NGOs reach a tipping point with technology to serve constituents.
Nonprofits haven’t always been known for technology innovation and data prowess. Strapped with tight budgets and small staffs, nonprofits often struggle to meet the needs of constituencies and attract funders.
Despite this tough balancing act, some global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are thriving through their use of technology to serve constituents.
Enlisting mobile phones, for example, healthcare organizations working in needy areas can provide more immediate access to services and provide data insights using healthcare analytics.
Mobile technologies, in particular, have changed how nonprofits interact with their constituencies. Mobile has improved the quality of services that NGOs can provide.
With smartphones, NGOs can interact with constituents more effectively: They can quickly mobilize individuals (91%); reach audiences that were previously difficult or impossible to access (74%); and gather data more quickly and accurately (59%), according to a survey on NGOs’ use of mobile technology.
For Living Goods, a nonprofit that serves Kenya, Uganda and Myanmar, mobile devices have transformed how it helps communities. Smartphones are now a backbone tool to deliver healthcare services to needy populations. Living Goods is a Cisco partner in its global problem-solving efforts.
Living Goods provides communities with access to essential medicine, pregnancy and newborn care, family planning counseling and other services. The nonprofit has a data-driven approach to its work. Armed with smartphones, healthcare workers visit individual households to assess a patient’s needs, provide medicine, or refer patients to a hospital for more critical care.
Caroline Mbindyo, director of digital health partnerships, Living Goods
Digital mobile health helps Living Goods identify “which services are being provided to households and at what quality,” said Caroline Mbindyo, director of digital health partnerships at Living Goods. “We use mobile technologies to collect this data and to support this work on a near-real-time basis,” she said.
Digitizing interactions with recipients has transformed healthcare service delivery, making it more efficient and accurate. Previously, healthcare workers gathered data manually. “They had paper registers and made notes by hand, then provided those notes for data entry at the end of the month,” Mbindyo recalled. “The challenge is all the data needs to be keyed in as aggregated data. Sometimes it wasn’t done, and the data wasn’t always accurate.”
With digital processes and healthcare data analytics, Living Goods expanded operations in 2017 by 45% and served more than 6 million people in Kenya and Uganda.
Data is also critical for nonprofits to use analytics predictively to identify patterns and proactively address them.
Consider communicable diseases like Ebola, which forms in clusters. Healthcare workers may see from a series of cases that symptoms of Ebola have cropped up. A cluster of symptoms may highlight the need for greater attention in that community.
Without predictive analytics, “It could be months and months after the incident to see a trend,” Mbindyo said.
Living Goods also uses data analytics holistically to understand which populations might need certain kinds of information or care.
“We know that women who have a lower level of education are less likely to immunize their children,” Mbindyo explained. “We use this [information] to program better.” If data indicates that education levels are lower, Living Goods may try to educate those households to encourage immunization. Mobile healthcare analytics provides automated prompts to healthcare workers about the next steps to take with recipients.
Living Goods’ use of data-driven tasks and decision making is notable. According to the report “The State of Data in the Nonprofit Sector,” 60% of organizations don’t use data to make decisions, and only 5% of nonprofits use data in every decision they make.
Data analytics has been transformative in the nonprofit community, said Alice Korngold, president & CEO, Korngold Consulting LLC. “To understand trends and patterns and apply that to unmet needs helps nonprofits understand where they can intervene and make a difference,” she said.
At the same time, Korngold emphasized, biases in gathering data or poor-quality data can undermine these outcomes. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Korngold said.
As nonprofits use data predictively to understand trends, data best practices become essential. Otherwise, nonprofits run the risk of relying on false insights. Akvo Foundation understands this potential disconnect and works to help nonprofits master the art of data collection and analysis.
“We look at the problem [organizations] are trying to solve,” said Akvo Foundation cofounder Peter van der Linde. “We help them to design survey questions, collect that data, and, once the data is collected, we help them to use the data for better decision making.”
Nigeria, for example, had little insight into the impact of aging water well infrastructure on water quality. Akvo trained assessors to use mobile phones to monitor water points to improve the quality of drinking water. Akvo’s methodology helped data collectors understand whether certain water wells could be repaired or should be rebuilt.
That same data can also be used to attract funding. “Outcome measurement is critical,” Korngold said. “We need to know what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. But also, how can I raise money and show funders what I’m accomplishing if I’m not measuring? It can be complex and expensive.”
While nonprofits have begun using best practices, data sharing among organizations remains problematic.
Consider the algorithms influencing tasks at Living Goods, which need large amounts of data to learn patterns, then develop tasks for healthcare workers based on those patterns.
At Living Goods, each country’s respective ministry of health owns its data. While the ministries may be willing to share health data with other governmental agencies, they are less inclined to share with neighboring countries. Data that stops at the border can stand in the way of seeing important patterns.
“It becomes harder to run analytics across large data sets because the data isn’t shared openly,” Living Goods’ Mbindyo said, but also acknowledged that nonprofits are working to make data sharing more commonplace. “We can actually make inferences given the size of the data sets we now have,” Mbindyo said. “We are more keen to recruit data scientists and to learn from others in the health area to improve the way health is provided.”
Collaboration and data sharing are starting to materialize, though, said Alan Donald, senior director, technology for development at Mercy Corps. Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps serves vulnerable populations whose lives have been disrupted by human conflict, natural disaster or regional instability.
Others on the ground say that data sharing is starting to materialize, though. “Collaborating around sources of data that are going to aid organizations is much more possible now than it was before,” said Alan Donald, senior director, technology for development at Mercy Corps. Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps which serves vulnerable populations whose lives have been disrupted by human conflict, natural disaster or regional instability. If one organization was able to solve a problem and share that information with others, that’s good. To do that 10 years ago, was difficult,” he said.
So while mobile healthcare analytics is novel and new, it also has to be effective for the communities it serves.
“We always ask the question, ‘What is the value?’ Technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer,” Mbindyo explains. “We want to ensure that the technology makes sense for the community, that it can scale, that it can have impact that is transformational. Those are the kinds of questions we have to ask of ourselves constantly.”
As nonprofits continue to explore the ROI of emerging technologies for their constituents, they are more experimental than they have often been given credit for. Experts say this agile approach to problem solving is in fact hard-coded into the Cisco DNA of nonprofits, with technology bringing it to the surface.
“Nonprofits have always been very iterative in their planning—it’s always been a part of their culture,” Korngold said. “They are close with the communities and their needs, so they are constantly experimenting.”
For part two in this series on global problem solving, see “Social media for NGOs becomes constituents’ lifeline.”
Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”