Thanks to the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, even the more Luddite-minded of us are now seriously aware of the central role information technology plays in our lives and work. But as anyone who has struggled to use a spreadsheet instead of a database to manage contacts or other data can tell you, IT was a central issue in the workplace long before COVID-19 came calling. That certainly applies to organizations in the nonprofit world.
Sadly for smaller nonprofits—and the funders who want to see those groups succeed—everything from lack of funding for IT infrastructure to inequities in tech education can effectively hobble their ability to survive, let alone serve their missions.
The Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) is among the organizations working not only to educate foundations about the importance of IT, but also to start changing the demographics of technology leaders in the nonprofit sector. Through its efforts, TAG hopes to empower nonprofits to use technology not only to survive, but to thrive.
We last covered TAG in May in our piece on #FixTheForm, a campaign by TAG, GrantAdvisor, Sutton Trust and PEAK Grantmaking to encourage 100 funders (and other organizations) to make their grant applications accessible on their websites and on GrantAdvisor.org within 100 days. The campaign has attracted some of the field’s largest players, including the Ford, Robert Wood Johnson and Annie E. Casey foundations. As of this post, the movement has exceeded its goal, with 117 forms submitted and made available for download to grantseekers.
Even in this first phase, TAG and its partners have made a lasting change in the grant application process for approximately 3,000 grantmakers, potentially impacting 1 million nonprofit grantees globally.
The second phase of the campaign is about to begin, and will kick off with an August 19 online presentation of the results of its “similarity survey” of grant applications. But making grant applications user-friendly is only the tip of TAG’s work and partnerships.
Taking an ecosystem approach
First incorporated in 2007, TAG has a membership consisting primarily of staff who are responsible for technology at their respective grantmaking organizations, whether that’s a director of IT at a larger funder or an “accidental techie” who had IT responsibilities added to their job description.
TAG’s interests aren’t limited to its immediate membership. “I personally believe in an ecosystem approach to this kind of work,” TAG Executive Director Chantal Forster told IP. The desire to make that ecosystem stronger has led TAG to focus on the technical, accessibility and interpersonal gaps underlying IT challenges. In partnership with organizations like NTEN and TechSoup, TAG is working to shrink gaps between leadership and tech staff. Additionally, TAG wants to close the distance between nonprofits’ actual tech needs and what they have on hand, both in terms of “hard” tech itself and the skills needed to make the best use of it.
Funding for critical tech is “subpar at best”
The pandemic may have underscored the urgency of this work, but the need for solid IT was obvious even before then.
“[Philanthropy’s] mission is mediated through technology and is made or broken through technology,” Forster said. This isn’t just about whether or not an organization can hold a meeting on Zoom instead of in person, or the ability to apply for a grant online. IT also extends to everything from making online payments and e-signing contracts to maintaining the security of beneficiaries’ data—and whether or not funders and grantees can make efficient use of that data.
“The funding for this kind of work is subpar at best, especially on the nonprofit side,” Forster said. The numbers on tech funding back her up. Or rather, the number: According to TAG’s collaborative Roadmap report, “less than 1% of all global giving goes to infrastructure.”
Forster told IP that the lack of IT funding has an impact well beyond the “bare bones” needed for nonprofits to do their work and keep their data secure.
“Let’s say you want to use technology to scale your mission. The dollars are only going to go so far,” Forster said. “It’s technology that will help us scale these dollars to match the need in our society. And so what does it look like to have a strategic plan for the various parts of technology in the organization?” That includes, she went on, not just being able to purchase and maintain necessary technology, but also training staff in a “baseline level” of tech and data literacy.
“If you’re a nonprofit, let’s be honest, it’s really tough to ask a funder for funding for that. And my challenge to funders is, we need to start funding tech and data and data literacy at our nonprofits. It may look like it’s not mission-related, but it’s actually mission-critical.”
The Technology Association of Grantmakers included questions about changes to the way funders are supporting grantees’ tech needs in the survey that led to its bi-annual “State of Philanthropy Tech” report for 2020. Over the past year, TAG has partnered with organizations including NTEN, NetHope and TechSoup to publish a roadmap to guide funders in their own “digital transformation.” TAG has also been exploring how to invest in “skills, tools and capacity” for grantees and nonprofit partners, and issued a further report calling on funders to invest more in grantees’ digital infrastructure.
These efforts were in addition to TAG’s partnership in the #FixTheForm movement. TAG also participated in the development of both the 2022 Emerging Leaders Initiative and replaced its 2021 conference with smaller gatherings across the country to help its members reconnect after a long break due to COVID-19.
Doing right by their grantees’ IT needs
The overall funding situation may be subpar, but Forster said that at least some funders are paying attention—enough to warrant her current research on a white paper about funders who are “doing this right.” Those funders include the Pierce Family Foundation, which provides a security IT assessment, security training and advice to its grantees. And in Minnesota, Forster said, the Northwest Area Foundation opened up its IT help desk during the pandemic so grantees could request assistance while moving their operations online.
Also, as reported recently in IP, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation has announced $4.1 million to “build an inclusive tech workforce.” But that effort isn’t targeted specifically toward building nonprofits’ tech staff and leadership—though McGovern is merging with the Cloudera Foundation to make IT more available to nonprofits.
Building ‘the next generation of IT in philanthropy’
As it encourages funders to provide more money for grantees’ technology needs, TAG is also working to “really change the leadership and build the next generation of IT in philanthropy.” If Forster has her way, that next generation is going to be more diverse than the previous one. The need there is pressing: While some progress has been made since TAG’s 2018 State of Philanthropy Tech report, as of the 2020 report, only 11% of 233 surveyed foundations were providing “targeted development opportunities for diverse employees.” Only 12% were “developing a pipeline of diverse leaders.”
TAG wants to add to that pipeline itself with its Emerging Leaders Initiative, which opens to a diverse, 10-person cohort every year. Each member of the cohort is paired with what Forster called a “highly bespoke” mentor, and is provided with leadership programs throughout their year in the program. First started in 2016, the Emerging Leaders Initiative has worked with 43 people so far.
Forster stressed the importance and the benefits of recruiting and developing a more diverse field of nonprofit IT leadership.
Saying that she has spent her career in IT, Forster told me that “the tech leaders of the past have been a very particular demographic segment. I know what that segment looks like and loved working with them,” she said, but added that a changing society means the face of nonprofit IT leadership needs to change, as well.
“When you have diversity of perspective in those leadership roles, that lived knowledge and experience they’re bringing to that role is different,” she said. That diversity, with the right training and support, results in strategic leaders who can guide funders in “how we think about technology in the [nonprofit] space.”
TAG is accepting applications for the Emerging Leaders program through July 24.