Digital technology is transforming the way not-for-profits deliver their services and interact with funders. The potential for the philanthropic sector is compelling but the technical challenges not-for-profits face are often underestimated. Tech-based not-for-profit Smiling Mind provides an interesting case study for organisations considering digital innovation – as well as the philanthropists who support them.
Smiling Mind was established in 2012 to help children learn mindfulness meditation techniques to foster strong emotional health and build resilience.
Smiling Mind's guided mindfulness modules are accessed via online apps that have been downloaded over 1.7 million times and are used by over 23,000 educators. A corporate fee-for-service model was developed with IBM and in 2016 was rolled out to its 15,000 US employees. Similar programs have been conducted with over 200 organisations, generating revenue to support its core mission.
It's all about reach and scale
Chief Executive Officer Addie Wootten is a clinical psychologist who has previously led a research team on the use of technology to support people with cancer.
"The main point of difference from other NFPs is our model - reach and scale is our priority and we have harnessed the capacity of technology to do this," says Addie.
Reach and scale is our priority and we have harnessed the capacity of technology to do this, says Addie.
"All our programs are delivered through our app in a freely accessible model to ensure that everyone, irrespective of geographic location and financial resources, can access our programs.
"Technology also enables people to access programs like ours without fear of judgement and stigma that is often associated with mental health concerns. It provides a safe place to explore support services – overcoming many of the barriers encountered in this space."
The challenges of technology
Addie says that while technology can be a great enabler it is a mistake to underestimate the challenges it throws up.
"Many people think that technology can be built and then forgotten about – but this isn't true – it requires ongoing evolution to ensure we're constantly meeting the expectations of our community," she says.
Many people think that technology can be built and then forgotten about – but this isn't true, says Addie.
"Some NFPs have seen an opportunity but not realised the challenges. How will it be sustained? This requires staff and infrastructure. You need very clear policies on managing information. At every digital touch point, data is collected. How is this secured and managed? Who can access it and for what purpose? How do you store it and protect it?
"Imagine – every time you update your phone, or even your operating system, this will most likely mean we need to pay developers to update something in our app. This is a costly exercise and often not something non-technology based NFPs expect.
Smiling Mind's mindfulness modules are accessed via online apps
"We look to the commercial world to ensure we're keeping up – we often consult with commercial tech providers and data security experts to ensure we're meeting the standards – so in that way we're really trying to operate like a commercial business."
Addie says there is a growing awareness amongst NFPs of the need to not duplicate everything. "Can you use existing technology, collaborate with others or use available shared platforms?"
According to Addie good governance is crucial and it is important to have the right experience in management and on the board.
"Security of systems and data, having the right legal framework and agreements, plans to maintain and update the technology over the long term. These are major strategic issues.
"Smiling Mind has broad representation at board level including people with strong commercial backgrounds. We have a designated chief technology officer on the board and someone with a strong legal background.”
The opportunity for philanthropists
Addie says that philanthropists should not be afraid of technology but cautions that it needs a clear strategy and is not an end in itself.
"It comes back to what you are trying to achieve. Consider your objectives and the most efficient way to deliver them. If your goal is to support a particular group of people then that often requires person to person contact," says Addie.
"Technology shouldn't drive decisions – it's a facilitator."
"Five or so years ago everyone thought they must have an app. Now there are millions of apps available and millions that are rarely used. Some funders may have been burnt by projects that didn't deliver what was promised."
But Addie says there are great opportunities to support not-for-profit organisations wishing to expand their technology based offerings. The key is to understand the need for additional initial investment for development, as well as the ongoing costs that need to be considered against the long term benefit of the program.
"More and more people can see the value in technology-based programs and are open to supporting programs like ours. Our scale and growth has helped – it's a compelling argument to say we need funding to reach a further one million people."