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Nonprofits and Foundations: Bridging the Technology Funding Gap Together

Nonprofits and Foundations: Bridging the Technology Funding Gap Together

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Wouldn't it be great if nonprofits, charities, and foundations had a frank discussion about how to improve the technology funding process? The NTC session Bridging the Funding Gap did just that: brought nonprofits and foundations together to start discussing technology funding barriers and to brainstorm solutions.

I learned that both nonprofits and foundations have a lot of work to do to help close the technology funding gap. And that conversations like the one at NTC are crucial to making change. Many thanks to Andrea Berry (Idealware), Lindsay Bealko (Toolkit Consulting), and David Krumlauf (Pierce Family Charitable Foundation) for planning the session and facilitating the discussion.

Telling a Better Story About Technology

Too often, technology is viewed simply as "overhead," meaning dollars spent on technology are not spent on the organization's primary mission.

Buying a new server or upgrading your operating systems? That means fewer children fed, fewer endangered species protected, or fewer beds for your shelter.

However, technology is an integral part of accomplishing the mission for most organizations, and nonprofits must do a better job of telling that story.

A step in the right direction is believing it ourselves: those of us working in nonprofits and charities need to believe wholeheartedly that technology is essential to our missions.

Better technology means a nonprofit operates more efficiently. This means it can feed more children, protect more endangered species, or find more beds for people in need. We all need to believe this, and we need to work together to change the attitudes of those who don't share this belief.

As Laura Quinn (Idealware) mentioned during the session, "If nonprofits don't prioritize technology, it's hard for funders to see the need."

What Foundations Can Do

Nonprofits aren't the only ones responsible for bridging the technology funding gap. Funders have a role to play here as well. Foundations and other funders can:

  • Broaden the definition of supporting the mission: Foundations can support an organization's mission in many ways, including helping nonprofits acquire the technology tools and skills they need to accomplish their mission. Check out Idealware's Funders Guide to Supporting Nonprofit Technology for 10 ways foundations can help build their grantees' technology capacity.

  • Allow for the possibility of failure: Innovation requires risk and experimentation, and not all experiments will be successful. If foundations were more willing to fund experimentation, that could catalyze greater innovation in nonprofit technology. Check out Idealware's Philanthropy News Digest article on funding nonprofit innovation to learn more.  
  • Understand nonprofit realities: Foundations don't usually face the same funding challenges as nonprofits. Therefore, funders may assume that nonprofit technology is as well-funded, supported, and highly functional as their own technology. Whereas in fact, nonprofits often "don't have the same nice stuff they have," as David Krumlauf put it.

Continuing the Conversation

I believe we should be having a sector-wide conversation among nonprofits, charities, funders, and others about the value of technology.

Nonprofits shouldn't be expected to make do with "the cheapest thing that works" (as one session attendee put it), whether that's limping along with a clunky 10-year-old computer, skipping necessary upgrades that will keep systems stable and secure, or having a database that doesn't really meet their needs.

Instead, nonprofits should be able to ask for and use the solutions that will best meet their organizations' needs.The ability to do this depends on changing attitudes: the attitudes of our funders, donors, and supporters, as well as our own attitudes as nonprofits.

At another NTC session, Dan Pallotta took aim at what he called the "deprivation mindset" among nonprofits. You can check out Pallotta's TED talk here. His talk at NTC was somewhat controversial, and I don't agree with everything he said.

But the main point I took from his talk is that a relentless focus on low overhead may prevent nonprofits from making the investments (in people, fundraising, and technology) that they need in order to grow. A recent article in the Guardian on charity spending concurs: in essence, "You must spend to be effective."

How about you? What barriers have you encountered when seeking technology funding? What do you think foundations and nonprofits can do about it? How can we move this discussion forward? Please share your thoughts and advice in the comments!

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by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Senior Content Manager, TechSoup