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How cloud computing is breaking down barriers for global NGOs

Two programmers working on the computer in an office

Getting up to speed with current digital solutions is now imperative to development. Without them, workflows can be dramatically slowed, and datasets can be lost altogether. For non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with huge amounts of data, any issues that arise with that data present a high stakes problem that can require a long and difficult process to resolve. Many NGOs have already migrated to cloud computing, correctly having identified it as an organizational necessity. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic only served to underline this fact, as staff and external partners needed to be connected in remote settings while sharing information and collaborating on projects from accessible platforms.

However, the ability of cloud computing to break barriers and dramatically optimize communications, both internally and with donors, continues to be overlooked. With the cloud acting as a central repository for NGOs and those who they work with, there no longer need to be physical restraints to information sharing. This allows these organizations to have a more lasting social impact and create needed change by communicating and working in a more efficient and organized manner.

Advancing smart information technology (IT) solutions goes beyond just setting up a process. It’s about changing how organizations understand data in the first place.

Lessons from rapid digital transformation

Digitalization has been on the table for quite some time with NGOs, but the pandemic has massively accelerated its adoption, as organizations have been left with no other option but to adapt. NGOs across the globe rushed to integrate modern information and communication technology, including cloud computing, within each operational layer. In a Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) survey last summer, more than 80 percent of nonprofits said they were digitizing some or all of their programs due to COVID-19.

Yet, this widespread adoption hasn’t gone without challenges. Now that the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us, NGOs should closely assess how successful their digital transformation efforts have been so far and how they can further drive digitalization to its full potential.

Establishing effective data exchange and a centralized cloud hub has been key to successful transformations. Therefore, NGOs should explore which management tools work best for their use case, allowing them to display overviews, manage staff and volunteers, organize donor outreach, share updates in real-time, and coordinate field activities.

Looking inwards by implementing Slack or Google Drive isn’t enough. Tech-savvy leaders need to leverage tools to better communicate with members and donors and identify the best channels to engage them effectively. With a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, NGOs can centralize their data, segment audiences, tailor highly personalized messages (e.g., to promote a cause particularly relevant to a specific donor), and analyze the performance to optimize campaigns.

Last but not least, NGOs can now take the time to evaluate their ability to defend cybersecurity threats. A prompt digital transition is likely to leave some vulnerable spots, and unfortunately, cyber threats against NGOs skyrocketed with COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, 50 percent of nonprofits had reported some sort of hacking attempt or cyber attack against them.

Cloud computing in action

Digitalization inherently transforms how an organization operates, expanding its capacity for action. But apart from raising awareness, mobilizing audiences, and leading successful online campaigns, the cloud brings benefits to on-the-ground activities too.

In a report from Salesforce and the European Fundraising Association (EFA), 53 percent of NGOs said they found new ways to deliver their services during the pandemic, and there’s no doubt that technology has been a major enabler. While some work still must be performed in person—from aid distribution to medical care—digitalization strengthens the impact and resilience of these efforts too. For example, remote work calls have been fundamental in allowing workers to coordinate plans and map out where resources, like protective equipment, should go.

According to Melanie Noden, the CEO of The Hunger Project, technology has empowered their organization through the ability to aggregate data from mobile phones and tablets in the field in real-time. This has allowed The Hunger Project to monitor and evaluate its work so that donors can be informed about progress and local communities can directly communicate their specific needs.

Advancing cultural shifts, step-by-step

Even before COVID-19, the donor community was realizing the transformative value of digitalization. Still, despite growing efforts to bring technology into the spotlight, grantmakers may be reluctant to fund broad infrastructure ambitions. NGOs may find that the best antidote to chronic underinvestment is by demonstrating how radically technologies support their mission on a daily basis.

Still, to do that, NGOs must undergo a significant cultural shift. It’s well-known that many organizations often rely on an “island mentality”—meaning they do as much as they can by themselves. By developing collaborative networks, outsourcing tasks, or bringing more tech-savvy members on board, they can boost their agility and show greater elasticity when adapting to modern challenges.

To advance to this state, NGOs must be transparent about their commitment to digitalization. Through training, open communication, and comprehensive support, teams are more likely to claim ownership of the process and work collaboratively to adapt it to their circumstance. This also allows organizations to leverage their unique talent. For example, by combining the enthusiasm of younger members to adopt new tools with the experience of veteran staff, there will be a greater buy-in from all sides.

With the sudden need for remote solutions, many actors across the development and impact sector took a leap of faith. Now that different innovations have proven their value, it’s time for NGOs to critically revisit their processes and solidify their digital infrastructure to find new ways to approach administration, fundraising, and even delivery.


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