Leveraging Tech: Prepare. Seek. Begin.

In many ways, philanthropy and technology are dangerous yet exciting collaborators. Technological advancements are happening so rapidly today; what seemed impossible yesterday is today’s status quo. Combined with the generally optimistic, can-do attitude prevalent in philanthropy, you have the recipe for head-spinning change. Philanthropists want to believe the greatest problems facing us today are solvable. You are willing to take chances. You believe there are solutions.
Those of us in the tech sector believe that’s what technology should be... a solution. Every day, our clients find ways to further their missions with a mix of intelligence, creativity, and gumption. So, how can the philanthropic sector look to technology for solutions to help in this (often daunting) endeavor?  As we look forward, I want to share with you key trends and processes that will likely impact your relationship with technology over the next five years. However, I also want to point out some areas for more intentionality and where further consideration will most likely be warranted.  
Project Management
When I started off this blog, the impact of poor project management was top of mind. Too often, we see people looking to buy a “solution” without knowing what they expect to gain. But (and I say this from experience!), a solution is only as good as the defined problem you’re trying to solve. In other words, if you can’t define the problem... you can’t recognize the solution.
When you think of “project management,” what comes to mind? Too often, people start managing new technology in the middle of an implementation. In reality, the most impactful work needs to be done before you ever start. What information will you need to track? Who are your stakeholders? Outlining a project ahead of time (even a simple example) will help you “map” your project management questions to the right solution. It is important you outline the questions you’ll need to answer in order to know whether you’ve reached your goal.
How will Artificial Intelligence Impact Philanthropy?
The term “Artificial Intelligence (AI)” gets thrown around a lot. But what does it mean? There are existing systems that perform a version of AI. Our content management system (Uberflip) uses an “AI engine” to track popular pieces of content and then make recommendations to viewers based on traffic and engagement. But it still needs some form of human input to do its job. So, is this really AI? It’s simply following a set of rules a human (our Content Manager) told it to follow… “if content X gets Y views, then recommend to visitors.” The nonprofit industry might leverage tools like readable.io or the HOTH to check their proposals or story sharing for readability. Similarly, imagine online grants management systems with built-in “readability scores” as a tool that gives applicants the immediate feedback they crave.
The potential of AI is significant, but we must remember that while it excels at logical evaluations, it will never match the emotional reasoning so prevalent in and important to philanthropy. These are areas where we will need to balance being bold and taking some risks with being intentional and considerate of the long-term impacts of the decision being made today. 
We Have “Big Data,” Now What?
The term “big data” has been thrown around for years. It’s been the catalyst for discussions that cause fear in consumers, excitement in business, and (frankly) a whole lot of confusion for many. Turning data into information is all about asking the right questions. There are a multitude of systems (including our own philanthropy management solutions) to help you gather, track, and aggregate data. As a sector, the philanthropy is starting to amass a huge amount of data. But, what are we going to do with the data we are collecting? Do we trust the data? Do we know what it is showing us?
A challenge for any tech provider in the philanthropic community is helping people synthesize and evaluate the data they are collecting. To be honest, we have very few clients with statisticians or data analysts on staff. As a vendor, we need to be looking for ways to allow the power to evaluate data in a multitude of ways while making it easy to do so.
On the other hand, some of the responsibility is on the philanthropic sector as well. Grantmakers can be more intentional in figuring out the questions they need to answer; grantseekers can help the process by being more intentional in answering those questions. 
This fall, we launched two new education webinars around The Funder’s Role in Data Collection and Funder-Grantee Relationships: Getting to Impact Together. One of our client speakers gave us an example of how they decided which data to collect from grantees. They used their mission statement and organizational values to create a “scorecard.” The scorecard asks only questions specific to their organizational goals and, therefore, requires them to track only the data that will directly answer those questions. In doing so, they’ve saved their grantees time, themselves time, and they are set up to make better decisions moving forward because they have been clear and intentional from the beginning. 
Communication and Collaboration
We are in an era of incredible connectivity. With 2.34 billion people worldwide on social media, we are more connected than ever. Yet, every time our team discusses how we can improve internally, the word communication is at the forefront. Not that we’re “bad” at communication...it’s just that important.
Similarly, the philanthropic industry is not “bad” at communication. But, finding better ways to communicate is not just about passing information. It’s also about fostering stronger relationships and supporting a culture of collaboration. And technology solutions should help you do this. What can we learn from social media to better connect with others in our community or focus areas? This is an area where Big Data and AI will most likely have an opportunity to make an impact. Using data and history to find people doing similar things and connecting them could have significant impacts on the efficiency of the sector. Too often, we see the philanthropic sector operating in silos. It is exciting to see how we may be able to better connect the sector.
The “communication question” is by no means unique to Foundant or philanthropy. If it wasn’t an ever-perplexing challenge, social media would not have taken off and there would not be entire systems and consulting agencies dedicated to this art. But we can learn from what we are already seeing happen today. 
Each of the above discussion topics has one important thing in common: relationship building. On the surface, it might be difficult to understand how project management, data, or AI are related to relationships (communication and collaboration are a little easier to digest). But when you are able to do those things well, you have already fought half the battle in building stronger relationships.
Every relationship everywhere was built on a mix of communications, decisions, information, and learning (rinse and repeat). When any one of those elements is done poorly, the relationship breaks down. Grantmakers can put systems and processes in place to become more efficient, communicate better, manage and use data more intentionally, make better decisions, and foster creative collaboration. By proxy, grantees can then do their jobs better and create more impact.
Relationship building is the crux of Foundant’s success. Our mission is simple: to maximize the impact of the philanthropic community. We do this through software solutions, yes, but our goal is not to be “just another tech vendor.” Our team strives to always give the best service possible, continually look for ways to improve not just our processes, but those of our clients, and always do the right thing.
Don’t ask, “What can technology do for me?” Instead ask, “How can I leverage technology to do better?” The right solution (for any of your questions) should be an extension of your knowledge, talents, and passion...not a replacement.
Looking for more? Check out Foundant’s social feed or follow (and join!) the conversation on social media using #PhilanthropyExperience!

About the Author

Mark Larimer

Mark Larimer is co-founder of Foundant Technologies. His past careers with Extended Systems and RightNow Technologies gives him the experience to understand technology... his compassion allows him to see how technology can be used to make people's lives easier and the philanthropic sector better and more efficient. During the winter months, Mark can usually be found on the ski hill... when he's not in the office making jokes and finding ways to help our philanthropic clients. Mark is highly involved with the Discovery Ski Education Foundation as a board member, former president, and youth coach. He is also actively involved in Youth Philanthropy Connect and was a driving force behind the recent Youth Giving Project in Bozeman, Montana.

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