Tech Across Your Org: Program and Fundraising Innovation Sprung from an Internal Technology Project

Submitted by Annaliese on Tue, 04/24/2012 - 1:26pm

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

By Peter Drury, a child's right

a child's right either had a problem or an opportunity—the distinction hinged only on our perspective.

First things first: we clean water for kids. We literally clean contaminated water to make it safe for drinking and hand washing. We do this in in urban settings in Asia and Africa, where children live at the intersection of two streets: (1) worst water quality conditions and (2) greatest degrees of poverty. The children living here are our exclusive focus.

In the early years, we were working in China, Nepal, Cambodia, and Ethiopia, where we now purify water for over 200,000 kids daily. We knew we would ultimately be in 16 countries by the year 2020, which meant that tracking, monitoring, and evaluating projects would become more complicated by the day.

There’s another piece that, while it is a cornerstone of our organization, complicates the picture even more: we hire local talent. We don’t fly expat plumbers around the world. There are skilled tradespeople in every country we serve, and local talent makes our model far more sustainable. (As long as spare parts are in stock and locals know how to maintain and repair the systems, we can keep safe water flowing for a very long time.) But whatever method we came up with to track, monitor, and evaluate projects would have to be easy for them to use and communicate back to headquarters—in a timely enough manner that the data were still meaningful.

So, let’s recount the needs and constraints:

  1. Need to track progress, overseas, at every site where we work
  2. Need to do so while growing from 4 to 16 countries (on 2 continents)
  3. Need to do so from US headquarters office
  4. Need to depend on local, in-country employees

We believed that technology could help us. We had this idea that we would put all of the field data online somehow—it could be updated easily from any of our sites, and we would have immediate access. And so—even though it sounded a bit over-the-top to observers around us—we went looking for a developer with a sense of adventure and a proven track record for follow-through.

When we started, we were creating an internal tool for project management and quality assurance. Mid-stream we realized something phenomenal: We could make this platform 100% open to the public and not hold our performance data behind a curtain.

While the implications of this decision are massive in scope, it was a fairly simple decision. From the beginning, we at a child’s right have fostered a deep desire to be ethical, honest, and effective. Early on, we identified several key gaps we believe are chronic in international relief work: a donor’s ability to track the impact of their gift over time; a serious education for donors regarding the complexity of both the problems we face in the field and their solutions; and a framework for accountability that doesn’t bog us down with paperwork and reporting, but speeds us up and makes us better.

Anybody could observe our progress, at any time. And when we fail, the donor would be notified at the same time as the executive director

So as we were developing this new technology for reporting, it was no giant leap of imagination to ask ourselves, “What if our internal accountability platform were entirely open to donors?” When we let this discussion unfold, it simply reframed how we looked at “internal” or “proprietary” data. Anybody could observe our progress, at any time. And when we fail, the donor would be notified at the same time as the executive director.

We rolled out ProvingIt.org in October 2011. It isn’t perfect. In fact, we think of it like a small bicycle on a freeway. But it is exactly what we wanted to get us started. We envision taking ProvingIt to an open-source platform, and ultimately offering it across the sector to those who share our desires: to track progress, to be honest about failure, to transform conversations with donors, and to measure impact not just once, but over long periods of time.

When we speak with donors today, we don’t have to talk about “if” we fail. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect. We just have to tell the truth, efficiently. In the end, we believe that children and donors are both better served. The intersection of unsafe water and extreme poverty isn’t good for kids—in fact, it changes the very trajectory of their lives. Let’s not let a little technology problem hold us back from being as ambitiously helpful as we would like to be.

Peter Drury is @seattledrury on Twitter, teaches Nonprofit Management and Fundraising at the University of Washington, and is Director of Development for www.achildsright.org

> Read more articles like this in NTEN:Change, a quarterly journal for nonpofit leaders!

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