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NetHope CEO - profitable advice on bridging the non-profit digital skills gap in 2019

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 9, 2019
The organization’s recent Digital Non-profit Skills Assessment report reveals three main areas where non-profits typically fall down on their digital transformation journeys.

Nethope CEO Lauren Woodman
Lauren Woodman

What skills will non-profits need in order to achieve their digital transformation goals for 2019 and beyond?

A good person to answer that question is NetHope CEO Lauren Woodman. NetHope is a US-based consortium of 50-plus global nonprofits, which is working with IT companies and funding partners to identify and deploy technology responses to some of the world’s toughest development, humanitarian and conservation challenges. Its members include Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, WaterAid, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The simple answer, says Woodman, is that while non-profits are typically able to bring a substantial amount of creative problem-solving to the challenge of digital transformation, they often lack skills in three main areas: digital responsibility, adaptive collaboration and entrepreneurial spirit.

Mind the skills gap

Woodman brings a wealth of experience and passion to this topic, having spent her entire career exploring the intersection where technology, development work and policy meet. Before joining NetHope as CEO in 2014, she spent over ten years at Microsoft running global education and government programmes, after working in Washington DC at organizations including the United Nations.

Her thinking on current skills gaps, meanwhile, is informed by NetHope’s recent Digital Non-profit Skills Assessment report, based on a survey of over 300 people from 49 non-profits, representing $20.6 billion of annual aid.

It finds that fewer than a third (31%) of organizations agree to knowing the risks, biases and limitations of data and tools used (digital responsibility); fewer than half (45%) agree that teams working together feel empowered to change direction quickly when necessary (adaptive collaboration); and only one third (33%) agree it is OK to fail when trying something new (entrepreneurial spirit).

On digital responsibility, Woodman says, new skills are needed to protect beneficiaries and their data. Achieving data protection and privacy/security are arguably more difficult for an NGO serving refugee children than for a European bank, and yet nonprofit staff typically have far less training in critical areas such as data security. Says Woodman:

There are all sorts of discussions in the wider world about the ethical use of data, the inherent biases in some algorithms and the integrity of data used to gain insights and measure outcomes. As a sector, non-profits need to be taking part in those discussions and actively embracing the challenge of figuring out answers, so that we can understand the short- and long-term consequences of how we use data and make good choices in future.

Adaptive collaboration, meanwhile, is particularly pertinent for NGOs that frequently find themselves working in extremely demanding, volatile environments. Says Woodman:

“These organizations need to be able to adapt to sudden changes in the situation and be able to pull in the right resources, the right people, the right partners, the right members of the local community. Whatever the case, the ability to adapt on the fly and be agile is really critical for non-profits, but an understanding of and skills in new digital approaches are needed to bring together the experience and resources to solve problems more quickly.

Finally, entrepreneurial spirit is often lacking at NGOs deeply rooted in existing, historically proven ways of doing good, she says. But just as it does in the private sector, digital transformation presents them with countless opportunities to challenge established practices and take calculated risks that could help to scale up results. There are significant cultural barriers, says Woodman, but non-profits need to increase their rate of experimentation:

This notion that it’s OK to fail, to learn from that failure and to continue iterating isn’t really widely accepted in the non-profit sector at all - but the private sector experience of digital transformation should teach us that you may need to try different approaches in order to get a success. Of course there’s a natural and appropriate risk threshold for nonprofits, but in a risk-averse sector, that can be a double-edged sword if it means that, when an experiment doesn’t work, you just go back to tried-and-true methods. It may well be that those tried-and-true methods are holding you back from reaching new beneficiaries, from reaching new communities. Risk aversion can hold us back from having greater impact.

For example, and as the report points out, an emergency response effort that uses a newly developed crisis analytics model might work less effectively during the first implementation or two until the model has been optimized and deeply integrated into workflows. But after that, it could result in a ‘quantum leap’ of impact, but only be learning from the initial failures and making adjustments.

Looking ahead

The Digital Skills Assessment report was produced by NetHope’s Center for the Digital Non-profit, launched in mid-2017 and supported by key technology partners: Microsoft, Okta, Blackbaud, Box, Oracle NetSuite and Avanade.

Woodman hopes that assessing and benchmarking their skills capabilities will become a regular exercise for NetHope’s nonprofit members and, to that end, it has made the Digital Skills Framework on which the report is based available to them:

... to help them identify their own gaps, explore their own upskilling needs and to track their progress at acquiring or developing these skills over time.

After all, as the report puts it, having the right technology is only part of the answer and may even be the easiest element of the ‘people, process, tools’ conundrum - particularly since the tech sector offers deep discounts and sometimes outright donations to non-profits:

[But] it is much harder to make the cultural changes needed to ensure individuals have the time and space to think of new solutions to problems, can try something new without fear of failure, and have the digital skills needed to make good decisions.


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