In my first post in this blog series, Systems Change Needs Systems Technologists, I made the case for a new strategic approach in order to harness the power of technology to create real systems change for the social sector. My premise: every ambitious social change visionary needs a nerd strategist. A systems technologist, or the equivalent of a tech-for-good geek.

As someone who has been serving as a systems technologist for decades, let me share what this role has looked like – and how it is evolving.

Every week I have calls with social entrepreneurs, major advocates, intermediaries and policymakers asking for help with tech issues. Here are some of the most frequently asked, overarching questions, which always have additional field-specific context:

  1. One of my board members (or donors, or my brother-in-law) told me we need to use the blockchain (or artificial intelligence, or both). Are they right about that?
  2. Our strategy consultants told me that building an app is a critical part of delivering on our new strategy. Should I hire developers to build it right away?
  3. We’re about to start a big Salesforce project. We should definitely do it because it’s free, right?
  4. We are a group of social change leaders with a big new idea for solving the social problem we all work on, and we know tech could make it better but we don’t know exactly how. How do we find someone in Silicon Valley to talk to about our big idea, instead of why we need their product?

My first role in responding to these urgent questions is rapid assessment and translation. Most terrific leaders of social enterprises and major NGOs are not technical. Even executive directors, who feel fully capable of managing programs, funding, advocacy and people, often feel adrift when it comes to making tech strategy or assessing expansive claims of the expected impact for tech solutions. A systems technologist needs to size up the situation by asking enough about the caller’s programs, and explain the core tech issues in accessible, mission-focused terms. The translation challenge exists because most NGO leaders don’t speak tech, and almost no tech people speak NGO. Enter the systems technologist to communicate between the two.

Answering the First Three Questions: No

The first three questions above are usually pretty easy for me to answer, since the right answer is almost always some variation of “no.”

  • The odds are that 95% of the NGO leaders who ask me about blockchain (or AI) technology don’t have a reason to implement the tech;
  • The great majority of apps developed for nonprofits fail to justify the money and time invested in them, because people greatly overestimate how likely community members are to download, and actually use, a social good app;
  • While Salesforce is good for many social good applications, it is not actually free. The cost of software licenses are not the critical contributing costs of a major new system: it’s the people you’ll need in order to create and operate that system. One needs to account for the staff and consultant time to customize, operate and maintain it, additional licenses (beyond the 10 free), the non-free third-party apps you need to make the solution work, and cloud costs like data storage (not an insignificant cost depending on the application). This is true not just of Salesforce, but for just about every other software platform.

Systems Technologists’ Answer to Question Four: Systems Change

Question #4 gets to the heart of the reason why systems technologists should exist, because it focuses on systems change. Questions about blockchain, app development and a big database project are all good questions, but they are like shooting random arrows at a dart board and hoping some come near the target. The real answer is to develop an overall approach for how to use tech to fuel the most exciting systems change opportunities.

Sometimes the organizations working to address a social problem know there is more that can be done, but they don’t know how to make it happen. And nonprofits are often isolated from – or even competing with – one another, making large scale change even more difficult. The most important role for the systems technologist is to work with a social sector field to build the consensus and trust required to cooperatively solve a shared problem. Their value lies in imagining an innovative tech solution where data and shared technology can unlock the path to large-scale change, and to build the bridges needed to make it happen.

Systems technologists are focused on social change first, and tech, second. It’s not about finding applications for a specific technology, but being able to bring together the assets from various nonprofit organizations and industry in order to define and create a solution for real systems change. Systems technologists consider both existing and new tech to create open platforms, standards and tools that can be shared among users to achieve social good.

I know this model works. While leading Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good, I and other leaders frequently played this systems technologist role. Here are just three examples:

  • In the age of increasing digital media, it seemed crazy that people with disabilities that make reading a challenge (such as dyslexia or blindness) were blocked from accessing books. We developed Bookshare, the largest accessible online library, by adapting technology to meet this social need and working with local organizations to make it available worldwide. We then developed tech tools and data standards for publishers so that ebooks work equally well for people with disabilities right from initial publication. The power of this model, made possible through the innovative use of technology, will gradually create systems change that eliminates the need for Bookshare!
  • We developed a software tool called Miradi that was born from a group of leading environmental organizations wanting to share best practices for good conservation project management to benefit the entire field. They came to Benetech with their idea, drawn by our technology know-how and social focus. Working together with these agencies, we built a software platform based on the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation that enabled users, from large or small organizations, to more effectively design, manage, monitor, share and learn from their projects.
  • The Benetech Service Net project is bringing the health and human services field together around sharing data on human services. A group of Bay Area organizations have agreed to use an open standards data exchange platform that will make it possible for people that need services to find them more easily. By cooperating in this project, the organizations will save money and have access to better information. Once proven in California, the same tech infrastructure should be able to help communities across the United States and around the world.

A key to success of the systems technologist is that they are driven to understand and advance the desired social change first, and then evaluate and apply the tech resources that best achieve that goal. In my next post, I share how my new tech-for-good nonprofit, Tech Matters, is working with social sector leaders to create transformative systems change.

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