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The (digital) clock is ticking for NGOs

10 May 2021 at 6:48 pm
Too many NFP leaders appear to act like our sector is immune to the digital revolution. It is not, writes Paul Ronalds, the chief executive of Save the Children Australia, who shares three key areas where NFPs must leverage new technologies to survive and thrive.

Contributor | 10 May 2021 at 6:48 pm


The (digital) clock is ticking for NGOs
10 May 2021 at 6:48 pm

Too many NFP leaders appear to act like our sector is immune to the digital revolution. It is not, writes Paul Ronalds, the chief executive of Save the Children Australia, who shares three key areas where NFPs must leverage new technologies to survive and thrive.

Last week, the federal government released its digital economy strategy. The strategy failed to mention the not-for-profit sector despite its size and critical role in society and the economy. 

We cannot allow this omission to lull us into thinking that the digital revolution does not apply to our sector. 

Prior to COVID, we have already seen some of the world’s largest organisations and even whole industries be transformed by new digital technologies: Nokia, Kodak, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Blockbuster, the entire taxi industry, news media. 

COVID has accelerated this transformation and triggered digital leaps forward that were expected to take years.  

The mass migration of workers to home that might normally be expected to take a year was done in weeks. 

Mobile money and digital payments soared as we stopped using cash. 

Global internet traffic increased by 70 per cent.

But despite these examples. 

Despite the increasing pace of technological change. 

Despite COVID. 

Despite all the challenges the NFP sector faces, too many NFP leaders appear to act like our sector is somehow immune. 

We are not. New technologies, increasing stakeholder expectations and changing business models are creating the perfect storm for our sector. 

And just like businesses in the private sector, if we are not prepared to address these challenges and evolve, not only will we go out of business, more critically we will be failing our mission and the communities we seek to serve. 

There are three key areas where NFPs must leverage new technologies to survive and thrive

Firstly, we need to use new technologies to greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our back and middle office systems and processes. 

I know talking about the organisation’s back-office is like talking about what you had for breakfast or your daily exercise routine. It’s really important to you but no one else wants to hear about it. 

Supporters want to hear about the lives you have helped to transform, not your upgraded finance system. 

But NFPs face unprecedented demand at a time of increasing stakeholder expectations. (Ask anyone from the disability sector about the pressure to cut administration costs.) 

As a sector, if we are to reduce costs, we must extract greater efficiency from our back-office. 

If we are to continue to receive support from the public, we must be able to engage with them seamlessly across multiple digital channels and technology platforms, all chosen by them. 

This will require investment in new customer relationship management systems, mobile enabled websites, and data warehouses. 

And without modern back-office systems you are not going to have access to the data you need; or be able to leverage front line technologies that greatly enhance your impact. 

These back-office technologies need to be seen by you, your board and your supporters as critical enablers of your mission. 

The second area where NFPs must leverage new technologies to survive and thrive is in their front-line activities. 

Edtech, to combat school closures. 

E-health to provide high-quality access to health services in rural and remote Australia. 

Fintech to more efficiently provide social protection programs in disasters. 

Technologies like these and many others hold out the prospect of helping to close the massive gap between available funds and growing need. 

The potential of digital technologies is why Save the Children has invested in a series of edtech social enterprises: Library For All, Inclusive Education and Inquisitive

Of course, we need to be careful of the gap between the prophesied potential and the real world results of many new technologies.

New technologies are often overhyped. Many early initiatives fail to live up to their potential.

Geographical isolation, poor infrastructure, low bandwidth, limited electricity are all issues that must be overcome for new technologies to realise their potential. 

Be wary of anyone claiming that their technology solution can change the world overnight. 

We also need to be conscious of a significant lack of trust in emerging technologies in many communities. 

There is a significant proportion of society and our own staff who have doubts about the overall benefit of new technologies. 

But probably the most significant impediment to communities benefiting from digital technologies is the digital divide. 

The pandemic didn’t create the digital divide but it is certainly exacerbating it. 

Globally, just over half of households (55 per cent) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. 

But this figure hides significant inequality. In Eritrea, just 8 per cent of the population has internet access. 

And there is a significant gender divide as well. 

Globally, women are 23 per cent less likely than men to use mobile internet.

And it’s not just a problem in developing nations. 

In Australia, almost a third of less well-off homes have no internet connection

That means more than 2.5 million Australians cannot access the education, health, social and financial benefits of digital connectivity.

And we know that digital disadvantage coincides with other forms of social and economic disadvantage, so those that can potentially benefit most from being connected are at greater risk of being left behind. 

While attempts are being made to address this problem, I believe our sector still needs to do more advocacy to highlight the impact of the digital divide on the world’s most disadvantaged, especially its long-term impact on children. 

The third area where NGOs need to better leverage new technologies is in protecting against the dangers and misuse of digital technologies. 

We all know that digital technologies can be used for harm as well as good. 

Before the pandemic, it was estimated that there were an estimated 750,000 people worldwide looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online at any one time. Since then, online child sex abuse has soared. 

In Australia, federal police received more than 21,000 reports of child sex abuse in the 12 months to 30 June 2020, an increase of over 7,000 cases on the previous year.

The Philippine government saw a 260 per cent increase in reports of online child abuse materials from March to May 2020 – when the country was in a strict lockdown. 

In response, Child Wise, another Save the Children social enterprise, has formed a number of strategic partnerships with tech companies to better protect children on-line. Companies like Net Clean that disrupt the distribution and consumption of child sexual abuse material and protect IT environments from being used for illegal activities. 

Save the Children has been working on an Anti-Grooming Chatbot – a prototype tool designed to predict early in a chat on any platform, games, social media, etc, whether the chat will turn into grooming or not.

Child exploitation NGO Terre des Hommes developed “Sweetie”, a 10-year-old virtual Filipino girl. Her highly life-like image appears online in chat rooms and on dating sites. When men start talking with her in a sexually suggestive way, she engages back. All the information from their exchanges gets stored and used to warn, track down or even arrest and convict perpetrators.

But much more needs to be done to protect NGOs and their clients from the misuse and dangers of digital technologies. 

Too many NFPs are not investing enough to ensure that their data, and that of their clients and beneficiaries is adequately protected. 

There have been many examples of supporter information being illegally accessed.

Better technical standards for the collection and storage of personal data is required but most problems still arise from employees who fail to follow basic data protection policies. 

The humanitarian principle of “do no harm” means we need to reflect more on how technologies can be misused. If I use satellites and smart algorithms to count cows in South Sudan will I be inviting cattle raiders to attack herders?

In response to these concerns, there has been some action. 

Almost all international NGOs have endorsed the Principles for Digital Development, nine guidelines that are designed to help integrate best practices into technology-enabled programs.

But, once again, I would highlight protection against the dangers and misuse of digital technologies as an area where NFPs need to invest far more time and money to be fit for the present, let alone the future. 


Drawing these three priority areas together, I think there are clear lessons to be learned by NFP management, NFP boards and donors. 

For NFP managers

  • Are you continuing to systemically underinvest in your digital capability, both back office and for delivering services to clients and communities? 
  • Is your data safe? 
  • Are you using technology to ensure that none of your IT assets are being used for illegal purposes? 
  • Are you spending enough time understanding digital trends? 
  • Are you tackling any cultural aversion in your organisation to new technologies? 
  • Are you being careful to avoid a situation where technology’s early failures and an inherent resistance to change mean you misunderstand and underestimate the longer-term potential of those technologies?

For NFP boards

  • Is the board spending enough time understanding digital trends?
  • Do you have people on the board with technology experience?
  • Is the board encouraging investment in back-office systems and processes? 
  • Is the board spending time with the management team on their back-office strategy?
  • Is the board confident that management has the appropriate risk mitigations in place to protect the organisation against cyber attack or misuse of IT assets? 

For donors

  • Are you starving the charities you support of the capital they need to upgrade their back-offices? 
  • We know you want as much money to be spent on direct program costs but are you viewing investments in organisational capacity as mere administration, to be minimised? 
  • Do you have a robust process for ensuring that any NFP you are funding has adequately thought through the way a tech-based solution could be misused, or could inadvertently end up reinforcing discrimination or disadvantage.
  • Are you particularly cautious about tech “quick fixes” to long-term, complex political, social and economic drivers of humanitarian crises?
  • And are you as prepared to fund scaling tech innovation as you are tech pilots? 

New technology undoubtedly provides NFPs with a huge opportunity to greatly enhance efficiency and effectiveness. 

These new technologies are not without risk but the greatest risk would be failing to actively position your organisation for a digital world. 

The digital clock is ticking. Will you act in time? 


This is an edited version of an address given at the Connecting Up Conference on 6 May 2021. These issues are also the focus of an episode in the Good Will Hunters Autumn Series on the NGO of the Future. 

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