions can be very effective,‘ says Srima McQuillan.

Kingsley Moghalu highlights that the nonprofit Africa Private Sector Summit is a unique entity. It's a private sector-led organization focused on promoting intra-African trade and investment and mobilizing supportive policies from African governments to foster a business-friendly environment. ‚Being a continental organization, we seek technology funding that allows us to operate across Africa and provide multilingual support in English, French, Portuguese and Arabic. Initially, our funding sources include development banks such as Afreximbank and the African Development Bank and we are exploring partnerships with the EU’s technical assistance fund. Additionally, we aim to engage Africa’s top 100 companies as CSR supporters to amplify our role as a voice for African businesses in policy-making. Our headquarters are in Ghana, but our operations span the continent, requiring technology that supports our broad mandate. In contrast, other nonprofits I've worked with, particularly in education, focus more on business process improvement, which is critical for smaller NGOs.

NGO leaders must choose partners aligned with their mission and vision, avoiding those who merely seek to greenwash or whitewash their activities. It’s crucial to engage genuine allies and ensure that partners' values align with those of the nonprofit and society, especially as external agendas can compromise NGO integrity. Leaders must also strive to empower communities through innovation towards prosperity and self-sufficiency, essential for real progress,‘ states Kingsley Moghalu.

Integrating AI and Non-Tech innovations into existing programs and operations 

Karun Shenoy explains that over the past 7-8 years, critical core business systems have been built to enhance operational efficiency, such as a student management system to cut manual work, streamlined intellectual property fund distribution and robust administrative systems for membership organisations. ‘We also complied with regulatory changes, such as New Zealand's 2015 Health and Safety Act, and many NGOs also upgraded our systems and moved them to the cloud to remain current with technology, enhance availability, resilience, data privacy and cybersecurity. These upgrades have reduced manual tasks, allowing us to explore and leverage emerging technologies like fintech, AI and big data analytics. This foundational work is vital to efficiently integrate new technologies and enhance overall productivity,’ adds Karun Shenoy.

Kingsley Moghalu notes that AI represents a significant trend in the NGO sector, offering solutions to social challenges such as health, security and environmental preservation. Programs like AI for Good are tailored to address specific issues, like using animal fur patterns to monitor endangered species. The potential for AI to impact NGOs is substantial, with projections suggesting a 361% increase in AI usage by nonprofits within two years, according to a Salesforce report. This leads to a thought-provoking possibility: could AI eventually take on roles traditionally filled by NGOs? The rapid advancement of AI capabilities opens the door to such scenarios, making AI a critical topic for the future of nonprofits.

On behalf of AI and technology, for Bell’Aube Houinato it's clear that no solution is free from ideological or political bias. In an age where NGOs strive for neutrality, their leaders must wisely navigate the influence of technology. In some operational regions, NGOs face significant challenges due to the political stances of governments. Effective NGO leadership involves understanding these complexities and aligning organizational activities and engagements with their core values, avoiding external political or ideological influences.

Empowering NGOs and their communities

As part of Bell’Aube Houinato‘s work, the aim is to unite different groups, not just NGO staff, but also communities and the youth, ensuring they have adequate access to technology. Despite encouraging signs of technology penetration, actual usage remains limited. Often, the potential of available technology is minimally utilized. Access means not only having technology like phones but also developing the capabilities to fully leverage these resources. This includes addressing issues of inclusion and gender disparity in economic activities among various demographics.

For Kingsley Moghalu simplicity is key. ‚In my village in rural Africa, the family foundation I'm involved with, the Isaac Moghalu Foundation, greatly benefits from simple technologies like cell phones and computers. These tools have simplified our operations, from data collection to collaboration. Despite being a modest family charity I established during my tenure as a senior official at the United Nations, funded from my savings, it has made significant impacts. We can now hold conferences with grantees, children from impoverished families, who, with access to cellphones and data, can overcome the primary challenge we face: limited broadband infrastructure. Although mobile telephone density is the highest in the world in Africa, these basic technologies are still vital and transformative in parts of the world where they might be considered outdated in the West.‘

According to Srima McQuillan, electronic collaboration has significantly accelerated operational speed across various sectors. Embracing simple, efficient systems rather than merely adopting the latest trends can streamline processes significantly. Over-complicating your operating environment with too many systems can hinder effectiveness, particularly in environments like NGOs where many participants may not interact face-to-face and aren’t technically savvy. The key is to right-size systems to meet actual needs without getting caught up in the allure of sophisticated but unnecessary technology. Systems should be structured to encourage open sharing and collaboration to enhance productivity and keep everyone informed and aligned with core organizational goals.

Essential traits of modern NGO leader

Karun Shenoy emphasizes that resistance to change and adherence to traditional methods are common.  Some practitioners and regulators were initially lukewarm about  online learning, and preferred this to be in-person. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a rapid shift to digital platforms. Despite challenges, students like former refugees, quickly transitioned to online, with 60-65% of the classes operating within a few weeks. ‚This shift demonstrated the potential of technology to adapt to different learning environments, proving effective even on mobile devices in informal settings. Post-COVID leadership must recognize and leverage technology effectively, navigating both internal and external barriers, such as regulatory recognition. Success often depends on having a digital-savvy champion within the organization, such as a CEO or senior manager, to drive and support innovative initiatives.‘

Addressing the needs of emerging nonprofit leaders, Kingsley Moghalu highlights that NGOs, particularly in the global South, face unique challenges compared to their counterparts in developed countries, primarily concerning legitimacy and resources. Government hostility can also be an issue, as NGOs are often seen as encroaching on governmental roles. ‚Thus, it's crucial for these leaders to be business-savvy, capable of demonstrating their organisation's viability and sustainability financially. Being effective brand advocates for their mission is equally vital. In developing countries, the government leads, followed by the private sector, with NGOs a distant third, often reliant on international funding. These organisations, many humanitarian, play a complex role in either perpetuating dependency or fostering sustainable prosperity through support for indigenous innovation.‘

According to Bell’Aube Houinato, the critical importance of maintaining a people-centered approach has become evident. This is especially true for NGOs, where humanitarian efforts are core. Any technology or digital solution that diminishes this focus on humanity could present significant challenges for NGOs. ‚As technology increasingly risks depersonalizing interactions, the need for leaders to emphasize human connections and social bonds becomes more vital. This people-focused aspect of leadership is crucial in our evolving technological landscape.‘

Srima McQuillan notes that leaders must be agile and adapt quickly because change is inevitable. Leaders must be prepared to navigate through any challenges, including adverse government policies or competition. ‘They must also maintain clear communication and be honest with their team as they lead them through any changes or difficulties. Additionally, while technology and AI can be a valuable tool for expanding an organisation's capabilities - to achieve the desired outcomes, it requires human insight and oversight. The combination of artificial and human intelligence often yields the best results and can unlock potential that couldn’t be achieved separately.

Summary

This in-depth exploration highlights how NGOs are leveraging technology to redefine their approach to global social challenges. By integrating modern technology, these organizations are not only enhancing their operational efficiencies but are also able to broaden their impact significantly. The discussions underline the critical role of strategic funding, the importance of digital inclusiveness, and the transformative possibilities of collaborative ventures. This narrative provides a comprehensive look into how NGOs are navigating the complexities of modern demands while steadfastly adhering to their mission of promoting social good.

The Kestria NGO and Not For Profit Practice Group is a crucial ally for organizations transitioning services traditionally managed by governments. With deep industry knowledge, this group addresses the complexities of shifting responsibilities to NGOs and NFPs, which are increasingly vital in tackling global issues across borders. Kestria specializes in identifying social entrepreneurs who deliver innovative solutions and demonstrate tangible returns to stakeholders, thereby enhancing people's lives.

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