How Technology Can Save Your Favorite Nonprofit and Build Capacity for Social Change

Jim Hickman

Part 2: Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but it’s important.

Recently, the team at Open Impact published a timely report, “The New Normal: Capacity Building During a Time of Disruption,” with funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. It examines how we are responding to the forces buffeting the nonprofit sector and the need for new mindsets and behaviors, in both funders and grantees, to move social change “never backward, always forward.”

The “new normal” requires a shift from a “we can’t” or “our funders won’t” mindset to a more design-thinking inspired “What if we could” mentality. The report’s focus on adaptive leadership and emerging leaders is an important contribution to the capacity building field. That said, when fighting for social change, you never want to confuse a clear vision with a short distance.

One the major challenges and opportunities for impact at scale facing many nonprofit organizations is the proliferation of data and the power of digital technology. How do we mitigate the risks and harness these forces of change to drive improvement and impact? While thought-leaders like Lucy Bernholz, the Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford, are defining and defending our new digital civil society, few are looking at the capabilities gap arising in the nonprofit sector.

In my last blog post, “Why Data is Killing Your Favorite Nonprofit,” I talked about the exponential growth of data that is processed, communicated, and stored in our daily life and the implications for the nonprofit sector. For example, in 2009, hospitals received nearly $20 billion to adopt electronic health record (EHR) platforms. Unfortunately, there was no concomitant effort to upgrade the digital infrastructure of the nonprofit organizations that support many vulnerable patients and families in their homes and communities. The digital transformation of healthcare providers and personalized health services is placing some of our most vulnerable neighbors, and the community-based organizations they rely upon, on the wrong side of a NEW digital divide.

We all know the power of technology and digital invention. Big bets are being made every day to disrupt consumer behavior in ways unthinkable just a decade ago. Lyft, Amazon, and Netflix have transformed our lives. It’s starting to happen in the safety net, too.

With #Parkland, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter, we see the incredible power of social media to spark movements and change lives. To capture the immediacy of the moment and make it a foundation for sustained social change, we must look at data and digital tools, not as just websites and mobile apps. We need to integrate these tools and techniques across our organizations to transform how nonprofits operate. We must build digital capacity and data savvy into the core capabilities of our nonprofits structures and leadership. We need to plan how to upskill our teams and upgrade our infrastructure.

Ok, where do we start? Here’s one approach I’m working on. Learn about the Jumpstart Program, here.

Next up: Increasing Impact and Sustainability.

Jim Hickman

Written by

Creating value and social impact for the common good. Advisor to @NatlComplexCare and @Network4Good

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