Tackling digital inequities isn’t a far-off dream — here are three organizations already doing it

Taking a look at examples of social purpose organizations that are reimagining how they interact with technology to push ahead the sector’s digital transformation

Why It Matters

Many social purpose organizations are walking the same path towards embracing digital tools and practices in their work, but trying to tackle the digital transformation individually unnecessarily duplicates efforts.

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This story is in partnership with Technovate, a multi-sector collaborative formed to address technological and digital needs of the non-profit sector. See our editorial ethics and standards here.

A couple years back, Tim Lockie went to a conference and saw a statistic up on the screen: 90 per cent of non-profits collect data, but only 40 per cent use that data to make decisions. It shocked him deeply. 

“It broke me, it broke my brain, and it broke my business,” says Lockie, who founded Now IT Matters and consulted non-profits on their digital transformation journeys.

Lockie then understood that there’s a deep disconnect within organizations in terms of how they are interacting with the technology they have — and perhaps that’s the reason the sector-wide digital transformation is struggling to accelerate.

Earlier this year, Lockie founded The Human Stack, an organization that helps charities and non-profits implement technology solutions effectively through “human-centred” methods. Similarly, a number of other organizations are taking on leadership roles to find new solutions and frameworks aimed at helping the social impact sector better adapt and embrace digital transformation. 

This kind of widespread change is a collective effort that requires innovation in funding, connecting organizations with the right type of technologies, and teaching them how to best use it. 

Here are some digital leaders working to build a non-profit and charitable sector that understands and uses digital tools to maximize their full potential for their mission.

The Human Stack

While the tech stack refers to the technologies and tools an organization uses to run their applications, there is often very little consideration into how people within these organizations are interacting with these technologies, according to Lockie, who founded The Human Stack. 

All an organization can do with the tech stack is digitally upgrade — what they really need is a place where they can build digital maturity, says Lockie. The Human Stack aims to move organizations, and people working within them, from a mindset that is resistant to technology, into resilience with technology through understanding how different people respond to technology changes.

A problem in the sector currently, Lockie explains, is that often when an organization’s leadership decides to digitally upgrade their systems, one department could be embracing it whole-heartedly, while another has their foot slamming hard on the brake.

“A lot of digital maturity is understanding what will motivate that department to move forward … it’s about trusting the culture of the organization to responsibly adopt ways of approaching technology together that create a cooperation and a culture around it,” says Lockie. “If you just take everybody who’s digitally-resistant and you move them to [being] comfortable, functionally what you’ve done for that organization is you’ve taken their foot off the brake.” 

Otherwise, team members or departments who continue to be resistant to a new technology in their organization (whether it’s because they don’t entirely trust it or they don’t understand it), keep the organization from moving forward and adapting digitally.

The Human Stack team uses a methodology called ‘Digital Guidance’ that works with each department within an organization to build team members’ capacity in interacting with technological tools. 

“Each department will have their own set of tools for that and we don’t really care what they are — what we care about is that the department understands its own digital culture, and feels like they can make progress,” says Lockie. 

TechSoup Canada

TechSoup Canada is a non-profit program of the Centre for Social Innovation that connects other non-profits, charities and social impact organizations with technology and technology services. Through partnerships with companies like Microsoft, Intuit, Adobe and Cisco, TechSoup receives technology donations and provides them to organizations that need it. 

“When organizations actually bring in the right kind of technology, it will automate the things that need to be automated and they’re changing their operational processes to be smarter so they can free up time and actually do better work,” says Jane Zhang, executive director at TechSoup Canada. 

TechSoup has a free online digital assessment tool to help organizations decide what technologies they need, and suggests methods on how their team can acquire those tools and implement them in their work. 

But just as important as connecting organizations with technology, TechSoup also focuses on training and learning opportunities for non-profits and charities to learn how to effectively embed tech into their work. 

There is a difference between getting technology added to your organization and going through a digital transformation, explains Zhang. “Getting a piece of tech means you’re digitizing your work — being a digital organization is implementing strategies to really tie the use of certain tools into your organization,” she says. 

Many non-profits and charities can appear to be digital on paper simply because of the tech tools they have and use within their organizations, according to Zhang. Though these tools can hold data and reports, they haven’t yet turned the data into knowledge which can be applied to the operation of an organization. 

Through holistic technology support, TechSoup is facilitating small changes within organizations, to help them on their journey to digital transformation. 

The Canada Council for the Arts 

The Canada Council for the Arts’ Digital Strategy Fund started in 2017 with a goal to push forward the digital transformation in Canada’s arts and culture sector. The fund surpassed their goal to invest $88.5 million to build the sector’s digital capacity, and managed to invest $96.5 million over the course of five years. 

The digital strategy fund is a great example, even for the social impact sector, on how to encourage organizations to embrace digital transformation, experiment with digital projects, and collaborate cross-sectorally. 

One of the grant recipients was a group of artists led by Rebecca Caines, who decided to use digital tools to engage isolated people by teaching and performing improvised art, such as interactive shows and improvised music. Through workshops, talks, demonstrations, and events across Canada, the group used digital innovation tools to connect artists with audiences. 

Encouraging experimentation was a major achievement for the fund. Nearly all recipients conducted research on – and experimented with – new digital tools and applications; some even created new ones, according to an evaluation report on the fund. 

While many artists and art organizations face precarious working conditions, especially during the pandemic, digital experimentation means having access to specific funds and resources that would support that, outside of their core funding.

“The Digital Strategy Fund provided the necessary financial support to encourage and de-risk experimentation in the digital space,” states the evaluation report. “In addition, many research participants expressed that access to the Digital Strategy Fund during the pandemic’s economic shutdowns allowed them to experiment with (and pivot to) using digital technologies, tools, and applications during that time.” 

The report also states that 90 per cent of recipients surveyed had developed a digital strategy at their organization after finishing their project(s). And all grant recipients integrated digital tools into their work after finishing their projects.