Getting Strategic about Digital Transformation in the Nonprofit Sector

For this month’s Connect theme, we are highlighting some of the speakers, facilitators, keynotes, attendees, sponsors, and scholarship recipients of the 2015 Leading Change Summit in Washington, DC September 13-16.

I’ve been a techie at heart since I got my first computer—a ZX81 with 1kb RAM and a 16kb expansion pack. Yet in my 11 years working at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), technology has not been a big feature of my work, until now. This seems strange—15 years ago I was working in the middle of the dotcom bubble, working on how digital technology would transform pretty much every industry… apart from the nonprofit sector.

Today, I’m hugely excited because we’ve started to come to terms with digital transformation in a big way. I lead NPC’s think tank work, and we’ve recently kicked off the first phase of a program that aims to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in the social sector. That’s what I’ll be at the 15LCS to explore, refine, and develop with like-minded colleagues from the US and beyond.

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Our starting point is this—nonprofits are undoubtedly starting to embrace digital, but there are lots of barriers that mean that the sector as a whole isn’t yet on the path to achieve the kind of radical transformations that we’ve seen in other industries. Individual organizations face huge constraints—they rarely have appropriate digital budgets; they often lack the skills and critical leadership to see digital, not as a bolt-on element, but rather as a means of transforming themselves from the ground up; and they don’t have the business models to develop technology themselves in a robust and sustainable way. But the really big transformations, we believe, face even bigger barriers, because they’re about change at the sector level, not at the level of individual organizations. And as anyone who knows the nonprofit sector will attest, it’s incredibly hard to work beyond the individual organization level because very few, if any, funders are working on building the field, funding infrastructure, or collaborating.

One thing that we’re seeing time and time again is nonprofits seeking funding to develop a technology solution for part of their work—keeping in touch with alumni from their programs, for example—without any awareness that there are hundreds or thousands of others trying to develop exactly the same solution at the same time. Those that are successful in getting the funding they need then have to tackle exactly the same challenges as everyone else, without any ability to benefit from the efforts of others. What if someone were able to see this from a big picture perspective, and develop a solution that worked for all (or most) of them, and that could benefit from their combined learning?

How about implementing a relatively large development project at the sector level to enable all the organizations in it to work differently? For example, an open standard for nonprofits providing advice online, or a marketplace to allow nonprofits to sell disability-related services directly to consumers. No individual organization can invest the resources to do this alone; we don’t have the business models to attract the kind of investment that eBay or Amazon were able to put into building a marketplace for others.

So our program aims to scope out what the opportunity for digital transformation really looks like in the nonprofit sector in its first phase—developing a shared vision for the sector, and starting to build a map of the opportunities that are out there to be exploited if only we can bring the right resources to bear from private, public, and nonprofit sectors. The next phases of work will get into practical action—working in a specific field, like youth development, and bringing together the tech and nonprofit sectors to scope opportunities, prioritize them, and build new solutions.

What excites me about bringing this program to the 15LCS is to be part of a group of change-makers who are at the forefront of using digital for social impact. We’re building a movement, and this is undoubtedly part of it.

I hope we’ll improve and refine our thinking about how to approach the next phases of the program, and to learn from others’ experiences. I also hope we’ll build lasting relationships with people and organizations that are tackling related challenges, and that want to work together and support each other’s efforts. I’m convinced both that there is huge untapped potential in digital technologies in the social sector, and that we won’t attract the investment and attention that’s required unless we work together to develop shared plans and a movement to drive them. I hope that the LCS can play an important role in building that movement and shared vision, and I want everyone to be there who shares that hope.

Who knows? We might even find that there’s a great fit between our approach and the work others are doing, and we can partner directly to build on each other’s efforts. I’m awed by the fantastic community that NTEN already has in its membership. My dream would be to help build on that community and magnify the impact it can have in transforming the US nonprofit sector as well as the UK sector. We need to influence nonprofits, funders, investors and the tech industry itself, and we’re not going to do that unless we’re a movement of committed partners working together. Together, we can achieve truly remarkable things!

Tris Lumley
Tris Lumley is Director of Development at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC). Tris leads NPC’s development of new strategies, partnerships and initiatives to help transform the social sector. He also leads NPC’s fundraising activity to support our research and thought leadership. Working with partners both in the UK and internationally, Tris focuses on both the demand and supply sides of innovation around social impact. His particular interest areas are leadership and culture, as well as frameworks and approaches that put impact at the heart of the social sector, including shared measurement, open data and systems thinking.