What Digital Non-Profits Can Learn From Companies Like Google

Daniel Atwood works with organizations in the social sector to craft meaningful experiences for customers and constituents, and to find innovative product, campaign and messaging ideas in unexpected places.

We live in a world where new digital products are solving problems daily — from managing our finances to remembering the groceries. Often, they’re solving problems we didn’t know we had, like the need to connect several times a day in 140 characters or less. Occasionally, they’re creating new problems (but that’s a topic for another conversation).

What we’re just starting to see, and what is for many the most exciting trend in technology, is the emergence of digital products designed specifically to provide social services at scale. This isn’t a rant about the death of the traditional non-profit, but a birth announcement. Non-profits (and other organizations aimed at making a social impact) are taking new approaches that look less like direct service and more like Google. These aren’t just brochure websites. They’re tools — proprietary, unique and scalable. And this means there’s an increased need for talented digital product managers in the social sector.

Let’s take a quick look at where organizations have been focused for the past several years; we’ll call it Non-profit Digital Engagement 1.0.

In this phase, a handful of tools came to dominate our understanding of how non-profits could engage in the digital space. Specifically, these were tools that enabled people to email Congress, sign a petition, tell-a-friend, send a letter to the editor or make a donation. This toolset focused on two activities: fundraising and advocacy — raising money and making noise. Those activities are important for most organizations, but they represent only a small slice of how non-profits actually aim to create change. And partly as a result, too many organizations were applying the same tools to engage people around wildly different problems.

So, what’s next? In short, less focus on tools that aim to engage more people with causes, and more focus on a new wave of customized digital tools that provide social services at scale to constituents.

Some examples:

  • Kiva: This is an early one, but one worth noting. Kiva created a digital platform to connect small-dollar funders with nascent social entrepreneurs. This let it scale its model in a way that would have been nearly impossible had it not put a significant focus on technology.
  • Brighter Planet: Actually a for-profit company, Brighter Planet is a great example of using digital thinking to find new ways of adding value to social causes. It created the CM1 platform to calculate carbon impact and opened it up with APIs that allow others to plug in and do the same. MasterCard has signed on and will soon be providing carbon impact reports to its corporate clients based on its employees’ travel habits. Brighter Planet has focused on a specific need, and it’s offering a scalable solution for it.
  • Google’s Haiti Person Finder: When an earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Google teamed up with the State Department to rapidly create a tool that let people submit and search for information about missing loved ones. It has since deployed it several times for other disasters, including the 2010 earthquake in Chile and the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.

These examples go beyond the traditional paradigm of raising more money and sending more emails to Congress. They are each providing a real service in a constituent-centric, scalable way that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

A corollary to this promising growth in digital services is that it’s going to require more money invested in work that is traditionally viewed as ‘overhead’ in the non-profit world; namely, the significant staff time, design and development costs associated with creating and maintaining great digital products. Donors will have to think differently about investing in these types of projects. And organizations that hope to undertake them will have to lead the way by educating and inspiring donors in new ways.

For those groups that do want to create and scale digital services like these, the key to success will be putting the right people with the right power in the right positions. There is still a dire need for campaigners and organizers — no question about it. But as often happens in this still-evolving field, we’re seeing a new core role emerge naturally: the digital product manager. Product managers — people who can envision, build and market digital tools that add real value — will play an increasingly critical role. Good product managers thrive on strategic thinking, but are also obsessed with ensuring that the final detail is just right. They care as much about design as about sustainable coding. They are tireless, tenacious and patient.

As many have already noted, we can’t solve all of our problems with technology. But technology has opened up new opportunities for organizations to create scalable, innovative services in the social sector. And we’re just beginning to realize the implications of that shift.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, TommL

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