These worthy and important goals require coordinated efforts that go well beyond any one organization. The solutions lie in scaling up the capacity of entire ecosystems, with social entrepreneurs working together with businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, donors and constituents to solve a common social problem. The concept is called systems change. And it’s becoming increasingly recognized as the roadmap for addressing the most pressing challenges of our time.
Systems Technologists: The missing link between nonprofits & tech
To achieve this transformative systems change, we need a new approach that elevates our thinking above any single organization. Leading social good organizations and initiatives are developing strategies to do just that. But to be successful, these ambitious strategies need technology for good: technology that can effectively scale social sector solutions and provide data to enable informed analysis and improvements system wide.
In effect, what’s needed is a brand new role: that of systems technologists, leaders with the skill set of a chief technology officer or a tech entrepreneur AND a focus on helping hundreds or thousands of organizations (or millions of people) find and use innovative technology to solve a specific shared problem.
The social sector itself is recognizing the critical need to effectively apply technology in order to achieve real impact at scale. Increasingly, social sector leaders are asking questions about the potential role of new technologies like artificial intelligence/machine learning and blockchain to support the communities they serve. They want to know how software and data can make their organizations more efficient and more effective. In addition, they are looking for ways to scale their impact at lower cost. This line of thinking is leading them to recognize how cooperating with other nonprofits on tech solutions can both leverage their dollars, and grow their scale and impact.
The evolution of the social good field toward greater technical cooperation is not without precedent. Open collaboration is at the center of many tech fields, including groups that set standards, interfaces and write open source code for networking and web content that millions consume. These core components are now the building blocks that almost every company relies on today.
The common thread is that a group of technologists identified an area of shared interest, where basic cooperation would unlock large-scale innovation. Companies then built on this shared technology foundation, lowering the risk of execution failure. Most of all, these common platforms and technology let companies focus their innovations on the actual needs of their customers.
Just like standards and interfaces make it easier for tech companies to work together, nonprofits and social enterprises can also benefit from open standards and open source approaches. Imagine if all of the information about the social safety net was in a standard format and easy to build into new and innovative solutions, enabling people to get the referrals they need as quickly as Google can tell you the nearest coffee shop. Imagine if communities facing climate crisis had access to the information they need to make decisions about development that is both sustainable and improves the lives of every person living in that community. Imagine if dozens of groups fighting homelessness could work together to know that every person who was homeless three months ago in their community was now housed. If common data standards existed and were widely used, these innovations would all be much more likely to succeed.
The next big opportunity for tech to support the social sector is through shared platforms, common in industry but rare in the social sector. In the private sector, companies commonly outsource necessary tech infrastructures to a software vendor that offers software as a service. For example, almost no one in the United States does their own payroll processing. It is far easier and less expensive to have a specialized platform provider do payroll processing than to establish a custom system. Industry has an incredibly rich tech ecosystem to address important core processes such as payroll, office productivity software, cloud server and storage capabilities. Beyond that, every industry has dozens or hundreds of platform vendors offering to solve many industry-specific issues, whether it’s running a restaurant, a golf course or a law firm.
The social good sector is decades behind on these opportunities. Too many nonprofits assume that their programmatic needs are unique and (over)pay to get custom or semi-custom solutions. Or, they become dependent on small proprietary tech firms that are often well meaning, but don’t make enough money to invest heavily in their products. Further, these options generally don’t work very well, lag currently available technology, and are very difficult to maintain and extend. While the private sector operated this way a few decades ago, it has long since moved to a more efficient approach based on standards, platforms and shared technology components.
Systems Technologists are the bridge between tech advances in the private sector and tech for good applications in the social sector to advance real systems change. Knowing what does and doesn’t work in technology applications designed to help tens of thousands of organizations and millions of people, turns out to be critical to achieving ambitious social change goals in the modern world.
Who are these Systems Technologists and what do they actually do for the social sector? Those are topics for our next post!