Tears for Tech

Response to the fact that a majority of surveyed funders devoted 10 percent or less to tech-related grants and activities.

As someone who’s been involved in promoting technology use within the social sector for as long as I have, I normally would cry big tears upon hearing that a majority of surveyed funders devoted 10 percent or less to tech-related grants and activities. How is that possible in a world where social media can fuel a revolution within days and help us coordinate disaster recovery within hours?

Alas, that’s one of the findings in the recently published report, “Amplifying Social Impact in a Connected Age.” The report documents findings from research that ZeroDivide conducted with 41 funders and 13 nonprofit technology services providers about tech-related grantmaking for social impact. Is philanthropy behind the curve when it comes to investing in technology integration and programmatic strategy?

Research showed that funders expressed high interest in supporting their grantees’ use of new technologies for social impact. Yet, 72 percent of those surveyed felt the biggest barrier was their own organization’s “limited staff familiarity and expertise.” The second-largest barrier cited—competing funding priorities—can lock up philanthropic dollars for years and get in the way of foundations’ ability to innovate alongside their grantees in this area.

The consensus for how to address these barriers was to increase funder education and engagement activities via how-to guides, briefings, and training workshops. Strengthening funder-advising offerings was also identified as a crucial need in order to help grantmakers move from education and inspiration to investment. Organizations such as AspirationTech and TechSoup Global have a history of leadership in this realm, but the overall technology services ecosystem is thin and needs much greater support.

One example that excites me of a nonprofit’s technology success resulting from philanthropic investment is Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), an organization that started out in 2003 with a small program to train and employ women in the audio engineering field. WAM undertook a comprehensive grantee training and mentoring program to build a social enterprise that takes full advantage of digital technologies. I’ve been inspired by the organization’s evolution from, literally, a shopping cart operation to one that now trains dozens of low-income women in their state of the art studio, and reaches hundreds more through their unique online engineering curriculum that is available internationally.

Challenges notwithstanding, I believe the push from grantees and donors around technology funding for programmatic outcomes—together with the success of local and global projects that spawn deep impact—will move philanthropy from confusion and anxiety to pro-active strategy. In the meantime, I’ll dry my tears and hope for the best.

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  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON April 15, 2011 01:21 PM

    There is a ‘now as it ever was’ feeling to philanthropy and technology, but on a deeper level, there has been a fundamental change, and I think for the better.

    The part that hasn’t changed is that philanthropy’s support of technology adoption in the social sector is still far more reach than grasp. Personally, I’ve decided to not push this stone up the hill any more. There are too many ‘competing’ problems, too little money and too much perception that supporting technology is in a zero sum game relationship vis-a-vis supporting basic human needs.

    What has changed is that the humans in nonprofits and the humans in philanthropy are far more knowledgeable about and engaged with technology and its potential than they were before. And thus the people doing the asking and the people doing the deciding are far more on a shared technological wavelength than before. I think technology based approaches are increasingly embedded in nonprofit problem-solving and that nonprofits have learned to position support of these approaches as a cost of doing projects, which foundations do support, to the extent they can provide support at all.

    All that said, the points Tessie makes are completely valid and remind us that we still expect nonprofits to perform at a high level without adequate tools and training. The same could be said for other aspects of nonprofit life—salaries comes to mind, or facilities. Our nonprofits in the States are much better funded than NGOs elsewhere but there is also much less of a government-supported safety net here than in many other places. So it’s a trade off. We provide more to our nonprofits, there are more of them, and their overall role in our society is much greater. In that calculus, I think the points Tessie makes essentially boil down to “What is the opportunity cost of not supporting the social sector in core (as distinct from project-based) aspects of its technological (and other) development?

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