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Building Tech Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector

It’s difficult to predict the future direction of the nonprofit sector, but it seems inevitable that digital technology will play an increasingly fundamental role in how we operate. The digital sphere offers a multitude of options for reframing how we deliver services, and evaluate and share results: in short, for becoming networked nonprofits in the fullest sense. But are we ready to seize the digital day? What steps are needed to build in-house tech capacity? Are small and medium-sized nonprofits, which represent over half of the sector, poised to take advantage of the technology options available?

The sector’s digital skills gap

Anecdotally and empirically, there is a digital skills gap in the Canadian social good sector (nonprofits as well as social enterprises). NTEN’s 2014 report on technology staffing and investments showed that while the majority of surveyed nonprofits feel they have the tools they need, they” are less confident about having enough skilled staff or training to effectively use their technology for their work.”

The study also found that although most organizations (52%) rated themselves as having a stable tech infrastructure and established policies, over a quarter of those surveyed indicated they were “Functioning”— just meeting basic needs—or “Struggling.” Given the rapid changes that technology has brought about in most other sectors, from automated checkouts in retail to open data sets in government,  far too many orgs are indicating they’re behind the digital curve.

The US-based NTEN’s survey sample contains only a small percentage of Canadian respondents, but their findings ring true for the Canadian sector as well. Good Works’ State of the Web Nation report found that “60% of Canadian respondents say web is not valued by organisational leadership,” and that most of the surveyed orgs “indicated challenges in using and integrating different web tools, such as social media, search engine optimization, and data collection.” Through Framework’s own work running a program of national digital skills workshops, we’ve also found that many (although not all) organizations need a boost in the tech department.

Toward a solution: Collaboration, openness & training

Typically, the answer to tech questions is to outsource, but given the centrality of technology to many organizations this approach can only go so far. Furthermore, it does little to build internal capacity or to create a culture of engaged and skilled nonprofit workers. So what then, is the way forward? Earlier this year, Diane Davy noted that “nonprofit collaboration is not just a nicety,” and surely any solution to the digital skills gap in the sector must start with an ethos of openness. We’ve seen some strides in this area: consider initiatives such as CKX and their emphasis on “build and share,” while in the US Lucy Bernholz has written about the importance of  “designing for open” in the funding ecosystem.

Openness, particularly when considering how we structure our internal teams and work with partner organizations, is an important piece and a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough: what is needed is recognition within the sector that investing in digital skills training is an investment in ourselves and the future of the sector. As Imagine Canada’s Bruce MacDonald noted last year, “Effective administration enables fundraising, infrastructure and staffing that are essential to fulfilling a charity’s mission. Real impact requires real investment.” It’s critical that this investment, when it comes to digital skills, is in cultivating an organization’s “accidental techies,” those people who are naturally curious about the possibilities inherent in digital ways of working. And also in offering opportunities for skill building by those who claim to be technophobes.

The social good sector faces a broad spectrum of technology challenges that require an equally nuanced response. Some organizations and individuals will benefit from traditional digital literacy initiatives or classes; others might find participating in (typically free) nonprofit tech meetups, hackathons, and communities of practice more helpful. Whatever the challenge, it’s time for the social sector to make some real investment in digital skills.

About the Author

Andi Argast is the strategist at Framework, which runs the Techraiser (formerly TimeraiserPlus) technology for social change program. Upcoming initiatives include Take Back Your Tech, a nonprofit hackathon/design jam on Oct. 6, 2015.

In addition to being passionate about digital literacy, Andi’s work focuses on community engagement and open data, and she is a member of the Toronto Node of the Open Data Institute.

Andi Argast

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