How NGOs can digitize faster to scale their impact
By Logan Ansell, Head of Partnerships
In my role as Head of Partnerships at reach52, I have the pleasure of engaging with hundreds of NGOs from around the world. Many of these NGOs are smaller, community-based organizations who are making a big impact in their immediate geographies. Despite this, many of these organizations have very little experience using digital tools to support programme implementation, particularly at a community-level.
When we dig into the stats about NGOs in Asia (in our part of the world), only 20% are using project management software; and only 30% use some kind of CRM solution. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising as smaller NGOs are often stretched to capacity to fulfill their funding obligations. This makes it challenging to invest in the time and money required to go digital (planning, training, devices). Despite this, organizations who eschew a digital approach do so at their own peril.
Remaining relevant and attractive to funders
Whether your NGO is big or small, the pressure to ensure ongoing sources of funding is a constant concern. Organizations are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves and demonstrate their value to funders. We are seeing increasing amounts of funding for ICT4D and eHealth projects each year with large funders and stakeholders making digital interventions a central component of their health and development strategies.
In 2019, Rockefeller Foundation committed $100M for ‘precision public health’ based on data science, seeking to save 6 million lives by 2030. In 2020, USAID launched their first ever ‘Digital Strategy’ which promises to “change the way it does business”. Earlier in 2021, the WHO released their ‘Global Strategy on Digital Health’. It’s increasingly clear that those organizations without previous experience, and capacity to implement digitally-enabled projects risk losing out on this growing pool of funding.
Introducing digital tools dramatically simplifies and improves monitoring and evaluation processes. In a 2020 report on the use of digital tools in programme evaluation, Rockefeller Foundation argues that technology now allows studies to be completed “more rapidly and cheaply while advancing our understanding of the complexity of social problems”. With digital dashboards, real-time programme monitoring is now possible at a glance. Depending on how digital systems are implemented, much of the data can be collected passively, reducing reporting burdens on staff and improving data fidelity.
We experience this firsthand at reach52. With the “offline-first” reach52 access mobile platform used by our Agents, health and demographic data are collected from beneficiaries and seamlessly synced to the cloud when internet access becomes available. Programme administrators and authorized partners can view these aggregated data on web-based dashboards. This provides sortable, filterable insights which instantly give robust details of operational outputs. Insights which would be impossible without the use of our digital architecture.
The adoption of digital technologies creates additional engagement channels for community NGOs in the business of frontline service provision. Particularly with the continued challenges that COVID-19 presents to face-to-face services, digital can help fill gaps through channels like SMS, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Even in rural areas of LMICs, populations are increasingly expecting to access information and services through digital channels from government and the private sector. This is driven by explosive internet growth in these regions. Take India, where rural internet users overtook urban users for the first time in 2020. NGOs need to develop a digital strategy to ensure they are remaining consumer-centric and relevant to their beneficiaries.
Practical steps for digitizing your NGO
Many smaller non-digital organizations might find it intimidating to make the migration to digital platforms, weighing the cost of devices and staff training against expected increases in efficiencies. However, it need not be a challenging or resource intensive transition. We partner with NGOs to digitize their organisations and capabilities, and there’s 3 practical steps I would recommend based on our experience.
1) Define the role of digital in delivering organizational goals
Hopefully by now you are convinced that your org needs to go digital. However, it’s important to make sure that the goals are clearly defined and the entire organization and is aligned on the objectives for this transition. Perhaps you want to streamline data collection activities or you want to open a new channel to engage with beneficiaries. Whatever your reasons might be, they need to be clearly stated.
Ensure that you work to involve staff as well, so the transition is not viewed as a top-down decision. In our early days in working with NGOs, we had a partner whose management failed to get buy-in from their frontline staff. This occurred largely because the role of the digital transitioned was not clearly defined by this organisation. The process was perceived by staff as adding additional workload and complications to their already busy days. Ultimately, the project was unsuccessful and the partnership was later ended. In the end though, it taught us an important lesson about how to engage with our NGO partners to clearly define the objectives of their digital strategy, strengthening our work for the better.
2) Digitize tools and ways of working
It’s vital that your organization selects the right tools for the right job. Context is incredibly important. Be sure to consider technical matters, like hardware and network capacity, but also the tech literacy of the end users. At reach52, many of our community Agents are using smartphones with older versions of Android OS. In addition, mobile internet connectivity can be extremely slow, patchy, or non-existent. There’s also a wide range of technical abilities among these individuals. As such, we’ve specifically developed our mHealth app to work on Android 6+, along with fully offline-first functionality. Just as importantly, the app is designed with a very simple user interface, making it accessible to people of all abilities. Make sure you consider the same, or you’ll be left with tools that nobody uses.
In addition to features, costing will no-doubt be top of mind. Before you open your wallet, consider the vast repository of free software. For example, take KoboToolbox, a free opensource digital data collection tool that is has benefitted an estimated 23 million people across all 195 countries. With deployment in every major humanitarian crisis since 2014, it has fostered more efficient resource distribution and faster response times.
3) Develop digital skills and mindsets
The process of digitizing your organization is not going to happen overnight. Rather, this exciting transformation needs to be an ongoing and iterative process. Even with the best planning, there are going to be bumps along the way. Start with a limited scale pilot and be prepared to adjust your processes along the way. Plan a comprehensive socialization and capability programme for your teams. Create mechanisms for getting feedback from all stakeholders to understand how the technology is working (or isn’t working!), then adapt. Finally, work to continually reinforce and support this work through ongoing engagement and training with your staff that integrates seamlessly into their routines and environments. To support these aims, acquaint yourself with the Principles for Digital Development. This framework of nine principles is designed to promote the adoption of best practices for organizations undertaking digitally-enabled impact work.
Rather than one-off classroom training, the focus needs to be on continuous learning support for your teams to help them deliver on the ground. This means combining group learning sessions with mobile learning resources to support use of digital apps and tools on the front line. There can be reticence to using mobile vs paper-based tools amongst less digitally literate team members. We found recently in a Barangay Health Worker programme in the Philippines that these barriers were best overcome through practical hands-on experience and peer support – getting the teams to use the mobile tools in groups quickly built confidence. Role modelling from NGO leaders is also essential in encouraging the adopting of new technologies.
The world is digitising at rapid rate, and it’s essential that NGOs keep up with this pace of change. Don’t get left behind, use these practical steps as a guide to accelerate your path to digitisation and harness digital to scale your NGO’s impact now and in the future.
About reach52 Growth Partnerships
If your organization is seeking to expand your experience implementing digitally-based health interventions for rural populations, consider applying to be a reach52 Growth Partner. reach52 provides selected applicants with funding, support, and digital tools to implement our award-winning eHealth solution. Using our innovative output-based model, successful Growth Partners can attain scalable, sustainable funding. In turn, beneficiaries gain access to a range of health products and services, helping to address complex health access challenges.
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