It is no secret that the 2008 economic downturn has left deep scars on the US nonprofit sector. Year after year of increased demand and faltering funding has changed the look of the sector, with no makeovers in sight. Nearly 90 percent of organizations say their financial outlook won’t get any better this year, according to new research released by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, while 57 percent have three months or less cash on hand.

As a Minnesota-based nonprofit capacity-builder, we at MAP for Nonprofits wanted to dig into a few questions around the role of technology in nonprofit innovation: Can improved use of technology help nonprofits traverse this environment? And can nonprofits take better advantage of available technologies to improve the services they deliver without incurring significant additional expense? With the help of the ADC Foundation and our research partner Idealware (which helps nonprofits make technology decisions), we decided to do a study.

We thought our research might reveal that a certain highly effective mix of hardware and/or software was responsible for the majority of innovation in service delivery. We also hypothesized that the organizations improving their service delivery through technology would be very tech-savvy. We hoped we’d find some replicable “jet packs”—cutting-edge applications of powerful technology that were revolutionizing the service delivery.

Instead, we found remarkable examples of nonprofits unleashing innovation through everyday technology, often without big budgets. As we finalized the research last month, I was pleased to conclude that the nonprofit sector has the opportunity to innovate using technology, that even simple innovations can drive significant improvements, and that nonprofits can accomplish even more if they seek out opportunities with intention.

Our research focused on technology use among the Minnesota organizations hardest hit by increasing demands—those providing human services. We surveyed 180 Minnesota human service organizations about how they were using technology, and then interviewed more than two-dozen staff members from organizations that were using technology in effective or interesting ways. The research revealed a number of innovative approaches to service delivery that have transformed how, and how effectively, organizations meet their missions. Each had four things in common—the ability to:

1) Identify needs
2) Understand technology
3) Connect needs and technology
4) Effect change

The need identified by an organization highlighted in our report, which provides comprehensive mental health services and deploys managers to meet with families away from the office at flexible times, was access to information. Case workers in the field were frustrated by the travel time required to go into the office to pick up client files and check current schedules.

The time challenges created enough of a problem that the organization searched for a technology solution. It settled on providing 50 case workers with smartphones running Google’s Android operating system. Today, the workers can access their email, calendars, and client data from anywhere. The organization continues to look for different ways to measure the success of the implementation, including tracking and comparing the satisfaction of clients served by mobile case workers versus those not using smartphones. So far, it hasn’t been able to quantify the benefits, but importantly, field staff feel more productive and there are fewer scheduling problems and delays.

Another organization in our report replicated an innovation it learned about at a technology conference. It used software from an Atlanta nonprofit to create a Community Information Sharing System (CISS). The shared database, housed in the cloud, aimed to collect community-level information and unduplicated numbers, but its benefits soon went beyond that, allowing individual service providers to significantly reduce client intake time (the time it takes to gather a client’s personal and statistical information, which is used to ensure quality and to report data and outcomes). That replication led to innovation: The organization created photo ID cards for clients, which providers scan to gain immediate access to the CISS. The cards reduced staff and client intake time, and eliminated long wait lines at food shelves and other providers. Ongoing efforts include tracking and measuring the program’s success through various data, and all measurements point to the program’s success.

As an advocate of planning, I was surprised that many of the successful innovations we found didn’t result from an intentional process. In fact, many of the solutions didn’t come from people who were tech-savvy. The ideas resulted from the recognition of a service challenge and its intersection with a technology solution. Today, we’re moving forward with what we’ve learned, working with nonprofits in our community to intentionally pursue innovation through technology. For now, we’re using our own innovation planner cards to create a “Medici Effect,” described by Franz Johansson as the phenomenon that occurs when you combine existing concepts in new and different ways, resulting in the extraordinary. We’re hoping to create and multiply solutions, large and small.

Intentionally seeking innovation through technology won’t change the climate forces around us, but it may change the sector’s response to the climate, and help to define new and better ways to do our work.

Download the report, “Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofits Services.”