Nonprofit organizations are looking more than ever to improve their technological tools and skills. Unfortunately, few funders are listening. If you want to see a donor’s eyes widen, try peppering the funding pitch with words like “technology infrastructure” and “cybersecurity.”
The data paints a grim picture of the challenges facing nonprofits. In a recent global survey of nearly 12,000 civil society organizations by TechSoup, 68% said cost is their top concern when it comes to adopting new digital tools. The second most important concern, at 53%, is training staff to use these tools. Additionally, most nonprofits still rely on outdated cybersecurity modes such as antivirus software, with only 39% saying they have more effective protections in place, including firewalls. and network-level security – now considered standard in most organizations.
The main obstacle to achieving one of these digital improvements? You guessed it – a lack of funding, according to 77% of respondents.
On the other hand, foundations seem reluctant to spend money to upgrade their own technology. More than 80% of foundations surveyed by the Technology Association of Grantmakers, which I lead, have firewalls and other advanced security measures in place to protect their privacy and their financial and data assets.
Why then do funders neglect what nonprofits tell them they need?
One possibility is that few foundation staffers appreciate the critical importance of technology to nonprofits as they struggle to fulfill their missions and survive in communities reeling from the pandemic. The evidence, however, does not confirm this.
Foundation technical staff and leaders who participate in programs offered by the Technology Association of Grantmakers frequently discuss the importance of digital upgrades, cybersecurity, and technology training in the nonprofit world. For example, technology leaders in philanthropy who participated in our six-month Digital Infrastructure Task Force in 2020-21 came to realize the pressing needs of nonprofits for web-based internet technology. cloud, hardware upgrades, and knowledge of data and technology.
Additionally, organizations such as TechSoup and the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, known as NTEN, regularly publish studies that highlight the gap between nonprofits’ technology needs and their ability to meet those needs. needs. A report by NTEN from last year found that nearly 70% of nonprofits have had to invest more in technology to continue their business during the pandemic. It also found that nearly two-thirds lacked fully integrated technology systems to manage their operations, with most relying on separate inefficient systems in areas such as finance, procurement, project management, payroll and grant management.
So, with all of this information readily available, why are nonprofits still struggling to secure the financial support needed to become fully functioning participants in the digital age? Here are some possible explanations – and approaches to overcoming these barriers:
Foundation technology and program personnel do not communicate and coordinate effectively. Although core operations personnel, such as IT managers, understand the basic technology needs of any modern organization, they typically lack access to program funds. Conversely, program staff responsible for making grants are not always knowledgeable or interested in the technology operations of nonprofit organizations.
Even when potential opportunities arise to meet a grantee’s technology needs, program staff rarely consult with their IT colleagues when reviewing these proposals. The result: Nonprofits may receive grants for an exciting new mobile app tied to a specific program, but don’t get the funds they need for the critical infrastructure to support it, including digital tools. , technical skills training and enhanced cybersecurity.
Changing this dynamic is certainly possible, as a handful of innovative philanthropic efforts demonstrate. The Pierce Family Foundation, for example, has made investing in technology for grantees a priority since its inception in 2007. The foundation’s chief technologist, David Krumlauf, works directly with grantees to understand their technology needs, starting often through interviews and an inventory of current technology. before helping to develop a plan and budget for upgrading their digital systems. In addition to providing grantees with funding for these projects, the foundation offers training in the use of technological tools and cybersecurity.
Some philanthropic organizations have been prompted by the pandemic to increase support for the technology within existing grants. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, for example, has always responded to grantees’ requests for technology by referring them to partner organizations that specialize in this area and possibly receiving a little additional funding. But as the pandemic took hold, its chief technology officer, Donell Hammond, began hearing from program staff that grantees needed more technology support. In response, the foundation has developed a pilot program that brings together IT services and programs to fund grantees in the areas of digital literacy, hardware and software, and software systems. In September, the first grant was awarded under the project – $25,000 to an after-school program that has poor internet connectivity at its facility.
Collaborative approaches to closing technology gaps are almost non-existent. To date, providing technology infrastructure has been the responsibility of technology vendors and non-profit organizations such as NetHope, NTEN, TechSoup, and Tech Impact, which offer a range of sometimes overlapping solutions, including technology assessments, training, support and discounted software. None of these organizations supports the full range of nonprofit technology needs on its own, and they often compete for funding, usually from individual foundations.
A much more effective approach would be to channel this work through a fundraising collaboration, modeled on efforts like the STEM Funders Network, which develops strategies and pools resources to support science, math, technology and engineering for underrepresented youth. The network has successfully brought together the nation’s largest youth development organizations – the Boys & Girls Club of America, the National 4-H Council, YMCA of the USA and Girls Inc. – to develop STEM programs across the United States.
A collaborative effort of this type, which would combine the resources and expertise of donors, nonprofits, and business and government partners, is badly needed for nonprofit technology infrastructure. Such a collective could commit to reducing the burdens on nonprofits through the development of common tools for grant applications, reporting, data collection, and open source information platforms. It could fund the creation of toolkits that help nonprofits address one of their top priorities: moving entirely to cloud-based technology.
As philanthropy considers its responsibility to rebuild society after the pandemic, foundation leaders are advocating for increased investment in infrastructure in American cities and to facilitate civic engagement. With this in mind, philanthropy must also increase its investment in nonprofit technology infrastructure. Although perhaps less visible than public transport, water supply systems or community centers, cloud-based technology, cybersecurity systems and digital skills are fundamental elements on which the organization to modern nonprofit relies to provide services and programs.
It’s time for funders to listen carefully to what their nonprofit partners say they need, even when the answers aren’t what they want to hear.