Insights, News

Tech for Good: How technology can be utilized in the social sector

May 27, 2016

San Francisco Bay Area

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Together with, GreenLight recently gathered together a group of nonprofit and tech leaders to discuss how tech is fitting into the social sector. Take a look at the discussion on twitter using #TechforGood. The following is a reflection on what was discussed and learned at that panel in San Francisco.

Author: Margaret Hall – National Executive Director & Co-founder, GreenLight Fund

Technology is a field that has captured our imaginations across sectors and spheres. It has changed the way we think and go about our daily lives – and should be something we think about in our work to change lives in our communities.

Tech is a hugely potential-filled tool that opens up new possibilities for growth and efficiency. I can see three major areas where much of that potential lies:

  • Tech allows us to meet people where they are. Young people, and increasingly as this generation grows up, most people live their lives with tech integration. It allows groups like uAspire to communicate with their students via text the summer before they go to college to mitigate summer melt. It allows CareMessage patients to empower themselves in the healthcare system. Technology gives us the opportunity to meet people where they are – where their attention is captivated and where they are communicating.
  • Tech allows us to create efficiencies in our businesses. Even if the efficiencies are small, a marginal return can have huge impact on scale. When we can use data in more sophisticated ways, we are able to make decisions faster and course correct more quickly. Using dashboards to not only collect data, but learn from it and act on it in a timely manner has implications for impact. Being able to communicate more effectively, both with beneficiaries and stakeholders has implications for scale.
  • Tech allows us to smartly employ humans in new ways. There are countless examples – mentors, teachers, parents – of how different pockets of human capital can be utilized in social change through tech. Springboard Collaborative relies on parents as the most untapped resource in a child’s life to help close the reading achievement gap. They are currently in the process of creating an app that will allow parents to be empowered to take Springboard’s curriculum and utilize it in their home. In this way and many others, tech is allowing social change to occur in new and exciting ways.

So with a root understanding that social change is extremely complex, difficult, and nuanced – we understand that technology is proving to be a platform for achieving change when it is married with the human capacity side of our work. So, what can we do to mitigate risk as we are thinking about how technology can improve this work? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Engage users (beneficiaries, clients) in the design of the tech solution. Tech imposed will never be as effective as tech created based on how constituents are using tech and how they view the problem.
  • Stay focused on the problem. We must be careful not to fall in love with technology for technology’s sake, but continue to come back to the root problem and continually ask ourselves: What is the problem? What is the best way to solve that problem? What do the people we are working with think?
  • Promote access to technology. We are not yet on a level playing field in our communities when it comes to access – this means phones, smartphones in the future, and internet. We as activists in our communities and as funders and nonprofit leaders need to continue to make sure access to technology is being addressed.

Ask ourselves the hard questions. So what? We are using technology, and it is driving scale, getting efficiencies, etc., but are we truly able to see a measurable impact on lives because of the tech? The social sector is fairly new to technology, and we must continue to ask these hard questions to ensure impact is not being sacrificed.

What we have learned from leaders in both the tech and nonprofit sectors is that technology is really allowing us to address social impact in new and smart ways. We do not have all the answers yet, and technology may not solve all our problems, but it can be an effective tool to helping us get there.

Tech for Good Panelists:

Alex Bernadotte – CEO/Founder, Beyond 12
Tom Costin– Partner, Owl Ventures
Lara Fox – Executive Director, uAspire Bay Area*
Alejandro Gac-Artigas – CEO/Founder, Springboard Collaborative*
Vineet Singal – CEO/Founder, CareMessage*

*GreenLight Fund portfolio organizations