Q&A – How Technology Can Help Your Charity Do More Good

How To | May 19, 2015

In a recent opinion piece, Chimp CEO’s John Bromley urged charities stop being intimidated by technology.

But implementing new technology can seem daunting, especially if you’re a small organization strapped for time and resources.

Meet Elijah van der Giessen


Eli was part of the production team for the Edmonton Folk Festival for 7 years; then spent 6 years at the David Suzuki Foundation working in volunteer management, public outreach and leading the online campaign and creative services team.

Currently he’s the NetSquared Community Manager, and holds over 450 events per year in about 20 countries. For the last 5 years he has run NetSquared Vancouver’s events as a volunteer. These are nearly free meetups that bring the nonprofit and tech sectors together for workshops and seminars.

So we went to someone who has successfully married his nonprofit career with the purposeful use of technology, for tips on how tech can help charities do more good.

Over the last decade, Elijah van der Giessen has been a volunteer manager, event organizer, digital campaigner and a community manager. In his current role with NetSquared, he supports a global volunteer network of 50 monthly meetups for the nonprofit technology sector.

Q: Why is it important for charities to adopt technological solutions and be online?

A: Charities need to be online because that’s where their members, supporters and donors are. If you aren’t engaging with your community and meeting them in the venues where they conduct their life, then you’re going to lose them to the charities that are adapting.

Plus, working online allows you to do things that weren’t previously possible because of the limitations of offline interactions. Working online allows you to crowdsource your research, work more efficiently with volunteers, more accurately measure your effectiveness and scale your work to serve more people.

Q: What are the top three ways charities can use technology to amplify their charitable impact?

  1. Let your supporters do the work for you – Our work is hard! But people want to help us, if we’ll let them. Technology can enable our supporters to contribute to the mission in everything from promotion and marketing (re-tweets, sharing petitions, etc.) to program delivery (remote volunteering) to fundraising (peer giving campaigns). But only if we invest in setting up the systems to make it painless for people to give their time and skills.
  2. Show the impact of your work – Before the internet, an annual report was our only opportunity to tell the story of our organization. But now that communication is relatively cheap and easy, there are many more ways to demonstrate the positive change you’re creating. Instead of bundling your impact story into one big annual package, break it into small stories shared on an ongoing basis. Share photos of the people you’re serving. Ask your program staff to start recording one-minute donor thank-you videos. Once you’re feeling more ambitious you can even starting showing your impact in real time with a live interactive dashboard – that transparency will build trust really fast!
  3. Make your organization immortal – One day you’ll get hit by a bus. Or, for the optimists out there, you’ll win the lottery. Either way, eventually you won’t be working at your current job. But if you invest in a CRM (Constituent Relationship Management) database you’ll still have a record of your interactions with your members and supporters years later. If you’re a bigger organization, your fundraisers probably already have a database – they know the value of relationship history. But when the rest of the organization starts using the database you can ask questions like “who has given over $1,000 last year, volunteered at least twice, and signed the last petition.” Isn’t that someone worthy of a bigger time investment?

Q: How much effort should charities invest in learning about and trying new technologies?

A: Let’s not fetishize technology – it’s there to serve the cause, not just be fancy and shiny. I suggest that charities take a dual track approach. Invest deeply in a core set of technology that enables you to more effectively achieve your mission (which will vary by organization, depending on your work) but also commit to always running quick, low-cost experiments with new technology. Put a time limit on your experiment and set success measures to allow you to evaluate whether it was a good use of your time. New tactics are bubbling up constantly and it’s hard to know what will work without small, regular experiments.

Q: What are the main impediments to charities adopting technological solutions, and how can they overcome them?

A: Culture culture culture! When a project fails it’s usually not about money, but rather that staff didn’t adopt the new approach because they weren’t adequately included in the development of the proposed solution. So go slow, talk to everyone, and always pilot any new technology extensively before rolling it out. Then, when you fail, try again!

Q: What’s your #1 piece of advice for charities that want to build an online community?

A: Community doesn’t happen by accident. Like all good things it takes strategy and hard work. Before you touch any technology, the first step is to bring together your organization and build your engagement pyramid. Be very clear about the many ways you’re interacting with your members and your desired interactions and outcomes.

Q: Can you think of a charity that has really impressed you with its use of technology?

A: I love the work being done by Her Zimbabwe. It provides blogging and digital security training to women in Zimbabwe who have traditionally been denied a voice. This isn’t a shiny new technology – blogging has been around for more than a decade – but Her Zimbabwe is giving a silenced section of society the opportunity to tell their stories and find strength in shared experience.

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