From optimisation to impact: the strategic role of CIOs in International Development Organisations (IDOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

CIOs have come to play an increasingly central role in Non-profit Organisations. In this article we draw on the latest insights from our Deloitte Global Tech Trends 2022 report to look at why this has happened – and what challenges and opportunities await in the future.

The rise of CIOs in Non-profit Organisations

There was a time when most Non-profit Organisations did not have a Chief Information or Digital Officer. Their IT teams were part of the Finance department and were mainly considered a cost centre – in charge of laptops, faxes, phones, Excel macros and Access databases. Far from being considered a strategic function or a differentiator, these teams were at best expected to deliver some optimisation and efficiency in internal processes.

Fast forward to 2022. IT now has a seat on most IDOs and NGOs’ C-Suite tables in the figure of the CIO. It has become a strategic function enhancing and contributing substantially to the beneficial impact made by IDOs and NGOs.

Many factors have contributed to this transformation. We see these as the four most fundamental ones:

From floppy discs that could store 1.2 MB of data to the era of zettabytes, we have travelled a long way when it comes to the amount of data produced and collected every year in the world. This data provides a wealth of opportunities to NGOs and IDOs. First, they can get to know better and engage different stakeholders, from donors, to volunteers. Second, they are better able to monitor, evaluate and improve operations. Third, they can leverage data to make better and more timely decisions, helping, in some cases, to save lives. An example is The World Food Programme’s HungerMapLIVE, a global hunger monitoring system which combines various data sources to help assess the magnitude and severity of hunger almost in real-time. Through the power of visual analytics, this platform permits data-driven decision-making processes. In this way, WFP staff, key decision makers and the broader humanitarian community can take more informed and timely decisions on life-saving matters. But collecting, managing, and analysing data is not an easy job. Transforming unstructured data into meaningful insights requires proper data architecture, collection, processing, integration, and analysis. Ensuring that these are in place is one of the missions that have helped to bring the emergence of CIOs.

The age of in-house developed applications based on Access Databases and forms is long gone. With the rise of the Software as a Service (SaaS) industry, technology is no longer something that has to be developed in-house; rather, it is a commodity that can easily be bought. A SaaS solution exists for (almost) any need and is likely to offer great potential for optimisation and impact. Whether it’s project management, customer relationship management, or data collection tools, the non-profit sector can greatly benefit from tailored SaaS solutions.

But, despite what SaaS advertisements claim, implementing these solutions is rarely as easy as clicking a button. Selecting the right vendor, ensuring compliance and data security, putting the right governance in place, integrating with the existing architecture and training users are only some of the steps involved in implementing these solutions. In the SaaS era, the non-profit sector is faced with a trade-off between the potential of SaaS solutions in the domain and the complexities linked to their implementation. This is where CIOs have proven essential, to give direction, prioritise and implement the SaaS solutions that can deliver the greatest impact. Being the `techy’ is not enough: in the SaaS era CIOs need to be more versatile than ever as they are involved in procurement, project management, internal communications and change management. Their role is key in driving cross-functional collaboration and decision-making, ultimately ensuring the fit-for-purpose alignment of (new) systems, processes, and people.

Automation, AI, and machine-learning are only some of the new trends that promise to completely revolutionise our lives. For IDOs and NGOs, these technologies could have a variety of applications, from increasing the efficiency of internal processes to helping prevent natural disasters and revolutionize work in the field. AI, for instance, plays an increasingly important role in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) by helping reduce communities’ exposure to weather and climate-driven natural hazards, such as storms, flash floods and tsunamis.

However, understanding where and how these technologies can be best used is not straightforward. IDOs and NGOs need forward-looking, creative, and visionary CIOs to anticipate the possibilities – and the risks – associated with new technologies, instead of following trends. Otherwise, they may become late adopters of innovations that could change and save people’s lives. As a result, global organizations – UNICEF or ICRC to name a few – are creating specific “Head of Innovation” roles, working in close collaboration with CIOs as part of their duties.

The widespread lockdowns due to Covid-19 forced entire populations to start working remotely from one day to the next. Some companies were more ready than others – but Covid-19 forced everyone to leap. IDOs and NGOs had to cope in order to ensure that their work directing and coordinating humanitarian efforts, especially important in this time of crisis, continued. They had to rethink the way in which they operated internally and also found opportunities to become more efficient and transparent through digital.

At the same time, in a society that was forced to go virtual, IDOs and NGOs had to accelerate also the implementation of digital initiatives in the field. Digital solutions for remote areas with limited connectivity, for example, played an essential role in maintaining children’s access to education and ensuring that schools reopened safely. In this difficult period CIOs played a key role, ensuring that organisations could continue to access the technologies the world needed to tackle the crisis. And their mission is not over. IDOs and NGOs can now build on the digital solutions implemented during the crisis and accelerate their efforts to bridge the digital divide. The CIO role will again be vital.

The CIO role is strategic in many ways for Non-Profit Organisations

The CIO role is strategic in many ways for Non-Profit Organisations

With the profusion of data to collect and analyse, SaaS to be implemented, new technologies to understand, and Covid-19, the role of the CIO has emerged and has become strategic in many ways.

First, CIOs enable better stakeholder management and help non-profit organisations stand out from the competition. We live in a world where, thanks to digital channels, donors can support an infinity of causes with just a click. CIOs that enable organisations to better manage these channels also help them gain access to more funding.

Effective stakeholder engagement through digital channels gives organisations a head start. However, the more efficiently operations are run, the greater the impact an organisation can have with a given amount of funds. CIOs can substantially drive internal efficiency through different technologies and automation. Our global Tech Trends 2022 provides evidence for that. In a recent survey of IT and engineering leaders, 74% of respondents said that automation helped their workforce become more efficient, and 59% reported cost reductions of up to 30% on teams that have embraced process automation. CIOs can be the driver of similar efficiencies for IDOs and NGOs too. The Robotic Process Automation Centre of Excellence founded by UNICC, for instance, helped UN Agencies automate a range of tasks, from time sheet management to financial reporting, resulting in greater organizational efficiency.

Finally, CIOs help IDOs and NGOs measure and report on the impact they have created. As an enabler of data collection and analysis, they give organisations a way to show quantitative proof of the transformative outcomes of their initiatives both to internal and external stakeholders. This can boost staff motivation and shows donors what their contributions have helped realise, closing the loop from funding to implementation. In all these steps CIOs play a strategic role for IDOs and NGOs.

The growing importance of CIOs is evident in another trend: more and more CIOs in the sector are assuming a public-facing role. As catalysts of innovation and impact, their role is increasingly important for society as a whole.

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Thank you to Biancamaria Tedesco for her valuable contribution to this article.

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