How smart tech can lend new lease of life to social sector
The relevance of the social sector has intensified in recent times. The pandemic-battling contemporary world is dealing with shortages of all kinds and while scarcities are part of the everyday economic domain, the current scenario has witnessed unprecedented demands and urgencies.
The relevance of the social sector has intensified in recent times. The pandemic-battling contemporary world is dealing with shortages of all kinds and while scarcities are part of the everyday economic domain, the current scenario has witnessed unprecedented demands and urgencies. From basic necessities to medical oxygen, NGOs have repeatedly been crucial in supplying necessary resources to people in need. However, it is time to acknowledge that Indian nonprofits have faced tremendous difficulties during the last two years. From restrictions on movement and a lack of presence on the ground vis-á-vis the communities they are supposed to interact with. Particularly in times of grave distress, logistical difficulties have beset the efficacy of the sector. In India, where the world of nonprofits has its own challenges, smart tech can be the lease of life the sector might necessarily need.
Smart technologies, or advanced digital technologies harnessing artificial intelligence have been of extraordinary utility in recent times. As Harvard Business Review reports, when Covid-19 hit, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international humanitarian group dedicated to providing medical care to people in distress, created an online chatbot to answer common questions about the pandemic. This freed up staff to respond to a huge increase in conversations within their social media community around mental health, anxiety, and other well-being issues. Similarly, at many nonprofits, smart tech is becoming integrated into internal workflows, fundraising, communications, finance operations, and service delivery efforts. Smart tech is currently best used for rote tasks in nonprofit organizations, such as reconciling expense reports and answering the same questions online using a chatbot. The Indian milieu with humongous demand for services can certainly leverage smart tech for expanding reach and effectiveness.
However, some caveats need to be taken care of in this regard. Technology, which has been humanity's most resilient response to the obstacles caused by the pandemic, finds uneven deployment in the social sector. While several nonprofits adapted swiftly to the changes engendered by the viral spread, there were many others that could not. In India, it has not been easy for all nonprofits to come up with digital strategies, connectivities and requisite infrastructure to carry on a new regime of service and interaction.
Three concerns merit analysis here— funding, infrastructure and strategy. Funders have been many, ranging from Walmart to Amazon to other philanthropists. However, funding has to become tactical with the deployment of technology. As Riah Forbes remarks, funders must start by understanding the concerns many nonprofits have about technology. Some may not have a good understanding about where and how technology might add value to their operations, some worry that a new technology platform and the ongoing people and maintenance costs will be expensive. A large outflow is daunting as organizations are increasingly cash-strapped and concerned about their ability to fundraise. These fears are magnified by a funder landscape that still largely favours programmatic funding, as opposed to operational, organizational, or unrestricted grants. Thus, the approach to funding has to be broadened with some grants needed to build capacity in the form of training and skilling and create a suitable infrastructural regime.
Once funding is thought out and streamlined, organizations need to assess how they use technology and what interventions will boost their performance. For instance, if an NGO dealt with provision of necessities through staff connecting with the seekers, it can come up with a hybrid model, where interaction with an employee becomes necessary only in complex cases, and chatbots can receive orders through simple 'yes/no' questions and list of articles needed to be supplied. Such models can be incredibly efficient in the Indian scenario where most organizations deal with a tremendous volume of orders, queries and cases.
On a related note, social impact can also be magnified with the incorporation of smart tech. An article by Allison Fine and Beth Karter notes how use of chatbots to provide support and deliver services to vulnerable populations increased tremendously during the pandemic. For example, the Rentervention chatbot was developed by the legal aid nonprofits in Illinois to help tenants navigate eviction and other housing issues they were experiencing due to Covid-19. It also directs renters to pro bono legal advice. Similar services in India, with regard to counselling, mental health support and legal matters can be indisputably helpful, particularly in times of crisis.
The role of the social sector today is more necessary and significant than ever and smart technology provides nonprofits an avenue to optimize the impact they create. It is an opportunity to mobilize resources better and to powerfully reorient the ways the sector has been working. Through judicious interventions with smart tech, sky is indeed the limit for empowering social change.
(The author is Chief Impact Officer at Recykal Foundation)