Technology will not save us

The post originally appeared in the March issue of Connect, NTEN’s monthly e-newsletter.

Last month, I opened my introduction to this newsletter by writing, “We all knew that 2020 would be a tough year for many reasons, but here we are at the end of February, and it feels like we’ve been at it for six months already. Who else is tired?”

Well, I miss last month when weariness was the worst problem at hand.

In the weeks since I wrote that, the world has seemingly shrunk. Or perhaps we have simply become aware of how small it always was. COVID-19 has affected every aspect of life, but we are still at the start of this pandemic.

Most of us in the U.S. and Canada went from our typical day-to-day to quarantine, with organizations having to transform to virtual teams quite literally overnight. Nonprofits have had to make incredibly difficult decisions when government leaders were not stepping in to lead.

We are hearing from nonprofit staff of all sizes and types of organizations that their teams are filled with panic, anxiety, and fear. It’s not without reason. Organizations are trying to figure out how to maintain operations while continuing to serve communities who share their worries.

Meanwhile, it seems every technology company out there has promoted offers, resources, or special discounts for nonprofits who are trying to find ways that staff can shift to working from home and delivering programs digitally.

I’m here today to remind you that technology is not going to save us. That may surprise you coming from the people who organize the biggest nonprofit technology conference around. But technology has never been the center of our work. The truth is, technology isn’t going to save our organizations, our budgets, our events, our programs, or our communities.

My primary rule of change management and technology planning is this: technology is never first. Technology is last. And now, more than ever, I want organizations to remember this.

So what’s first? People. Always, first and foremost, people.

I know things are scary right now. I know because I’m also scared. But we are less afraid when we can be together and can work together, even if it is over the phone or a video. Before you do anything else, center your people. Prioritize your staff. Without your staff, it doesn’t matter what your mission is because it doesn’t have anyone to carry it forward. Gather them, talk to them, be honest with them, create space for solution finding from them, and be together in the muckiness for a while. Whether you are facing hard decisions about having to cut hours, cut programs, or otherwise change plans, don’t make those hard decisions alone. Even if it feels like the right thing to do as the leader, manager, or project owner. Center your staff and do as much as you can together.

Then, when you are ready, move to process. Are there ways of working, ways of engaging your community, ways of asking for help that are doable with your capacity, and the completely new settings you’re in? Where can you eliminate processes that aren’t serving you now? If ever there was an opportunity to get rid of white dominant culture in your organization, this is it! There’s no need for a focus on written documents, or perfection, or anything else.

Only then, after you’ve focused on your people and your processes, should you add in new technologies. If you do this first, you won’t have the appropriate goals or ideas in view. And if you do add in new technologies, look for opportunities to give staff the power to identify what they need and decentralize a traditional hierarchy of decision making. You aren’t in one office anymore — if you even ever were — and there’s truly no way to know what each of your staff may be feeling or experiencing or needing as they work from home in very different settings, with very different supports and comforts around them.

I know the world is going to be different on the other side of this. I know that our sector will be hugely impacted in many ways. Before any of us think that technology is here to save us, let’s focus on our people first and adopt new technology last.

Amy Sample Ward
Amy is driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change. Their prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has fueled Amy's work to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for organizations around the world. As the CEO of NTEN, Amy inspires the NTEN team and global partners to believe in community-generated change. Amy believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively and equitably, but doing so takes intention and investment in training, access, and collaboration.