How powerful would it be if a nonprofit could use mobile technology to increase the national blood supply?  What if they could leverage mobile data about their users to target requests for universal donors to give blood? What if they could share local blood donation statistics with nearby supporters and donors to increase awareness about giving blood? Currently Music Saves Lives is doing just that. Using mobile technology, Music Saves Lives has helped increase its total blood supply by upwards of 5% and is using mobile data to improve blood type targeting, while increasing its supporter and donor base.

Music Saves Lives is only one example of a broader philanthropic movement towards strategic investment in technology. Technology – and mobile specifically – is one of the largest drivers changing the face of philanthropy today and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Need for Technology Growth

The nonprofit sector has notoriously lagged the for-profit industry in regard to technology. This “nonprofit lag” makes sense for a few reasons:

  • The amount of giving in the U.S. has stayed fairly stagnant at 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP)
  • The prevalent belief has been that nonprofits should be investing in their core mission rather than in general or administrative costs, including technology costs
  • Nonprofits often work with segments of the population that have been excluded from the benefits of technology booms – i.e., Sub-Saharan Africa (Source: Interview with PATH CIO)

Taken together, it becomes apparent why the nonprofit sector has been comparatively slow to build infrastructure technology or develop innovative solutions at the same pace as the rest of the marketplace.

Shrinking the Technology Gap

If you ask nonprofit CIO’s and other professionals, there is a general belief that the technology gap between nonprofits and for-profit has been decreasing in the last five years (based on PwrdBy interviews). Nonprofits are spending more money and resources on technology, more nonprofits are looking into modern technology and there has been more collaboration between technology companies and nonprofits than ever before (Source: Government investment; Microsoft investment; Gates foundation investment).

A major reason for the shrinking of the gap is based on two simple concepts:

  1. The technology industry itself has been moving heavily into the nonprofit-focused space (e.g., Gates Foundation)
  2. Social enterprises are growing and getting funded (e.g., Fundly or Nation Builder)

A great example of this trend is Salesforce.com Foundation (a low cost nonprofit software platform), which was created over a decade ago and now has 20,000+ nonprofit and higher education customers. The Foundation is essentially taking what it offers for-profit businesses and making it more affordable for nonprofits, allowing them to stay stride with technology.

The Importance of Mobile Technology

One major driver of the technology growth in the nonprofit sector is mobile. Mobile technology is becoming increasingly critical to nonprofits because it is cheaper and more accessible than other forms of technology. Think about this: out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to mobile phones (figure includes both data and non-data capable handsets).  To compare, only about 4.5 billion people have access to working toilets. If we think about this on a macro scale, there is a near-future-possibility for organizations to leverage the concept of a $100 computer, which has been shown to increase access to information and education, to allow individuals across the globe to access the internet using $20 or even $5 smartphones.

More phones than Toilets

How Mobile is Changing Nonprofit Technology

For nonprofit thought leaders, this is a huge topic of conversation. We recently spoke with Erik Arnold, the CIO of PATH and current board member for NetHope, about trends in nonprofit technology. Based on our discussion with Erik as well as from our own research, we realized that a few key trends point towards a growth in mobile technology that will change how nonprofits think about technology.

Mobile Growth

These trends are:

  1. Mobile improves inter-connectivity: Internet cables have been laid across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, increasing the speed and connectivity of cross-continental communications. At the same time, mobile is becoming the preferred way to access the Internet for people living in developing countries and remote areas. For instance, in Africa more people have access to a mobile phone than to electricity.
  2. Mobile can facilitate decision-making through use of big data: Mobile offers unique ways to capture and track data that other technologies cannot. For instance, increased access to mobility in developing countries, and the adoption of social networking, enables nonprofits to capture and mine data – like tracking the spread of a disease.
  3. Mobile increases the ability of nonprofits to measure impact: Proving correlative and causal efficacy (i.e., can data show your actions actually impact the affected population) is the mecca of nonprofit technology. Donors are asking increasingly sophisticated questions about the efficacy of their investments, but are not providing funding to nonprofits that allows them to create sophisticated analyses. Use of mobile data enables nonprofits to quickly collect data and pull together information on the efficacy of their work.

These trends points toward a growth in mobile technology because nonprofits can more effectively and efficiently reach donors, supporters and those in need. A great example is the Show Your Hearts campaign, which leveraged a celebrity sponsored text-to-give campaign and raised almost $100,000. This campaign not only leveraged donor support a family in need, but also built a case that Show Your Hearts can use to demonstrate cause leadership. As mobile technology becomes more ubiquitous, campaigns of this size will seem commonplace (source: MobileCause, Mobile giving: Changing the face of modern philanthropy).

Nonprofits still have a Long Way to Go

While we love where current technology and mobile trends are going, the space is still fairly immature. One could say that we are currently in the “infrastructure building” phase of the next generation nonprofit model.  Yet nonprofits are uniquely positioned to apply innovative solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. Today mobile is increasing the national blood supply, but tomorrow it could support the global elimination of malaria.

We are at the dawning of a new era of philanthropy. Imagine what we can do with our hands.

Written by: Jared Sheehan and Chris Brereton

A special thanks to Eric Foertsch for his writing contributions, Erik Arnold for his nonprofit technology vision and Music Saves Lives for innovatively changing the nonprofit space.