Digital divide

Nonprofits face challenges embracing technology.

By Todd Cohen

While many nonprofits have plugged into the digital world, many others remain stuck on the technology-poor side of the digital divide, unable or unwilling to make the most productive use of technology or keep pace with rapid advances in its applications.

“Obviously, there’s been a lot of progress,” says Daniel Ben-Horin, founder and president of CompuMentor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that distributes donated technology to nonprofits through its TechSoup Stock program.

Yet in their use of technology, he says, nonprofits still seem to be “running in place, running really hard and still staying behind the curve, which still stays ahead of nonprofits.”

Tim Mills-Groninger, associate director of the IT Resource Center, a nonprofit in Chicago that provides technology assistance to local nonprofits, says nonprofits still are not taking full advantage of technology.

“As it becomes more transparent and ubiquitous,” he says, “there’s less awareness about using it well.”

Nonprofits also need to learn to better share information, both inside and outside their organizations, he says.

Reinforcing the hoarding of data, he says, are funders that act like “jealous gods” in providing nonprofits with software to track the impact of grants but barring them from sharing that data with other organizations.

The challenge for nonprofits, experts say, is to bridge the gap between the promise of technology and their ability to put it to the most productive use to carry out their social mission.

“Now technology is considered part of overall capacity-building,” says Emy Tseng, managing director of the Innovation Funders Network and senior policy adviser at the San Francisco-based Community Technology Foundation of California.

And at some organizations, she says, the use of technology actually has moved “beyond capacity,” with nonprofits looking for ways to use it to improve not only their operations but also their effectiveness and impact.

Yet while many nonprofits are using technology more effectively, many of their clients still lack access to technology, says Ben-Horin.

“If you’re a nonprofit and increasingly providing services that area technologically-aided, abetted and delivered,” he says, “if people who use your services can’t use the web, you haven’t accomplished much.”

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