When I arrived as CEO at HopeLab, which develops health technology products with a focus on kids and young adults, one of the organization’s main goals was to develop approaches that would apply our core behavioral science and technology capabilities to developing scalable products and services that help young people lead healthier lives. To do so, we needed to find partners with complementary assets and expertise—those with large customer bases and a need for our innovation capabilities. We needed to find the magical space where technology made the difference, but how?
Looking for an answer, I recalled the innovative approach of Omada, a health care organization that pioneered digital therapeutics for chronic diseases, where I had been an adviser and investor. Omada had transformed its bricks-and-mortar-based version of the National Institutes of Health Diabetes Prevention Program into an online experience that combined human-centered design with an understanding of how networks, platforms, and technology were beginning to reach people differently. Clients in the diabetes program previously had to visit a YMCA or health care center at a specific time and day to take a class on lifestyle changes (such as diet and exercise) that reduce the risks associated with diabetes. Omada changed the system so that clients could access trained coaches and a network of social support 24/7. To ensure that services reached the program’s target constituents, many lower-income, Omada also explored creating a Spanish version of its online platform and one for people with lower literacy levels, and made resources accessible via both computers and mobile devices.
Finding a youth movement
I was driving home one day, wondering, “Here I am at HopeLab, and we’re trying to create interventions that have a good chance of getting to scale. How might I apply some of the lessons of the Omada experience?” It hit me that maybe there were other evidence-based programs serving young people to which we could bring similar networks, technology, and platforms to scale impact.
That’s how HopeLab started working with the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a maternal and early-childhood health program aimed at high-risk, first-time mothers. NFP’s new leader was excited about taking the organization’s 40-year-old, evidence-based model into the future. So we began to work with teen moms, whose mobile phones were already a central component of their lives, and nurses, who were becoming more experienced with technology, on making the program more scalable, engaging, and effective. While we’re still in the test phase—experimenting with a number of ideas generated during our design work with the moms and nurses generated—early results are encouraging, and moms, nurses, and program leaders alike are excited about seeing their ideas come to life in apps and digital programs.
The magical space
Bringing technological capability into an organization can lead to better program replication or total transformation—or something in-between. We’ve found that there's a magical space in the middle where the introduction of new technology can enable new processes, products, and services—indeed, it can even help nonprofits think differently.
While that magical space offers great opportunity for innovation, the social sector has not done a particularly good job of bringing world-class technology into the work it does—especially in areas such as using data to scale, and designing backbone infrastructure to enable efficient and effective operations. This underinvestment in technology as a strategic asset often stems from virtuous intent, such as the desire to maintain a personal touch in delivering social services. But cold technology and the warm human touch are not mutually exclusive.
In our work with NFP, we’re solidly focused on the bond between nurse and mom. There's a power in that relationship that can’t be replaced with technology—it’s often the only source of stability and support the young mom has. But technology should further enable and enhance that bond. And so we've been using human-centered design processes to make sure that we help NFP take advantage of new technologies and tools while retaining the all-important human touch. An app we co-designed with nurses and moms, for example, tracks progress toward goals to help moms stick with the program.
Technological Peace Corps
How can nonprofits find the expertise they need to begin to understand the opportunities that technology might offer, particularly as they try to scale to meet the broad demand that many of their programs face?
One way is to emulate the US Digital Service, which has recruited hundreds of young technology experts—including engineers, software developers, and product managers—who want to help improve the world through government agencies that face technology challenges. A kind of technological Peace Corps, US Digital Service members serve terms of at least three months, working with civil servants at various agencies. They have tackled previously intractable projects for the government—such as improving the application processes for veteran’s benefits, student financing, and immigration requests—and improved the usability and reliability of the government services on which many citizens rely.
Another approach might emulate the creation of organizations like The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit intermediary that offers strategic management advice and consulting for other nonprofits. A large number of funders support Bridgespan’s capacity, as it benefits a broad range of their grantees/investees. A similar business model—where nonprofits and funders bring in specialized technology expertise to build and disseminate knowledge—could make world-class technology strategy and implementation resources available to more nonprofits.
These are just two possible approaches, and there certainly are others. Regardless of the path we take, the vision of more efficient operations and broader scale that many nonprofit leaders are working hard to realize won’t be possible without innovation around how we harness technology as strategically and nimbly as Facebook or Google in the service of meeting some of our greatest social needs.