Creating Pro Bono Tech That Works — Part 1

As we launch our next iteration of Delta.NYC — our attempt at closing the technology gap for NYC nonprofits — we’re sharing the successes and challenges in building a culture of pro bono in the tech industry. This week, we discuss some of the challenges in creating pro bono tech that works.

Over the past decade, the nonprofit sector expanded at what the New York Times has called a “breakneck pace.” The number of public interest organizations and other nonprofit institutions has grown over 20% in contrast to the 2–3% annual growth of the for-profit sector. Nearly 10% of the U.S. active workforce is now employed in or volunteering for social impact organizations, according to Johns Hopkins. (For more on the explosive growth of nonprofits, play around with the Urban Institute’s interactive tool looking at data from across the U.S.).

While this growth is inspiring, many of these organizations do not have the technical expertise or resources needed to make meaningful advancements towards their missions, particularly when compared to the private sector. As a tech nonprofit and the sister organization to Civic Hall, a collaborative community hub for civic technology, Civic Hall Labs is a capacity building intermediary between public interest organizations, social enterprises, and local government agencies. We regularly hear from our nonprofit partners that while they recognize the potential for technology to expand their impact and lower their overhead, they lack the human resources, budget, and know-how to effectively leverage technology. At the same time, private sector technologists are increasingly seeking opportunities to donate their skills for causes they believe in.

We created our pro bono tech program, Delta.NYC, to meet this growing need, and to determine the best way to build cross-functional teams of digital professionals and place them on well-scoped, discrete projects with local organizations. With the support of the Ford Foundation, we seek to identify and solve obstacles to our long-term vision of creating a culture of pro bono tech. Our vision is that pro bono tech services become as commonplace and robust as the pro bono help offered within the legal profession.

In the early planning stages of Delta.NYC, we conducted extensive market research with nonprofits, potential volunteers from the tech sector, and identified the major obstacles to implementing pro bono tech programs.

Nonprofits have many obstacles to pro bono tech, including:

  1. No one wants to fund overhead.Whereas businesses immediately see tech’s ROI, nonprofits have historically had a tougher job pitching a new CRM software or cyber-security plan. They have to make the case that investing in organizational efficiency improves the quality of their services over putting money directly towards their services. Although glossy reports and user-friendly websites are today’s professional norm, donors are often reluctant to invest in technology. This is changing, as more donors recognize the centrality of up-to-date systems, and as groups like the Omidyar Network and the Ford Foundation focus on investing in technology for the public good. Still, funding for tech projects is hard to come by for most organizations.
  2. Organizational buy-in is crucial. Organizations often need to be heavily persuaded to adopt a large scale tech program. In a report conducted by Microsoft and Neighborhood Indicators on tech training in nonprofits, a respondent observed, “Capacity building is huge for our nonprofits. Even if they understand that data are needed to measure progress, we’re cultivating a culture of curiosity so [they can see that] the return is worth the investment. Nonprofits seem to see data efforts as taking time and resources away from direct programming.”
  3. They’ve seen technologists over-promise and under-deliver in the past. Technologists are often used to the lack of hierarchical structures in Silicon Valley’s agile workplaces. In nonprofit environments, adjusting to bureaucratic red tape can often lead to volunteer frustration and burn-out. Code for America’s Jesse Biroscak has written about skepticism towards technologists with big promises, citing a government employee who told him, “I’ve seen three of you guys come up here over the past 10 years with ideas to solve all my problems, and nothing ever changes.” Well-meaning digital professionals who unexpectedly encounter huge amounts of technical debt tend to leave projects unfinished, burning bridges with organizations and diminishing the likelihood that nonprofits will opt to work on other pro bono tech initiatives.
  4. Projects are hard to scope, setting the organization and volunteers up for failure.Even for organizations prepared to invest heavily in technology, assessing needs and strategies for implementation is an expensive and time-consuming project. Many organizations simply don’t have the skill-set in house either.

These obstacles don’t negate the fact that public interest organizations can realize real gains in efficiency and program effectiveness by better implementing technology. The NTEN 10th annual report found that organizations with sub-par technology often allocate just as much budget to tech as their more advanced peers, and get far less of a return than if they’d taken the time to improve their existing tech. Over 25% of nonprofits fall into this category.

However, it’s not just nonprofits who have obstacles. Obstacles for digital professionals include:

  1. Nonprofit technical debt requires constant maintenance and long-term sustainability planning. Technical debt (the build-up of issues in an organization’s technology over time, which often have to be dealt with before new solutions can be added) is sometimes downplayed by organizations before bringing on individuals with technical expertise. Technical debt can disrupt projects before they get off the ground. As one technologist we interviewed explained, “My personal hesitation with seeing that stuff is that the work doesn’t stop. It’s never as simple as it seems, and even if we get them up and going with a product, what happens when it fails?”
  2. Many digital professionals fear that they will inadvertently enter into an exploitative or dependent relationship with a nonprofit. We spoke to a number of professionals who expressed hesitation around assisting nonprofits, having seen friends go from ‘volunteers’ to the ‘on-call IT help desk’.
  3. It’s hard to find the right pro bono opportunity.The tech sector still lacks a culture of pro bono outside of Open Source work and Hackathons, so there’s little social pressure to participate and few intermediaries who specialize in connecting individuals to the right pro bono opportunities.

While these may seem like large obstacles, our interviews helped us uncover useful insights to help us tackle these problem in Delta NYC. In the second half of this blog series, we’ll talk about the recent launch of Delta.NYC, and how it is designed to address and eliminate each of these concerns.