As Need Grows, Nonprofits Leverage Technology to Press Forward

By Lisa Wirthman, Contributor

Mediating disputes during conflict, providing clean water for hand-washing, supporting the health of premature babies—these are just some of the ways nonprofits across the globe work to help local communities in need. Now, aided by digital technologies, many charitable organizations are also pivoting to fight on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To provide coronavirus relief and recovery to those in need, many nonprofits are stretching already-limited resources to meet unprecedented levels of demand, even as donations drop, costs increase, and charitable services shift to virtual platforms.

In a global survey of over 500 charitable organizations, nearly all (97 percent) say they are negatively impacted in some way by the pandemic, according to the Charities Aid Foundation of America (CAF America). Respondents say the biggest obstacle to adapting their operations is a lack of infrastructure and access to technologies that will allow them to move their work online.

“With the threat of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to make secure digital connections available for local organizations on the front lines,” says Matthew Rullo, communications advocacy and knowledge management analyst for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF), a global UN partnership that supports women-led peace building groups in 25 countries.

Embracing Digital Technologies

Some early adopters are already showing how innovative digital technologies can help nonprofits maximize social good. WaterAid, for example, is scaling its clean water mission to provide hand-washing stations as a first-line of defense. The charity’s website includes an interactive digital map to help donors track its responses in 26 countries, offers pub quizzes and other ideas for fundraising from home, and features a series of “bathroom sessions” concerts that are live-streamed from artists’ bathrooms.

Separately, The March of Dimes transformed its annual March for Babies fundraiser into a virtual program, March for Babies Step Up!, that encourages donors to march in their homes using a mobile app by Charity Miles to track progress—or engage in a dance challenge on the social media app TikTok.

Women peace mediators supported by WPHF in the Muramvya Province of Burundi
Photos by Matthew Rullo, WPHF

And the WPHF recently launched a digital platform with the help of Dell Technologies to enable grassroots women’s organizations across the globe to share critical knowledge and resources. From mediating disputes in Burundi to documenting threats to peace in Colombia to aiding refugees in Jordan, organization leaders serve as peace builders in areas of humanitarian crisis.

To strengthen local response and address the gendered impacts of the pandemic, which disproportionately impacts women and girls, these organizations will use the new WPHF Community Platform to collaborate, compare best practices, access a virtual library of shared knowledge, expand skills, and track progress on women’s leadership in areas of humanitarian crisis.

“When we look at where Dell can provide impact with nonprofits, we always think about the application of our technology first and foremost. We believe it is the single greatest tool we can bring to the equation.”

—Christine Fraser, chief responsibility officer, Dell Technologies

“Technology is playing a critical role in keeping us connected right now,” says Christine Fraser, chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies. As part of Dell’s “Progress Made Real” plan, the company is working to help 1,000 nonprofit organizations achieve effective digital transformation by 2030.

“When we look at where Dell can provide impact with nonprofits, we always think about the application of our technology first and foremost,” Fraser says. “We believe it is the single greatest tool we can bring to the equation.”

Overcoming Technology Barriers

Despite a growing interest among nonprofits in using digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data analytics to increase efficiencies and maximize social good, 96 percent of nonprofit organizations report barriers in embracing digital transformation, according to a recent study commissioned by Dell, “Helping Nonprofits Thrive in the Digital Age.”

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More than eight in 10 nonprofit leaders rank IT readiness as one of their top three challenges, the study found. And nearly all believe their planned technology investments aren’t enough to successfully manage and maintain their IT environments without adopting further digital transformation.

Funding creates a unique challenge for nonprofits. In addition to soliciting donations, which can often include spending restrictions, charitable organizations are encouraged to achieve overhead rates as low as 10 percent, compared to the average overhead rate of 53 percent for a U.S. commercial business, the study states.

Charitable organizations are encouraged to achieve overhead rates as low as 10 percent, compared to the average 53 percent for a U.S. commercial business.

Investments in IT infrastructure and staff can also be harder to justify in nonprofits, where most revenue is expected to support the organization’s mission. By one estimate, charitable organizations may be five to 10 years behind the commercial sector in embracing digital transformation.

To bridge the gap, nonprofits need to address the capital expenses of technology, as well as the expertise required to operate it, Fraser says. Perhaps most importantly, nonprofits need a broader understanding of how digital technologies can help them better run their businesses, she adds.

A significant part of outreach to help nonprofits achieve digital transformation is to understand their use cases and how technology can maximize their impact, says Jamila Cowan-Wideman, director of Dell Technologies’ global employee empowerment programs.

“When we take time to fully understand their vision, mission, and, most importantly, the lives that they are working to impact, it opens the door to collaborative problem-solving and enhances the technology solutions that we propose, revealing to them the power of technology to drive the social good that they are looking to generate in the world,” Cowan-Wideman says.

Making Global Connections

One of the first things the WPHF did when partnering with Dell was to submit a problem statement and request advice on potential solutions, says Rullo. The resulting WPHF Community Platform uses Microsoft 365 and SharePoint technologies to enable nonprofit members to share, organize, and access information from any device.

“One limitation we often face is strong internet connectivity, especially for partners operating in more rural communities.”

—Matthew Rullo, communications advocacy and knowledge management analyst, Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF)

Accessibility was a key consideration for the platform, Rullo says. “One limitation we often face is strong internet connectivity, especially for our partners operating in more rural communities,” he adds. Although most of the WPHF’s women-led nonprofits have access to at least one desktop computer, Rullo says most members access the online platform from their mobile phones, which was optimized for mobile access and low bandwidth connections. For the WPHF staff, the platform will serve as a project portal where they can easily filter and organize members’ projects to track progress and support fundraising, he adds.

To help other nonprofits get a head start on achieving their own digital transformation, Dell Technologies company Boomi recently launched Answers on Demand. The free frequently asked questions chatbot can be customized by nonprofits, schools, and healthcare organizations to provide community members with critical information. “For nonprofits who are just being inundated with requests right now, this application enables productivity to be focused on constituents,” says Fraser.

Charitable organizations can also benefit from using digital technologies for tasks such as automating operations, recruiting volunteers, streamlining customer service, enhancing security, and improving fundraising.

At its core, digital transformation is about leveraging technology to jump from wherever your organization is today to a place where it can use time and resources more efficiently, says Britney Nemecek, who oversees the Pro Bono program at Dell Technologies. “What improvement can you measure as a result of better utilization of technology?” she asks.

With the added demands for virtual connections during the pandemic, “organizations that are able to adapt quickly are going to be able to do much better,” Nemecek adds. “Automating processes to free up time to spend on the most meaningful and important work is a huge benefit for nonprofits.”