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Creating space within a new digital world at NetHope

Posted by  Unit4 Communications

The Unit4 team will be joining this year’s NetHope Summit to spread the message of how technology can create space for staff to do work that really matters. We caught up with Jeroen Figee, Unit4’s global solutions architect for not-for-profit, to ask about the struggles facing the sector and the exciting solutions in use and on the horizon.

Jeroen Figee is excited. Not about giving the presentation at NetHope Global Summit 2018 in Dublin — that’s the job of chief product officer, Jeremy Roche. Jeroen is excited about solving the problems of not-for-profits (NFPs) by leveraging technology to help them make the biggest impact for the communities that need it most.

Digital transformation in not-for-profits

“Unlike other events which are sales-driven and run by commercial organizations, NetHope is a population coming together to share best-practice,” he says. “We hear what challenges NFPs are struggling with, then take them away to build the answers to them into our software solutions. For solutions architects, that’s an exciting challenge.”

This year’s summit (November 5-9) is called: Digital Transformation: It’s in Our DNA! Jeroen is particularly interested in the event’s talking points around emerging technologies, data and security.

Data, security and emerging technologies

“Within the topic of data security and audit trail, cloud solutions and online collaboration are important, since there are so many stakeholders in the full audit trail from donors, member associations and international project offices, to local partners, agencies and, finally, the beneficiaries.

 “Emerging technologies such as blockchain might be interesting to track the full transaction trail of donor funding from donor to beneficiary, too, as it allows not-for-profits to track the transaction in a fail-safe way, giving each a ‘license plate number’ or unique digital identifier. The blockchain is non-corruptible, no-one owns it, there’s no middle man; it’s always objective. For the audit trail we think it has lots of potential.

“We are not a blockchain provider, let’s make that clear. We are just investigating it to see whether we can apply this technology in NFP-specific business scenarios, which is the audit trail requirement.

“We are lucky in Unit4 as we are already leveraging our multi-dimensional accounting structure for this, which allows non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities and other not-for-profits to link every transaction and expense to individual projects and the associated source of funding. But blockchain could add an extra layer of security, traceability and transparency.”

AI and chatbots — the not-for-profit future

Advances in technologies — like chatbots or digital assistants (DAs), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) — are allowing NGOs and charities to create space for their staff, adding value by creating impact reporting and finding out where the money is poorly spent.

“People in the field are not always IT-savvy; they don’t want to go into a form to answer 30 questions. If, instead a nurse in the field can use conversational language with a DA/chatbot it will save time and allow them to do the work they were trained for.”

Jeroen also talks about Wanda, Unit4’s digital assistant that helps entering administrative tasks, such as expenses, purchase requests and timesheets based on natural language, by texting with her in different messengers, such as Skype, Slack or Teams. “This allows non-IT-savvy staff to pursue their activities in an easy, intuitive way, by talking instead of filling out forms,” he says.

Jeroen admits that AI cannot replace a full enterprise resource planning (ERP) system but if it can help “create space for NFP staff to do work that matters” by learning, predicting and automating manual tasks, “that has to be good for everyone, most importantly the end recipients”. One of the things Unit4 is developing is augmented invoice capture, which does just that.

“Exciting future“

In this July 2018 blog, Chris Brewer (Unit4’s not-for-profit global lead) talks about the future AI can create for not-for-profits; he believes NGOs and other NFPs have an “exciting future.”

Jeroen agrees: “Technology allows not-for-profits to work more efficiently by reducing the amount of time staff need to spend on administration, but it should also reduce administration in the field, too.

“Like time entry, which nobody enjoys. If bots, AI and ML can help you predict your next timesheet, for example, that helps you reduce work on mundane tasks, taking back time for staff to do what they signed up for.

Mounting challenges

But he’s all too aware that NGOs and charities are under continuous pressure to be transparent, accountable and compliant, while keeping overheads as low as possible, due to the perception by donors that every dollar of funding should go to their programs to achieve the most impact.

“Not-for-profits need to track and report impact according to increasingly demanding donor requirements. Monitoring and evaluation of the impact they make is getting more and more important, since donors want to be followed up about the results they’ve made with their money.”

And now, says Jeroen, NFPs have a new challenge — the habits of the next generation of donors and the donation platforms that act like brokers.

“The next-generation donors (younger people) tend not to support an organization, but donate rather to specific good causes and programs. And they want to donate straight form their phone. So NFPs need to find a way to open up their initiatives to the community to get the donations, but also to report back how they have spent the money.”

Pressure to choose ‘the right system’

To cope with the complex requirements of the sector and the need to adapt quickly to change, there’s increasing pressure on NFPs to have ‘the right technology platform,’ says Jeroen.

“As the world gets more IT-savvy, not-for-profits have to pick the right software. There is free software, aged software, and generic solutions originally designed for manufacturing, but these all create fragmented architecture and necessitate expensive, endless customizations and add-ons.

“Also, none of these suit, say, an emergency aid organization trying to vaccinate 1,000 people, an NGO committed to educating struggling communities or a charity providing individual families with livestock and training.

“Finally, IT investment also represents a contradiction for NFPs — they need software systems and technology to be compliant with the donors’ requirements, but at the same time they can’t spend too much on indirect costs, which includes IT solution costs.

“That is one reason why not-for-profits are struggling — it is hard to find the right provider. As solution architects, we understand all this and translate it into software that’s specific to the sector’s challenges.”

Creating space

“Unit4 provides software for people-centric, service-oriented organizations such as NFPs. It is people that make the difference — the nurses in the field, the coordinators running programs, the drivers on a project. So, we leverage technology to ensure our clients can create space for staff to spend more time on work that makes an impact in the world.”

Unit4 Communications