- Whiles synergies between the tech and social sectors have created immense potential to deliver social
impact, there are still divides between the private and social sectors.
- Technology can be an empowering solution to major challenges NGOs and start-ups face, such as
scaling and increasing visibility of their work with limited budgets without creating dependency.
- It is crucial to think about building an ecosystem to maximise technology to its full potential.
Implementing on an individual non-profit scale is insufficient.
This article was originally featured on AsianNGO.
Last month, I chaired a session – Leaping Forward in Technology for Social Good – at the AVPN Conference in Bangkok, the largest gathering of philanthropists and social investors in Asia. It’s always an event where people are excited to share what they’re working on and learn from each other. But what I was looking forward to most was talking about the huge synergies between the technology sector and social sector, and the potential roles technology can play in delivering social impact. The panellists who joined me represent diverse perspectives across both sectors ; from venture capitalists to giving and volunteering intermediaries, and tech companies already investing in the social sector. They are thought leaders in their respective fields, and we discussed the opportunities and challenges that can be tackled, at least in part, through technology.
There was much for AVPN delegates to learn from the work of these organisations on technology for social good, while at the same time there is still a huge chasm to close between the use of technology in the private sector and the social sector. In the words of the great William Gibson, the future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.
East Ventures, the Singapore-based early stage venture capital firm has 80 portfolio companies in Southeast Asia. It has also announced its fifth fund worth US$27.5 million for investing in early-stage Southeast Asian startups in order to overcome problems with supply chains and bridge the gap between previously isolated consumers and service providers. For example, East Ventures is aware that only 20% of Indonesian consumers have bank accounts, and so, is determined to give the other 80% access to financial services. As a result, in 2014, East Ventures has provided seed funding to Kudo, an innovative online-to- offline technology startup that targets traditionally hard-to- reach middle class consumers by appointing 400,000 ‘agents’ across the Indonesian archipelago. East Ventures has already become critical in using technology to improve supply chains in Indonesia.
Likewise, Givo recognises the importance of technology to bridge the chasm between the charities and donors, going beyond the realm of traditional philanthropy. Givo is predominantly a service provider – a news and social media mobile app that creates a personalized newsfeed of causes and provides the public with a more holistic giving experience. As an online platform, Givo has partnered with World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour in March 2017, which had successfully achieved high levels of social engagement. The Givo team hopes to inspire givers to become more proactive when donating, and stay better informed with their favorite causes over time.
Pass It Forward’s technology is also redefining the way donors and NGOs interact. Unlike conventional crowdfunding websites, Pass It Forward is addressing the growing demands of companies that are struggling to implement their CSR and employee engagement strategies. The organisation has created a corporate platform where a company can engage with their nonprofits and beneficiaries around the world with a click of a button, getting real-time updates from the nonprofit & beneficiaries they are supporting, tracking employee engagement and giving, and managing in-kind donations.
Google.org works to connect nonprofit innovators with a blend of support that includes funding, tools, and volunteers from around Google. In Google.org’s own words “These innovators are the believers-turned-doers who have made the biggest impact on the communities they represent, and whose work has the potential to produce meaningful change that can scale. Though each nonprofit’s project poses a fresh challenge, we ask the same question every time: How can we bring the best of Google to power their work and accelerate their progress?”
As these panellists demonstrate, there’s already a great deal of exciting work going on to bring the benefits of technology to underserved communities through the social sector and private sector. But while I’m excited about these approaches, we still need to grapple with how to help support the whole NGO sector to embrace the opportunity.
The real opportunity—and the real disruption—will come when NGOs embrace the use of technology to augment or change how they deliver their products and services. And that opportunity is immense. Look at the big challenges that NGOs face—how to scale their work with limited budgets to meet an increasing proportion of the need and demand that exists; how to understand more about those who use their services to improve delivery and increase impact; how to increase visibility to those whom might need their help; and how to empower people through their work rather than create a relationship of dependency.
NGOs exist in a constant struggle to raise enough capital to deliver the work they need to do. Just keeping the lights on is a major challenge, let alone having the resources to invest in developing or transforming the organisation. That means they struggle to attract and retain the talent and skills they need to embrace technology. And it means it’s even harder to launch and maintain technology products—the business model doesn’t fit well with the ongoing investment that’s needed to refine and improve digital solutions, and keep up with the latest developments.
Where NGOs are developing technology solutions, most of the time what they’re doing is building their own apps, in isolation. That’s totally understandable, but it misses the true opportunity. What we see in the tech sector is an ecosystem of products, services, and platforms. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and eBay are all platforms on which other organisations’ and people’s products and services can reach huge numbers of customers. From a customer perspective, that means easy access to an immense range of products and services, and trust in the platforms allowing this access. Where are the ‘tech for good’ platforms? Who’s building them? With what business models?
Of course, there’s a growing and thriving tech for good startup scene, and we’re starting to see the emergence of tech for good incubators and accelerators, following the for-profit sector’s cue. Startups are absolutely essential for innovation, and I expect to see a great deal more activity in this space in the coming years. But startups in the tech for good space face huge barriers to scaling their work—we don’t have the luxury of venture capital to fuel investment and growth. And even if tech for good startups do start to attract more investment, the markets they operate in are challenging themselves—that’s one reason why they’re not full of profitable companies already.
So if we’re excited about technology truly transforming the social sector, we need to think about the sector, about building the ecosystem, and about bridging the divide between the private and social sectors—not just implementing technology in individual nonprofits. And that’s going to take joined up thinking.
My own work at NPC—a London-based think tank and innovation hub—focuses on new approaches that can help drive digital transformation across the social sector. We’re developing tech funds that will take a deep dive into the opportunities for tech to transform in specialist areas. The first focuses on young women’s employment in Africa, where we’ll invest in the most promising areas, working collaboratively across the NGO sector to drive implementation and reach. We’re exploring the opportunity to do this in Asia too. And where the skills and solutions we need already exist in the private sector, we want to invest in joint ventures through which tech companies can develop into social good markets. Then along with our partners, we can bring the knowledge of social issues and practitioner expertise to serve young women well.
These funds will be built on user-centred design—the people who are supposed to benefit need to be at the heart of identifying and prioritising where we invest in technology to meet our social goals, and their user experience needs to be at the centre to make technology that works and that users love.
I’m incredibly excited to be developing philanthropy and investment tech funds. Check out the report from our session at AVPN, where we explored the vibrant emerging space between tech companies, VC funds, NGOs and philanthropy. When we bring those elements together in really smart ways, that’s when the tech for good magic happens.