NTEN, the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) and NetHope issued a joint letter yesterday outlining the need for enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure. They have some excellent suggestions for steps that should be taken now, as well as initiatives that would improve digital service delivery in the future.
This idea isn’t new; we wrote recently about the call for enabling greater nonprofit operational effectiveness. And we held some discussions last year with TechImpact and the MacArthur Foundation about ways of enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure.
Nonprofit Work in the Age of Coronavirus
What’s changed, of course, is COVID-19. Suddenly, remote work and digital service delivery are the norm, not the exception. I know one foundation that’s been scrambling to get refurbished computers to kids so they can participate in online learning. Doctors are turning to telehealth for office visits. Zoom went from 10 to 200 million daily active users in a couple of months. Microsoft Teams added 12 million new users in a week.
Some of the short-term ideas for enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure are obvious: buy nonprofits more stuff. Nonprofits need computers, software, cloud-based services, IT support, better Internet access; they need all of it. But what happens when shelter-in-place orders are lifted? When life returns to (kind of) normal? Should we care about enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure then? Or do we treat coronavirus like some natural disaster and move on?
Enhancing Nonprofit Digital Infrastructure is a Need That Won’t Disappear
We need to continue thinking about how we can enhance nonprofit digital infrastructure. Why?
- There’s no guarantee that we won’t experience another pandemic in the future. So, it’s foolish to treat the current pandemic as some sort of bad dream that we can all forget about once it goes away.
- This pandemic has changed the nature of work and the best bet is that some of those changes will be permanent. Whether by choice or by necessity, nonprofits (like everything everyone else) will find digital infrastructure more embedded in their operations, not less.
Framing Long Term Actions
So, let’s look at a few ideas for enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure over the long haul.
First, we have to address instances of inadequate Internet access. CGNET was born out of the idea that solid Internet infrastructure was the sine qua non for all following digital services. Initiatives for enhancing Internet access among those that are currently the least served need to be carried through. We’ve seen Microsoft’s focus on rural broadband, Alphabet’s Project Loon and Facebook Connectivity each propose ways to provide cheap Internet access. Whatever the method, we must treat Internet access as a basic human need in the 21st century.
On a practical level, we can enhance nonprofit digital infrastructure by providing regular support of the technology in use. At CGNET we’ve seen many instances of problems created by outdated hardware, unsupported software and antiquated workflows built around technical capabilities and limitations that existed at that time the workflows were created. These issues occurred because digital infrastructure was provided to nonprofits with no long-term support. Enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure doesn’t mean always having the latest gadgets. It does mean recognizing that digital infrastructure must be administered and maintained regularly if it’s to deliver on its promises.
Let’s Move Digital Infrastructure Out of Its Silo
Perhaps within philanthropic organizations we need to amend the idea about who pays attention to digital infrastructure. Yes, IT still has responsibility for making the technology work. However, we can gain value by engaging with program officers and nonprofit practitioners to brainstorm on how services are being delivered now and how they could be more effectively or broadly deployed in the future. Technologists can engage with program officers to understand how grantees are making use of digital infrastructure today and imagine how it might be applied to improve grantee outcomes. This would require greater advocacy and direction on the part of program officers than has sometimes been seen in the past. Yes, program officers should provide greater funding for enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure. But blank checks are not enough. We also need innovative ideas about how enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure can transform service delivery and expand grantee outcomes.
Grantees are the “essential workers” who are directly delivering services to those who need them. In this respect, grantees know the most about how they early using digital infrastructure today. And while some grantees have very low levels of technical literacy, others are much more technically knowledgeable. We can engage grantees in discussions about how they are delivering services today. Enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure can no doubt make incremental improvements to service delivery as it’s defined currently. The larger prize, however, lies in redefining how services could be delivered given an enhanced nonprofit digital infrastructure.
Just look at tutoring. This service has traditionally been delivered face-to-face. We now see that tutors can work with school kids via video conferencing services. Co-authoring and co editing gives tutors the tools to work with kids on their homework without meeting in person.
Let’s Seize this Opportunity to Enhance Nonprofit Digital Infrastructure
I could have never predicted a year ago that I would join a Facebook group the connected me with a million people I’ve never met as we share the view from our window. Today, seeing and commenting on these pictures is a part of my daily routine. It wouldn’t shock me if a year from now I meet up with someone I met in this group to give them a guided tour of the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
In the same way, no one really knows how COVID-19 is going to change the way we work. But we’re virtually certain that it will change in one way or another. Here’s one potential direction, from the experience of a company that has been built around remote work from its inception. And so, as the leaders of NTEN, TAG and NetHope have argued, we need to seize this opportunity to redefine the relationship between grantor and grantee. We need to seize the opportunity for enhancing nonprofit digital infrastructure.