The future tech infrastructure for philanthropy: 10 per cent tech, 90 per cent paradigm shift


Jason Ricci


In the past few years we’ve seen the significant growth of technology in the philanthropic sector. Our systems of record connect us in new and novel ways, from being able to quickly send an email to finding patterns in data we would’ve never before thought to even collect.

The future of philanthropy is data-driven and tech-forward. This isn’t controversial. But while technology enables a host of possibilities, possibilities alone do not create meaningful change. The other 90 per cent required to make it happen is up to the humans using the technology.

As players in the philanthropic sector, we must change our attitudes, both individually and institutionally. Rather than lone wolves competing to see who can do the most good, we need to see ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem. That is going to require some soul-searching at the institutional level.

The Inherent Value of Technology
After digitizing their workflows, one organization I know of was able to improve their grantmaking speed by over 60 per cent. Another organization told me that it would regularly spend 20 or so minutes looking for a piece of data or a program record and can now find it in seconds.

Our technological progress has also afforded us opportunities to collaborate with other groups in the philanthropic ecosystem in new ways to increase our impact. When philanthropic data can be accessed more easily, we can deduce best practices and strategic opportunities based not only on what our own organization has done, but what others have done as well. It simply allows us to be better learners.

The evolution of technology in philanthropy has provided us with incredible time savings, a robust system of record, and a chance for increased knowledge sharing and collaboration. But the technology itself will only get 10% of the way to where we need to be as an industry. What’s next?

A Cultural Shift
With the benefits afforded to us by technology, we hypothetically have more time than ever to engage in meaningful, high-level work. But how will we use the extra time?

Suspend disbelief for a moment. What could you do for your foundation if you weren’t stuck in an endless cycle of administrative overhead, red tape, and reporting? The sheer amount of possibilities can seem a little overwhelming.

If we’re looking to amplify our impact and leverage technology for good, we need to understand ourselves and our organizations’ roles in the philanthropic ecosystem as a whole. What is our single truth? What is the one thing we’re uniquely positioned to provide? How does what we do compare to what we say we do? How can we work better, together as a sector?

It’s difficult and uncomfortable to examine our own work under a microscope. But it’s this kind of introspection that allows us to start thinking bigger – about the type of organizations we want to fund and the portfolio strategies we can employ to be even more effective.

Once we are clear on how we fit into the larger landscape, that’s when we can align our work with other organizations in the philanthropic ecosystem – both passively through knowledge sharing and actively through strategic partnerships and initiatives.

This is easier said than done. In the philanthropy world, we’re all passionate about making a difference, but sometimes we get tunnel vision and forget about all the other players in the field.

We’ve got to open our eyes and start seeing the cross-sector opportunities. We need to start thinking: what can we learn from this partnership? This program? This success or that failure?

The organizations that will make the biggest impact will be the ones that are constantly learning. And the desire to keep learning isn’t something that comes with the latest philanthropic software. It comes from you, the human using the technology.

During the Flint water crisis, there was an outpouring of support – dollars and volunteers rolled into the town ready to make an impact. But what I heard from many of the organizations that I’ve worked with was that they didn’t know the best way to use their dollars and volunteers. Sure, a ton of water and filters were coming into town, but what else did they need? Were there organizations already involved who would be a good fit to partner with? What knowledge about the community did the local charities have that they should know before going in?

These questions were not impossible to answer, but a culture of knowledge sharing and strategic partnering and planning didn’t exist to facilitate the answers. While organizations manage the best they can with the knowledge they have, there’s got to be a better way, and it is achievable with the infrastructure we have if we shift our thinking.

A Case Study in Hurricane Relief Efforts
Over the last two months, hurricanes have devastated Houston, Puerto Rico, and parts of Florida. These massive hurricanes have caused billions of dollars of damage and left tens of thousands without homes and electricity. As heart-wrenching photos and videos circulated in the press and on social media, a wave of donations of supplies, money, manpower, and time landed in the affected regions.

Despite the advanced notice of the storm, there was confusion and anxiety over where donations should go to be used most effectively. The truth is, I’m the CEO of a company that makes software for philanthropic organizations, yet when friends and family asked me what organizations they should donate to for hurricane relief efforts, my guess was as good as anyone’s.

To be clear, anyone can Google “how to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico” and you will find lists of orgs on the ground that are accepting donations. But what causes anxiety is that each organization’s track record and effectiveness is not always visible or backed by data.

What if the type of information charities need to make the best impact was readily available the second that an organization wanted to start a program? And what if it was available not just to philanthropic ‘insiders’, but to everyone? How would we change our individual and institutional actions if we had a bird’s eye view of a given cause, community or program?

The answer to this question unlocks the true democratization of philanthropy. Let’s think about the next hurricane and how differently that relief effort could look if we had the digital infrastructure and the cultural shift described above.

Let’s take a hypothetical organization called StormHelpers. StormHelpers formerly provided full-spectrum disaster funding, but decided to focus their program efforts on food, since data they had collected over the course of several years revealed they had the highest impact per dollar in that area.

Before the hurricane even hits, StormHelpers looks at the philanthropic data in the affected  area and sees that several local organizations are already being considered for funding for emergency shelters outside of town. StormHelpers reaches out to these local charities, local government, and the people affected by the storm, and starts discussing how best to combine efforts. Whereas a couple of years ago StormHelpers would’ve set up their own emergency shelter and done everything from start to finish, now they focus strategically on food relief for a network of local community nonprofits.

Rather than competing with the local efforts, StormHelpers knew where they excelled and plugged their funding efforts in where they were most effective.

Now let’s take an individual donor in say, Seattle, named Lisa. Lisa has no handle on what the local philanthropic network in a storm-strewn area like Houston or Florida looks like.

Luckily, she can easily find a list of organizations in the region who 1) have already been approved for funding, so she knows her dollars are building on an existing plan, 2) have a history of high impact, so she knows her money is going to make a difference and 3) work in specific program solutions that appeal to Lisa on an individual level. All of the recommendations are backed by transparent, up-to-date data, which makes it easier to choose which organization she should support individually.

Individual donors, who want to make sure their donations are most effective in areas like Houston, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, will now have answers at their fingertips.

When the next hurricane inevitably hits, the data on what works the best for one hurricane can be used to improve the response. We keep learning, keep collaborating, and we keep amplifying our impact.

The way forward
The ability to glean insight, passively collaborate and amplify impact afforded by technology across industries has been incredible, but the technology on its own isn’t transformational. It’s how we conceive of technology and what we can do with it that matters.

A considerable amount of the U.S. philanthropic spend for individuals goes towards alumni associations and alma maters and religious organizations. People want to give to organizations and causes that have touched their lives personally. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it may not be the most effective way to make a dent in the issues we care about.

If we’re all aiming to create maximum good, let’s start sharing stories and data that inspire trust not in a single cause or institution, but in the philanthropic ecosystem as a whole.

Technology improvements are inevitable, but it’s the cultural shifts technology can create that are even more important.

We need to be willing to open our minds and eyes and look at ourselves clearly. We need to let go of any ego we may have that prevents us from doing the most good, and look at other funders, programs, and campaigns to see where we can improve and innovate – whether it be in what we do, how we do it, or who we do it with.

Jason Ricci is CEO of Fluxx.

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