Q&A: How technology is helping nonprofits to survive the COVID crisis

  • Posted on May 12, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes

The world is a strange place today. COVID-19 is affecting every organization in every sector, but among the hardest hit are nonprofits. Yet, despite unprecedented circumstances, their ingenuity and irrepressible spirit is seeing them through. And many nonprofits are leaning on technology to help.

Avanade’s Lise af Ekenstam, Tech for Social Good Program Lead - spoke to Almin Surani, Global Nonprofit Advisor and Former CIO of the Canadian Red Cross, to gather his perspective on how nonprofit organizations are adapting to survive the disruption. Here’s a summary of their chat.

Lise: Hi Almin, hope you’re staying well?

Almin: Lise! Good to speak with you my friend. I’m good thanks, hope you’re healthy too.

Lise: So, we’re speaking about how COVID-19 is impacting nonprofits across the world. The first question I had for you is around how the current disruption is affecting each type of nonprofit differently.

Almin: Well, there’s certainly a set of challenges that are common to nearly every nonprofit organization. Working remotely is the immediate business continuity hurdle that they’ve had to overcome. Along with maintaining the flow of revenue via fundraising (much of which used to be in person) so managing this virtually is a conundrum that almost every nonprofit organization will need to face too.

But it’s also true that clusters of nonprofits are being affected differently. Those that are servicing individuals (for example Make-A-Wish Foundation and other charities that make a difference on the ground), have largely been forced to shut down temporarily. And that means their operations and fundraising stops.

Of course, there are those that can’t simply suspend operations. Think about the likes of Red Cross and IRC – the epitome of the frontline. They must continue to support and manage huge programs such as refugee camps and field hospitals. And they face the very real and extremely concerning prospect of the virus hitting these camps, where social distancing is not an option.

Domestically, many charities are supporting health systems. Here, they’re facing difficult choices in terms of where they direct their attention. Do they deploy a field hospital to support testing, set up more shelters for people who may not be able to find a home in which to isolate, repatriate people returning from abroad, or build systems to support the elderly? The demand is endless.

In short, there are some universal challenges, but every organization is unique and will be feeling the impact of COVID differently.

Lise: Do you think nonprofits are harnessing technology effectively to cope with COVID-19?

Almin: That depends on where they are in their digital transformation journey. Some have adjusted more swiftly because they already had the foundations in place. One nonprofit told us that as recently as a year ago (before they had implemented Dynamics 365) it wouldn’t have been so easy. But, after embracing this modern business application platform, they’ve now been able to go remote in less than 48 hrs.

Others are struggling to operate and collaborate in this new world. Without the same funding for technology as their private sector peers, many nonprofits are using outdated collaboration tools. These legacy platforms might enable basic communication, but they don’t empower true remote working. And, much earlier on in their cloud journey, they can’t rely on secure cloud-based platforms either. So, the question becomes, how can they harness tech to support their response? And how can they do that securely, without opening up their organization to cyber threats or other security vulnerabilities?

Many commercial organizations are stepping up to fill the gap. For example, Microsoft is offering its secure modern workplace platform Teams for free right now – and they’re prioritizing first responders. Secure collaboration tools like Teams can help organizations to remain connected and even serve beneficiaries remotely, while preventing intrusions and protecting data. We’re working with nonprofits to provide adoption and advisory support, helping them get the best from Teams.

Lise: In our recently published nonprofit POV, we explored a range of digital transformation pathways. When it comes to the COVID response, do you think that one of these routes is more appropriate than others?

Almin: Our POV features four pathways identified by the MIT CISR, which ultimately articulate the need to balance customer experience and operational efficiency. Pathway 1 focuses mostly on operational efficiency. Pathway 2 directs immediate attention towards improving the customer experience. Pathway 3 takes small steps in each direction, alternating between these priorities. Finally, pathway 4 sees an entirely new digital organization built, with links back to the parent organization.

During disasters, it’s hard to maintain a strategic focus. While it might be tempting to lurch for an immediate or short-term solution, this isn’t always sustainable and it’s difficult to understand the true long-term cost and effectiveness of a pathway when it depends on a culture of heroics.

Nonprofits need to consider their particular situation, programs and maturity level to find the right pathway. And the most appropriate approach may involve a blend of different pathways.

Lise: What resources can we recommend for nonprofits to find advice, support and guidance?

Almin: We’ve already referred to our new POV, which provides a range of insights and practical steps nonprofits can take. Microsoft’s blogs have loads of really helpful recommendations – check out this blog with security advice for CIOs, which is just one great example. And we’re supporting our clients with remote working best practices – including a number of remote working resources, tailored for nonprofits, which you can find on our nonprofit sector pages.

We also hosted a webinar on virtual fundraising – Know your supporters: a conversation around virtual fundraising – on 29 April. We were joined by some fabulous guest speakers from NetHope and Unicef Netherlands. You can watch the replay here.

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