November 17, 2014

Disruption: The New Normal

Disruption is the new normal. Institutions and industries that have existed for generations are being crushed by the onslaught of technology and its propensity for exponential growth.

Near ubiquitous connectivity, for example, has helped crush dictatorships, remake politics, and sound the cry for social justice — it has given a voice to the voiceless and dramatically reshaped everything we thought we knew.

Does this scare you? It shouldn’t. Just as disruptive tech has reshaped societies and businesses, I believe it can usher in a new era of nonprofit engagement and impact. However, this will only happen to the extent that we in the nonprofit space learn to embrace change and accept it as the new normal.

What exactly is disruptive tech? In the business world, think of things like Uber and Airbnb. These companies are creating massive disruptions for the hotel and taxi industries — sectors long protected by a patchwork of laws and special political privileges. No more. Uber and Airbnb have harnessed the power of a world connected via smartphones to link spare rooms and spare vehicles directly with the people who most need them. Disruptive tech, therefore, is any technology whose core purpose is to unseat entrenched power.

Does that sound like a familiar cause to you? It should: Those of us in the nonprofit space build our careers on unseating entrenched power. And personally, I derive a great deal of fulfillment by seeking social justice as my life’s work. But just as disruptive tech can upend businesses, so too can it disrupt our work in the nonprofit space. The question for us is this: Will we harness technological disruption as a force for good in our work? Or will we ignore it or (worse yet) fear it, and allow it to poison our missions?

Obviously, we must seek to accomplish the former. But how? By understanding the change so that we can become a part of it. Today, I’m going to walk you through several technologies that have the power to disrupt our causes, and I will show you how to turn these disruptions into a force for good and for growth at your nonprofit.

1.) Social Media

I realize that we’ve all heard of social media, but the point is, are you leveraging it? Are you recruiting volunteers with it? Are you challenging authority with it? In my experience, very few nonprofits have a strategy around this. But you must! This is the way people communicate, organize, and get emotional – and you need them to do all three of those things if you want them engaged with your cause. Here are some action steps you can take right now to do this:

  • If you don’t have a Twitter and Facebook page, create one now
  • Get involved in other social media conversations around your issue area: make comments & engage people
  • Recruit. Phones and email are so yesterday: people link up with causes via social media. Get yourself in front of them by asking them to “like” and “retweet” your cause
  • Consider volunteer management software which will integrate social media with your volunteer events/opportunities

2.) Alternative/Tech-Based Higher Education

Have a look at Singularity University: basically, it’s a place where students go for one year (unlike a four-year “traditional” school) and learn a particular tech trade. Companies like Google and Cisco have committed to recognizing SU graduates equally as qualified for certain roles as their four-year degree counterparts. Wait, so the student who went for one year is treated the same as a four-year student in the hiring process? That’s right. The new normal is an economy that is changing so rapidly that yesterday’s jobs are already irrelevant. What does this mean for us? It means that the way we help people find jobs and get educated is radically shifting in the communities we serve. We nonprofit leaders must be prepared to offer these options to our communities or risk irrelevance. Here’s how:

  • If you’re helping people get jobs, be honest about what the economy is doing. Instead of just trying to get them a skill or an education, what about instilling the value of lifelong learning and the value of adaptability?
  • If you’re helping people get an education, show them all kinds of different options. Sites such as Skillshare and Lynda are transforming lives by allowing students to come into direct contact with society’s most successful doers.

3.) Big Data

Basically, in about ten years, pretty much everything will have a sensor on it. What this means is that we will have a lot better data about such things as: why people are unhealthy, how addictions impact communities, or the strategies that lead to successful outcomes for the people we serve. I know this may sound a bit scary, but it’s happening. We can either use it to improve the way we serve the neediest among us, or we can fear it. Here are some ways you can use it to serve others better:

  • Understand it. If you’re not finding this data and thinking seriously about how you can use it to better your outcomes, you’re dropping the ball. For example, this study by Software Advice demonstrates how nonprofits are clearly failing at measuring and understanding the impact of their volunteers. Considering volunteers are the lifeblood of most of our organizations, how can we possibly improve their effectiveness if we don’t understand their impact?
  • Use it. Use it to figure out what the real problem is and the results that others have obtained with their proposed solution.

4.) Robotics

You’ve heard of this before – as factories become more automated, more and more workers are thrown out of work. But the things that robotic machines can do nowadays are, frankly, things of the imagination. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this pic of the Tesla factory, and tell me how many humans you see:
schukman.img1_.png
Photo Credit: Tesla Motors

Here’s how we respond to this:

  • Embrace it. Don’t always assume that this automatically ends jobs. In fact, these changes (as with many tech changes) sow the seeds of new opportunities. Our role is, again, to be honest with our communities about these changes and help them understand the new opportunities that are created.

5.) 3-D Printing

So this sounds a little off the wall, I know…but in all my interactions with movers and shakers, this is the one thing they all consistently mention as the most disruptive technology of the century. You may have heard of guns being printed in people’s homes? Well, this is the tech that allows for that. But it’s also the tech that will probably soon print organs, print a wrench for a plumber who forgot one on a job, and even print affordable homes. What does this mean for us? It means that those of us in housing nonprofits are going to have to rethink our models very quickly. It means those of us combating violence in the communities we serve are going to have new threats to face down very soon. But it also means that the access people have to goods is going to shift in some very dramatic and exciting ways.

Disruption is the new normal, and it can be scary. But we in the nonprofit space are adept at serving others no matter what comes our way. Use the strategies discussed above to turn disruption into a force for good.
How can you turn “disruption” into a force for good at your nonprofit? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Josh Schukman
Josh Schukman is Business Development Manager at VolunteerMark, which is dedicated to maximizing the volunteer experience for non & for profits alike. Josh writes on all things volunteer, corporate social responsibility, and other purposeful musings. In his spare time, he loves traveling, reading, hanging with friends, and is a wannabe triathlete.