Using Everyday Technology to Improve Your Services

Submitted by Annaliese on Tue, 04/10/2012 - 8:13am

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of an article in the March 2012 issue of NTEN:Change. Read the complete article -- and the rest of the issue -- when you subscribe to the journal for free!]

By Laura S. Quinn, Idealware and Amy Wagner, MAP For Nonprofits

Many nonprofits think of innovation as a luxury they can’t afford. Staff time and budgets are limited, and improving the different ways they use technology seems out of reach. But technology can offer straightforward, inexpensive means of providing higher quality services and create numerous opportunities to do more with less—even in our current economic climate. This makes innovation something organizations can no longer afford not to embrace.

When we think about innovation, we often envision cutting-edge technology that’s flashy, shiny and futuristic: things like jet packs, flying cars and computers that integrate with our homes. But our research shows many nonprofits successfully use technology to innovate in more subtle ways. While these solutions may not be as eye-catching as a jet pack, they’re often low-cost and effective, which makes them both easier to implement and easier for other organizations to replicate.

MAP for Nonprofits and Idealware collaborated on six months of research that began with a survey of 180 human service organizations in Minnesota. We asked about the technologies they were using and the various ways they applied technology to improve their service delivery. Through their responses, and detailed follow-up interviews with 13 nonprofits, we discovered some remarkable and unexpected stories of innovation.

One small organization, for example, is using text messages to communicate with teens who participate in a mentoring program. A staff member observed that, though all the teens carried cell phones and used them frequently, few would answer phone calls or emails. Her simple, free solution substantially increased the number of teens who attend programs.

In another example, a domestic abuse organization found a creative way to modify its existing database to provide information to external parole officers who had been reliant upon staff. The innovation transformed the relationship from a time-consuming hassle to a real partnership.

A third nonprofit designed a system that helps local organizations pool shared data to better understand how each community member is served across the different providers.

Can your organization replicate these kinds of results? We think the answer is a resounding “yes,”

Can your organization replicate these kinds of results? We think the answer is a resounding “yes,” and that many nonprofits can better connect their needs with technology to improve the ways they serve constituents. Our research shows that such solutions don’t require a huge investment or in-depth planning process.

The data from our study revealed several elements common to organizations that used technology for innovation successfully.

  • First, it’s critical to understand your organizational needs in order to identify possible inefficiencies, problems or opportunities for improvement.
  • Second, you need to be aware of the technologies available to you—those that you might already have, and other affordable solutions relevant to your needs.
  • Third, make a concerted effort to actually connect your needs with a technology to determine what’s likely to be a useful and cost-effective solution.
  • Finally, innovation will fail without support—make sure your organization is on board with the change, and that sufficient resources are available to see it through to completion.

How do these steps look in action? We take a look at each one in depth in the complete article:

> Get the complete issue here.

Has your organization found innovative uses of your existing technology resources? Have you done some creative problem-solving to with technology? We know that nonprofits are especially resourceful, and we'd love to hear your examples!

Please share in the comments below.