The digital innovation catalysts: CIOs in nonprofits

As part of our series on the role of CIOs and tech trends for International Development Organisations (IDOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), this article explores the importance of innovation in the sector and how CIOs are driving it.

The importance of digital innovation for nonprofits

In the efforts by nonprofits to make the world a better place, innovation takes many forms, but all of them have one common goal: enabling new ways to make a positive, lasting, impact – on more people than ever before. This is why digital innovation is essential to overcome - directly or indirectly - the complex challenges we face, from pandemics to climate change, and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals targets by 2030.

The direct benefits of digital innovation can be seen in its many applications in humanitarian and development programmes. Thanks to digital solutions, for instance, UNICEF was able to reach three billion people through risk communication and community engagement around COVID-19. The WFP estimates that 8.6 million people benefited from the initiatives supported by their Innovation Accelerator in 2021. And digital innovation has hardly begun to show its full transformational potential: with more than a third of the world’s population still offline - i.e., without access to many of the benefits of the online world – the reach and impact of digital solutions can only grow as organisations and governments work towards bridging the digital divide.
The indirect benefits of digital innovation, on the other hand, come from gains in internal efficiencies. Nonprofit organisations, like companies in other sectors, can leverage new technologies to enable a better use of resources, for example by automating routine work to free up time for more value-added activities.

How CIOs are driving innovation in nonprofits

According to Deloitte’s Innovation Study 2021, 80 per cent of CIOs and tech leaders say they are driving their companies’ innovation efforts. CIOs in the nonprofit sector are no exception.

Let’s have a look at some inspiring examples:

Through more and better data for decision-making, better communication, and the implementation of new technologies, CIOs are enabling humanitarian and development organisations to make a greater impact than ever before. For example, in 2020 UNICEF implemented technology-enabled cash transfer solutions in 30 country offices: this allowed it to support a greater number of families through the provision of regular and unconditional cash transfers. In Yemen alone, the programme reached 2.8 million households – and 8.4 million children. Without technology, this would not have been possible.

Thanks to the implementation of new technologies, CIOs are continually increasing the efficiency of their organisations. With operations all over the world, nonprofits have to cope with cultural differences, geographical distances, and different levels of maturity across regions. CIOs play a key role in breaking down silos and enabling collaboration and knowledge-sharing across geographies, by means of data, processes, and software tools. For instance, a group of UN agencies, together with the UN Digital Solutions Center, has built the Travel Data Cube, a tool which aggregates, consolidates, and shows in an interactive way complex information on travel fares, class, restrictions, etc. This enables knowledge sharing between different organisations, ultimately allowing them to better negotiate travel costs and drive savings.

Nonprofits deal with multiple external stakeholders, such as public and private donors, beneficiaries and the wider public, as well as with internal employees and volunteers. Technology and innovation can help them engage better. For instance, Customer Relationship Management solutions enable organisations proactively to build better relationships with donors. Digital channels, such as social media and owned or third-party websites, provide many opportunities for engagement with a wide ecosystem of stakeholders across the globe in a structured and effective way. For example, the WEF, supported by Deloitte, has developed UpLink, a digital platform bringing together innovators and funders to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. Through UpLink, innovators and social entrepreneurs can submit their solutions to global pressing issues and, if selected, get access to WEF events and network which help them scale their impact. A Salesforce-based, intuitive digital platform, together with engagement and communication on social media, is what made UpLink a success.

But without CIOs’ guidance and support on processes and state of the art solutions, it would not be possible to leverage the possibilities of innovative target user engagement.

The challenges of digital innovation in nonprofits – and how CIOs can meet them

Innovation through technology has huge potential to enhance the impact of nonprofit organisations. However, there are some hurdles to overcome.

Digital innovation promises to boost the ability of nonprofits to make an impact in many different ways – but it comes with its challenges. For the promise to be fully delivered, CIOs need to be empowered by the entire organization leadership to drive change. They must embrace their role of digital innovation catalysts, mobilizing and bringing together different departments and geographies to guide them into the future now - knowing that every missed opportunity to unleash the power of digital is a missed opportunity to advance the world towards the SDGs.

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

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