July 5, 2017

Are you asking the right questions when it comes to technology?

While technology might seem like the solution to most nonprofit challenges, it’s important to ask yourself if it is indeed the right thing for your organisation and the communities you serve.

4 min read

Too many nonprofits attempt to roll out new technology, only to see it fail. The reality is that we aren’t having an honest discussion about technology for development: the prevalent attitude assumes that implementing a new technology is the default solution to all nonprofit problems. We are starting at ‘how?’ instead of asking ‘why?’.

Regardless of what technology your organisation wants to implement–whether you want mobile data collection, a new database, programme management software, or nifty M&E tools–here are five decision filters to think through before you start.

Think of these as a reality-check to put people and development ethics first, and to recognise that technology will always be a tool and not a solution.

1.  Can your organisation really even use technology?

a) Connectivity: The quality and speed of your organisation’s electricity and internet connection will inevitably determine how your technology implementation goes. This is particularly true if you intend to use technology for field staff–do they need to be able to work offline, or will they be well-connected?

b) Skills: Your staff should have the skills necessary to use the technology, or the ability (and willingness) to learn quickly.

c) Buy-in from the intended users: Don’t make the implementation a top-down approach. Make sure that your intended users see value in using technology and understand why it is necessary.

Photo Courtesy: Renuka Motihar

2. Is technology the right fit for the context in which your organisation works?

a) Language: Think about the intended audience for your implementation and whether the technology is available in their language. Is there a chance they won’t use the technology if it’s not available in their first language?

b) Literacy: Literacy levels are important, as is the target population’s ‘way of thinking’. Think of GIS mapping as one example—while the audience might be literate, they might have never learned how to conceptualise maps, in which case understanding what the technology is trying to convey could be conceptually difficult.

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c) Unintentional bias: Younger adults, people with higher socio-economic status, and those with greater education tend to have more familiarity with and access to technology, while older adults, women, populations on the lower socio-economic rung, and those with lower education levels tend to engage less with technology. When you ask people to use technology while filling out a survey, these demographic factors can unintentionally bias your results.

d) People connect: Showing empathy and establishing trust can be key components to developing the rapport necessary to broach sensitive topics when implementing development programmes. Think about how your programme participants might view your use of technology—if you are busy typing notes into a laptop, will this be seen as distracting or secretive behaviour?

e) Quality of work: Will the technology you adopt have a negative impact on the quality of your work? This is particularly true in the case of data collection. Typing out qualitative information into tablets can be difficult for many enumerators, and if it causes undue delays in the interview process, respondents might shorten their answers, compromising the quality of the data.

f) Internal readiness: If you plan to use technology to automate business processes, first ask yourself if your organisation’s systems and processes are in order. For example, if you currently don’t have any monitoring and evaluation systems in place, then no technology will be able to tell you the impact your programmes are having.

3. Can the technology exacerbate societal tensions, inequalities or conflict?

a) Unprotected hardware and software can cause serious harm, particularly when you are working with data from vulnerable populations.

b) Survey enumerators or community members are given smart phones or tablets to gather data, while others in their communities do not have access to similar devices, thereby increasing the digital divide or creating resentment in the community.

[quote]Hunger for more data may lead to data collection practices that are not light-touch.[/quote]

c) Conspicuous use of laptops, mobile phones or tablets may lead your programme participants to perceive that resources are being spent in a wasteful manner by your organisation.

d) Since using technology makes data increasingly easy to collect and analyse, there is often a temptation to collect more and more data. But this hunger for more data may lead to data collection practices that are not ‘light-touch’ or lean. This translates to taking more of a respondent’s time, often in contexts where time is a scarce resource.

Related article: Technology for nonprofits: Caution against digital evangelism

4. Can your new technology be integrated with the existing set-up and future plans?

a) Existing technology: What technology, whether hardware or software, does your organisation already use that you consider integral to your work? For instance, your finance team is likely already using some software to manage its processes. Will your expensive new grant management database integrate with the finance team’s software that tracks disbursements?

b) Expanding technology: Try to think ahead. Are you likely to take more processes online? If so, think about whether the technology you have selected can handle such an expansion. Is there a simple way to integrate multiple technologies and have a holistic technology mission for your organisation?

[quote]Technology costs go beyond the one-time cost of the package or product you choose.[/quote]

5. Can you afford the technology implementation?

a) Upfront costs: These include software licenses, hardware costs, hiring more technical staff or consultants to implement the tool, and the cost (both in terms of time and money) to train users.

b) Longer-term and ‘hidden’ costs: These are the costs that organisations rarely take into consideration. They include ongoing training and asking staff to set time aside from their regular jobs to engage with the tool, as well as maintenance (additional licence fees, paying for add-ons or integrations).

While this is not a comprehensive list, it’s a good place to start. Let’s push back against the assumption that more technology is always better: in reality, it’s the careful thought, planning and quality of your implementation that matters more than the technology itself.

This article is adapted from an April 2016 original research paper co-authored with Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church.

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Aditi Patel-Image
Aditi Patel

Aditi Patel is a Geneva-based Consultant with Vera Solutions, and previously worked at Dasra in Mumbai and PRS Legislative Research in New Delhi. Aditi has a Masters degree in development economics and monitoring and evaluation from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. All views stated in this article are her own and do not represent Vera Solutions.