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Ten nonprofit technology predictions for 2019 — a twin-track approach

Posted by  Rob Gethen Smith

Emerging technologies offer a wealth of opportunities to improve social impact and stakeholder engagement, so they all need investigating, but we also need to get the basics right first, writes Rob Gethen Smith, Unit4’s global head of not-for-profit.

For most not-for-profit (NFP) organizations, thinking about investment in emerging digital technologies is a luxury. Many NFPs are still struggling with some basic, hefty challenges in this area: lack of investment, IT obsolescence and the technology leadership void.

That’s without even mentioning the wider sector challenges of declining trust, increasing competition for funding and engagement, alongside heightened regulation. So, even thinking about technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and microservice-architecture-based platforms may seem a step too far.

Like it or not, technology is moving forward, and the Everything as a Service (XaaS) economy holds more opportunities for NFPs than barriers. Many of the wider challenges mentioned above can be overcome with these solutions. And platform maturity has significantly reduced the risk of IT/digital investment.

So, it’s important that we adopt a twin-track approach to technology: get the investment foundation right while experimenting with digital technologies that can make a difference. With this in mind, here are my top 10 technology trends for 2019. This is where I believe digital technology is heading, and how NFP organizations like yours can benefit from it.

1. A more iterative approach to digital

NFPs will stop talking about digital ‘transformation.’ They have to, because ‘transformation’ requires full-scale business model review and redesign for a digital age. This is too big a challenge for most NFP organizations. I prefer to encourage an approach based on digital ‘transition,’ where change is delivered through small-scale digital projects — take one business process, design it to be digital-first, and look at it from a user benefit perspective. If it works and adds value, then you can scale it in the cloud and only pay for what you use.

It’s a far more agile and iterative way to approach the digital agenda, and a far more practical way to dip your toe into the digital-by-design world, rather than having some great, overarching transformation program and everything that goes with that. This means you can complete six-month projects with lower risk and cost (in line with the ‘land and expand’ concept) and put in place a minimal viable product as quickly as possible. In the past you just couldn’t do that. I see more organizations adopting a step-by-step approach to digital transition, mainly because they can, because technology enables it.

2. Technology will increasingly become an enterprise-wide responsibility

Traditionally, NFP organizations have looked at investing in technology at a functional or departmental level, instead of from an organization-wide architecture approach. The result is solutions that don’t join up. Last year, I saw a growing number of positive signs that organizations were beginning to solve problems with technology as a whole organization. Customer relationship management (CRM), ERP, office productivity and collaboration are some examples. And this year I see that trend continuing. Part of the reason for this is the next trend.

3. More ownership and expertise at the top

What I’m seeing is more chief information officers (CIOs) at the leadership table and more enterprise architects within organizations. Larger organizations get this and have been doing it for a long time. For small- and medium-sized organizations this is a challenge, not just as a result of skills and funding shortages, but also culturally.

NFPs hiring CIOs is not new news, but, increasingly the CIO is having a say in how the enterprise is being supported by technology, working in partnership with the CEO, CFO and management team. That is a definite change that’s happened in the last few years, and I see it continuing long into 2019.

4. Platform maturity will revive investment

We’re seeing lot more movement from NFPs in the digital market. This is because today’s platforms mitigate the risk by enabling short-term digital experimentations and long-term future-proofing for NFP organizations. This has led to the rise of platforms as a dominant force in the market, because, if you invest in the right one, it should be able to grow with you.

With a platform, as opposed to a single product, there’s a framework for development that allows you to develop applications with common user interface (UI), common application programming interface (API) and connectivity across a common infrastructure. There’s an ecosystem of components around it that you can pick and choose from, so it’s a more flexible option than investing in a single product that just doesn’t have that extensibility.

In short, it brings about an explosion of possibility; it brings functionality you don’t even know you need yet. Platforms have come of age and this has revived investment; I can only see this getting stronger over the next 12 months.

5. Low/no-code will help localization

There’s a growing need — particularly among international NGOs — for localization. This is combined with the need to put data insight in the hands of end users and empower self-service. Today’s software can support that. Thanks to the low/no-code environment — which enables a non-technical user to develop a new software feature to support their local business or project — you can decentralize and move ownership of programmatic activity to the field. Your staff can tailor the software process by using a simple, visual, drag-and-drop UI toolkit to develop, say, logical workflows unique to your organization locally.

Of course, to avoid fragmentation and anarchy, you need to do this with the common organization-defined framework and business rules. You need to retain just enough control at the center, while allowing freedom at the edge for users to do what they need to do — it’s a tough balancing act.

6. New privacy law fallout increases focus on data governance

We will soon appreciate how GDPR was a blessing in disguise. While legislation has improved how we manage data, emerging technologies have changed how we can manage data — and so our organizations — for good. GDPR has successfully raised the importance of data governance to the board level in most NFP organizations and at the same time highlighted the cost of poor-quality data that we have not been managing properly. In doing so, it has pathed the way for NFPs to take advantage of emerging technologies and capabilities like AI, machine learning and automated process.

The is because the integrated systems — cloud ERP, extensible platforms — needed for rigorous data governance are similar to those which you need to overcome other challenges in the sector. For example, the level of integration needed to achieve robust data governance (a single architecture, one strategy, one set of policies and procedures) also helps your organization deliver a better stakeholder engagement strategy, even if all their stakeholder data is in different places. And if you have a consistent way to collect data from where you’re delivering your mission you can better report on your impact. Data governance is becoming the magic glue that holds everything together.

Now the dust has settled on GDPR and the global data privacy agenda, I expect to see increased focus on data governance as the year progresses.

7. The ongoing metamorphosis of IT

Whilst traditional IT and digital technology continue to converge, there’s still a lag within many NFP organizations, and that’s held the nonprofit sector back. Not just because of the lack of investment, but also because of legacy and culture. They’re having to maintain old systems and they’ve still got the same people with the same attitude maintaining those systems. Both of these elements are stopping digital progress.

But they can’t just throw out their traditional IT technology stack and the people who support it, that’s too hard. And alongside this is an internal conflict regarding appetite and attitude to risk. Traditional IT folk have always managed the risk, while digital folk embrace it. These are just two fundamentally different mindsets. But with the rise of the CIO role in NFPs to make sure everything joins up, we will see a gradual ‘rebranding’ of traditional IT departments as they embrace the digital age. Watch out for more metamorphosis of IT in 2019.

8. Consumer-grade experience will boost fundraising

Changing demographics, declining trust, increasing regulation and public scrutiny have all hampered fundraising methods; for organizations that rely on fundraising from private individuals, it’s increasingly hard to generate funds as traditional methods of fundraising from members of the public have seen an ongoing decline in ROI. Externally, most supporters expect a consumer-grade experience from beginning to end, unless they are already emotionally connected to the cause.

So, boosting engagement by creating the consumer-grade experience for tech-savvy stakeholders and constituents will become the key to survival for many NFPs. Thankfully, the capabilities of digital technology are bringing us closer to that. We’ll see more evidence of this in the coming year, and this next trend continues to be the key to unlock this potential.

9. Digital technology will take us ever closer to the single customer view

Crucially, we still haven’t systemically developed the capability to recognize and value all the ways people interact with NFP organizations — the 360-degree, or single customer, view. We have been talking about this since the phrase CRM was born almost four decades ago.

But, with advances in technology, we may be at the point of beginning to join this up in a far better and reliable way than we’ve ever had in the past. Maybe — just maybe — this year will it will become an achievable dream, because we now have the tools to join this up.

10. Technology will create the space to focus on the mission

As well as helping to engage stakeholders and constituents, digital technology will help organizations like yours attract and retain the best talent. By learning working patterns and automating the manual stuff, AI makes your staff’s work life easier. Merely the act of using a UI designed for people, not robots, makes doing tasks more pleasurable and quicker. All this will help you attract, retain and support talent while helping them create space to perform the value-add tasks that only humans can do — the creative stuff that robots can’t.

Examples that we will see more of this year include using natural language through a digital assistant (like Wanda) or on a mobile timesheet app, rather than filling in a form, whether that’s in the field or the office.

A twin-track approach

Going forward, there needs to be core investment in basic technology foundation building, coupled with a dedicated focus on digital experimentation. NFPs need to get basics right but not put the exciting stuff on hold. So, a twin-track approach is essential if you are going to keep pace in the digital arms race.

Luckily, current capabilities enable digital experimentation. With the growth of the XaaS economy, characterized by lower barriers to entry, increased subscription usage and location independence, we will see more evidence of that this year.

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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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