We’ve arrived at the end of season 1! In this episode, Jim reviews some of the top insights from our interviewees; reconfirming why tech is vital to social change at scale while it is equally vital to understand the limits of technology and how to do develop it ethically.
Welcome to episode 8, the final episode of season 1 of the Tech Matters Podcast, which featured six terrific technology social entrepreneurs who’ve all managed to create social impact at scale, affecting the lives of millions of people.
I believe that better applications of technology, especially software and data, are crucial to reaching the giant ambitious goals humanity has set for itself and the planet. And yet, the stories of “tech for goodness’ sake” so often go untold. I want to celebrate these tech social entrepreneurs who decided to focus on maximizing human potential instead of profits. Their stories have so much to teach those of us who want to see tech used for more social good, and maybe a little bit less private profit. I’m sure there’s a thousand books written about how to create for-profit tech companies. But there’s something different about starting a nonprofit tech company. And many of the lessons about human-centered design business models attracting a great team, they do translate. But a Tech for Good nonprofit optimizes for different outcomes than a for-profit does. Obviously.
This podcast is a major part of my effort to build up the Tech for Good field, alongside writing, speaking, mentoring, and of course launching Tech for Good social enterprises. The themes that keep surfacing in these interviews will create the backbone of a long-planned book that I’m writing on how to start, scale, and exit nonprofit tech social ventures. But in full disclosure, I’ve been talking about writing this book for 10 years, so don’t hold your breath.
So let’s recap this season’s interviews, and surface some of the most exciting themes I heard this year from our guests on the Tech Matters Podcast. First up in the second half of the of the season was Sanjay Purohit of Societal Platform in episode 5. Sanjay really demonstrates what it means to start off designing for massive scale. And he identified that it’s about speed, scale, and sustainability. You have to be keeping all of these things in mind as you get going. He’s not a big fan of being tech first. Instead, he focuses on nouns and verbs and tries to figure out what is the dynamic here that we’re really trying to bring technology to bear on. He also identified that systems change is ideology-agnostic, which is sort of a pleasant moment to reflect on. If we want to change the entire system, we have to change everybody and maybe signing on to a very firm ideological frame might undercut that systems-level change goal. And of course, he told the story of how they reached more than 100 million kids in just three years. I thought it was an incredibly clever hack of using textbooks as the vehicle for actually delivering large scale digital change. And the fact that they focused on teachers as the first target—that if they could improve the teachers’ teaching, they could reach that kind of scale.
The next interview was with Rebecca Masisak of TechSoup Global in episode 6. Now TechSoup Global is one of the most successful Tech for Good social enterprises with global reach, and hearing the story of how TechSoup Global, especially under Rebecca’s leadership, has gone through three major pivots in the last 25 or so years, from their origins as a tech mentorship group as CompuMentor, their original name, to shifting to taking over donation programs of so many of the major tech companies such as Microsoft, and their latest pivot into the cloud when their business model of providing packaged software ceased to be the way that people took advantage of software. And of course, along the way, they pioneered so many more things. They’re one of the most exciting Tech for Good organizations in terms of how they raise money, borrowing money—the idea that they’re doing the first direct public offering by a nonprofit in the United States is particularly exciting. And also, they’re an example, the counterexample to one of my five bad ideas, which is, don’t build a giant list in the cloud since no one will pay any attention—well, they’ve built a giant database, pretty much the largest database of nonprofits in the world. And they’ve come up with a sustainability model to maintain that database and to make sure that it was actually useful.
And then, Emily Jacobi of Digital Democracy in episode 7, who highlighted her journey and the journey of her organization into accompanying indigenous communities in the collection of data. And I really like that idea of accompaniment, that you’re being invited to help to accompany a community as opposed to showing up to help them or save them. And of course, at the center of their approach to technology is keeping data ownership local, actually ensuring that the data being collected about these indigenous lands, where these communities live, belongs to them. And they have sort of the incentives and the control to see that data is actually used for their benefit. I found the story of the Waorani in Ecuador winning their court case against the extractive industries by having the data that showed that they use their land and that, under Ecuador’s constitution, the awarding of oil and gas concessions in their lands actually violated their constitution; they actually use the power of data to win in court.
And, of course, any recap of our first season, it would be important to mention our first three guests. Mike Sani in episode 1: gamification that actually works and how he used that to register millions of young people to vote in the UK, and then has taken that technology into other ways of engaging people. Ana Pantelic on apps that actually delivered financial literacy to women at scale in Latin America, some very clever hacks that actually were about the difference between what they thought they were going to do and what they actually needed to do. I think that’s a great story. And then Nithya Ramanathan of Nexleaf Analytics in episode 3 making Internet of Things, which is a big buzzword in the tech industry, making IoT actually work, and learning so much as a result of having detailed data, and as a result being able to ask better questions. And I do want to mention that Nithya and I and a couple of our colleagues just had a major article, entitled Decolonize Data, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review Spring 2022 issue, so be sure to check it out.
Why these guests? Well, they’re all great leaders who have built teams and organizations which sustainably deliver tech for social good. And I really want to emphasize building teams and organizations. So often the narrative in the social innovation field is about the the one social entrepreneur hanging it all on his or her shoulders. And yet, the reality of actually making social impact at scale requires you to build organizations and teams, because that’s actually how the social change happens on the ground. And of course, for the most part, we’re building those tools so that other people can actually use our tools to deliver social change in the world. It’s important to realize that it’s not just hung on one person; at the same time, I think that hearing their stories and understanding what they’ve done is really crucial to those of us who want to do more of this.
We have big ambitious goals. I mean, we’re talking about social change at scale, and using tech as a primary tool to help get there to help get to something like systems change. Often, I think this is a common theme, it’s a commonly attempted technology, often a fad technology, that usually fails—things like blockchain or building an app or building a giant database in the sky or custom piece of software for a small group. That usually doesn’t work. But 5% of the time, they do work. And one of the things I want to illustrate in this podcast series is is picking the 5% that do work and trying to help understand when those often faddish technologies like machine learning, AI, apps, mobile, whatever it might be, when do they actually make sense, by actually hearing the story of someone who’s made the work and made social impact at scale with that technology.
So I hope that you will check out any episodes that you might have missed so far. And, of course, we’re laying the groundwork for season 2. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
My reflections after, you know, listening again to the interviews, is how important it is if you want to become a Tech for Good social leader, to learn from your peers. For me, the turning point in my career actually was after 10 years of feeling kind of alone, I started to meet other social entrepreneurs and realize, oh, there are all these things that they could help me with; that they could help me understand that were actually very useful in doing what I did, because running a Tech for Good nonprofit is kind of different than running a for-profit, which was my background before that. As I mentioned, I think these interviews are a great example of the exceptions to the rule of when using technology is actually not a great idea, and understanding what it takes to make them successful, and hitting this idea of social change. I think now more than ever, it’s clear that the big problems of society need tech, especially software and data, to be used well and ethically. And these themes popped up in so many of these interviews, the importance of more control over data.
You know, we’ve done so much about centralizing power with software and data. That’s kind of the story of Silicon Valley during the last 20 years. I think if you’re part of the Tech for Good movement, you should be thinking about being a counterbalance to that: How can we provide control over data to the people that we serve? How can we use technology to distribute power rather than concentrate it, and how to use software data, and especially, you know, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to make people more powerful and capable, as opposed to turning decision making over to machines who are still, quite frankly, dumb as bricks?
I think the majority of really exciting new nonprofits to get started in the 2020s are going to be either software or data companies at their core, or nonprofits that have deeply embedded technology into their operations, tech savvy nonprofits with a clear eye on how technology serves their mission, and actually often helps them serve that mission three, five or 10 times better than whatever people were doing before that point.
So now we’re heading into season 2, and I’m looking forward to getting more feedback from our podcast listeners what did you like, what didn’t you like, who do you think we should invite for next season, which we’re already deep into planning. And certainly, I want to encourage you to share the Tech Matters Podcast with people who you think might be interested, people who might go off and do great things with technology to serve the larger social good.
And there you have it, the end of season 1 of the Tech Matters Podcast. I want to thank you for joining us on this journey, a journey for people who are excited about the potential of technology to help reach all of humanity, not just the richest 5%, and see technology as a tool for them to help realize better lives for themselves and for a better, more healthy planet. Thanks again and I’m looking forward to seeing you in season 2.
This podcast is funded by the generous donors of Tech Matters, especially Okta for Good. Thanks and see you next time!