A busy first week for Unit4’s new head of not-for-profit at NetHope

Posted by  Rob Gethen Smith

As a first-timer at the NetHope Summit, and in his first week at Unit4, Rob Gethen Smith, global head of not-for-profit, talks about the digital ecosystem, skills benchmarking, the XaaS economy and what caused the biggest buzz at this year’s event.

First off, as a first-timer at the NetHope Global Summit I was blown away by the unique and powerful bringing together of like-minded organizations who are committed to delivering social change through technology.

As a former chief information officer (CIO) with 20 years experience in the sector I have not seen this happening on such a scale — nonprofit organizations and tech partners collaborating in such an open and dynamic way, forgetting their differences and all pulling in the same direction.

It was a real eye-opener.

The biggest buzz

This year’s event brought more than 500 delegates together. Alongside all the amazing member organizations and many of our customers, including Save the Children and Heifer International, were the big names like Facebook, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft (who launched their Dynamics 365 Nonprofit Accelerator), all standing on stage and being involved in the conversation to try and achieve the ambitious aims of the not-for-profit (NFP) sector.

Digital transformation: an ecosystem-wide challenge

But, as NetHope CEO, Lauren Woodman, said in her keynote welcome speech, digital transformation for social impact is an ecosystem-wide challenge. This ecosystem of NFPs, tech providers and stakeholders is more than the sum of its parts, and we need this to overcome the challenges: more than one billion people in need, an overwhelming funding gap, reluctance in the sector, even reluctance from the stakeholders in the sector.

I agree, it’s not about one individual organization. And I’d add that it’s not about the CIO or the CEO, it’s an organization-wide challenge, too. It’s about leadership, community and hard work. Indeed, digital transformation is not about the technology, it is about people driving change and leveraging the undisputable power of digital to deliver our missions.

In her speech, Lauren also questioned the concept of setting goals, as they are linear, they’re binary (we either achieve them or not) and therefore they set us up for failure. She asked, instead, if it’s better to focus on implementing the systems required to deliver success, knowing that the thing we’re trying to fix is likely to change.

Her point was that the digital economy is a fast, agile, scaled and connected ecosystem. It’s vastly different from a few decades ago. So we need new skills to thrive in order to help affect change to help people in the hardest-to-reach communities on the planet.

Skills benchmarking

With the launch of The Centre for the Digital Nonprofit last year, and the Digital Skills Framework, NetHope ran a Digital Nonprofit Skills (DNS) assessment with results published in a November white paper

A key finding from the DNS assessment is that highly adaptive and collaborative skills are imperative if organizations are going to keep pace in a rapidly changing digital environment to develop new processes and methods for delivering change.

Alongside this, the survey found that innovative and entrepreneurial skills are lacking in NFPs. This resonates with me because, in a digital world, organizations need to be able to experiment and take risks and have a governance framework that doesn’t just allow this, but encourages it.

But this is a challenge when there is so much scrutiny on being transparent about where every penny is spent. So, it was heartening that this message was so strong at NetHope and being heard and taken onboard by the leadership of the member organizations.

Having worked in this field for a long time I find this particularly interesting and this framework could provide a new and powerful way for all NFPs to benchmark their progress and develop capabilities. It’s important that nonprofits work out how to move from being just tech-enabled to becoming data-driven, connected, automated and ultimately harnessing the power of digital in the delivery of their missions.

XaaS in life and work

The keynote from our chief product officer, Jeremy Roche, at the summit, resonated with these themes. He talked about the rapid evolution of technology, the world of Everything as a Service (XaaS) and how new concepts are changing how we use technology, both personally and at work. These new concepts include the increases in subscription usage and location independence (remote working), lower barriers to entry (to start a business or offering), and the growth of the ‘land and expand’ concept.

Jeremy said: “This is also being driven by the millennial workforce and gig economy, which will affect the way we think about the way we employ people and the way people think about us as potential employers or places they volunteer for.“

He explained the ‘land and expand’ concept: “Instead of trying to do everything all at once, do something, make it a success and move on. Rather than doing a five-year project, start thinking about shorter projects where you get a more instant response from what you invested. Because, at the end of the day, in the XaaS economy, everything is measured by value.”

So, all this requires tech partners to transform how they deliver solutions. It also encourages NGOs, charities and aid agencies to reimagine how they consume technology, which is key if nonprofits are going to develop their digital capabilities.

Accelerating the creation of space

Jeremy’s key message was about using technology to accelerate the creation of space for people to do more work that really matters through the automation of menial tasks. This is our job as tech providers and what we focus on at Unit4.

Jeremy said: “Our mission is to create the space to help you go on to complete your missions. We focus hard on how we can accelerate the creation of this space.”

He explained that, as we build applications of the future, the following techniques can be included: automation of tasks, natural interactions, real-time insight, intelligent recommendations, exception management, sensing problems and prescribing solutions. One example is Wanda, a great illustration of allowing people in the field to have better access to information and resources.

Jeremy added: “I believe the XaaS world will help you be more efficient, it will help you keep your costs under control, but more importantly, it will allow you to create the space to do more work that really matters and better deliver against your mission”.

A busy first week

I joined Unit4 on November 1. Five days later I was at NetHope. So, it’s been a busy first week for me. But I’m so glad it started with NetHope, which is an organization, and a movement, we hope to do a lot more with in the future.

Also from NetHope

Oxfam International’s CIO, Michael Duggan, warned members they “might face an apocalypse by 2030” if they don’t review their business model, embrace digital transformation and choose the right technology to support it. 

Jeroen Figee, Unit4’s not-for-profit global solutions architect, talks about AI, bots, data and the “exciting future” for NFPs as well as the mounting challenges and pressure to choose the right system.

Thanks for reading.

Were you at NetHope this year? If you couldn’t make it, here’s what you missed.

A bit about Rob

Before Unit4, Rob was a partner at charity and membership specialists, Adapta Consulting, where he advised charities and nonprofits on the effective use of information systems. Rob has worked as CIO at Anthony Nolan, Southbank Centre, Tate and Macmillan Cancer Support, and as customer engagement director at Blackbaud, developing business and technology strategies and leading change initiatives. His first role in the nonprofit sector was as head of membership services, and then deputy director of fundraising, at the World Wildlife Fund in the UK. Rob is also a trustee for the international animal welfare charity, SPANA, where he chairs the Fundraising and Communications sub-committee.

Rob Gethen Smith

Rob is a digital technology and business change specialist having worked in the NfP sector for the last 20 years. Prior to Unit4, he was a partner at charity and membership specialists, Adapta Consulting, where he advised charities and non-profits on the effective use of information systems. He is also a trustee for the international animal welfare charity SPANA. Rob has worked as CIO at Anthony Nolan, Southbank Centre, Tate and Macmillan Cancer Support, and as Customer Engagement Director at Blackbaud, developing business and technology strategies and leading change initiatives.

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