Aug 26 2021

How Tech Enabled Nonprofits to Deliver Services Despite Social Distancing

When the pandemic forced service providers into remote environments, technology helped them continue to meet their missions.

Then the pandemic forced organizations to suspend in-person operations, many businesses switched quickly to remote work environments. Nonprofit organizations, however, were faced with the additional challenge of finding ways to continue providing the community services they were created to deliver without coming into close contact with their own clients, who often lack access to necessary technology.

North Carolina’s Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain, for example, was tasked with facilitating distance learning for more than 600 children who had been attending physical club locations after school, according to Chase Perez, the organization’s IT director.

“What happened is that we had to close the digital divide,” Perez says. “For all of our members, we had to find the appropriate technology for them to stay connected with school and with us, and still have a meaningful impact.”

Perez says that demand among its members for distance learning prior to the pandemic was low, and as a result, the organization was not well-equipped with endpoint devices. When evaluating options, Perez chose Chromebooks over tablets or traditional laptops, mainly because they had all the features members would need. “They have a keyboard, a mouse, a microphone, camera and screen all in one,” Perez says. “It was everything members needed for work as well as impactful supplementary programs.”

As an IT team of one handling the needs of both staff and students, Perez also needed something that was easy to configure.

“My biggest challenge was to be as efficient with my time as possible. The less I have to touch a device, the more effective I am,” he says. “From an IT perspective, you get a lot of granular control through the Google Admin console, and you can manage all the devices through the cloud.”

Tech Helps Nonprofits Enable Remote Engagement

The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain is hardly alone. Research from NTEN, which helps nonprofits fulfill their missions through technology, found that close to 70 percent of nonprofit organizations invested in technology systems and tools to continue operations as the pandemic took hold.

“At first, we saw a huge push to get Zoom because it was widely promoted for free for nonprofits, but many organizations soon realized they didn’t have a plan for what they needed Zoom for, necessarily,” says Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN. “What’s more important is being able to use technology as a resource, and to think first about how you’re going to use it to engage, to provide services or to change public policy.”

That’s what The Contingent, based in Portland, Ore., is doing with its innovative online portal for connecting community needs with individuals and businesses that can fulfill them. The portal was built in a single day in response to the pandemic.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: How nonprofits should be using automation.

“I woke up in the middle of the night,” on March 19, 2020, recalls Ben Sand, CEO of The Contingent. “The next day, we got five leaders in a room. Within five hours we had built My NeighbOR.”

The Contingent invests in innovative nonprofit ideas that empower leaders of color, mobilize community members, and support young people and families. Built on Microsoft Dynamics 365, My NeighbOR has gone through several iterations to expand its reach and become almost entirely automated.

“Version one was terrible,” says Peter Kim, director of technology, data and evaluation at The Contingent. “It worked, but it required a ton of man hours. Now, we’re running version five at one-tenth the amount of human involvement. That happened over the course of a year.”

Times of Crisis Can Foster Innovation

My NeighbOR was originally designed to match the needs of foster care families with donations from community members. Today, it can be replicated to serve other programs in Oregon, and perhaps even nationwide. My NeighbOR has served thousands of people in the state without direct contact from anyone at The Contingent.

“What’s unique is that it’s a system running on technology, holding inventory information in a customer relationship management tool while also creating communication with constituents,” says Sand. “It feels like a hug with everyone involved, but we don’t have to staff it. It’s a glimpse at how we can mobilize community assets in the future.”

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Kim is considering how the technology solution the team created could work for other organizations down the road.

“I think about the breadth of possibilities for this technology and how it’s transformed our organization,” says Kim. “We have the ability to create a greater impact and reach for the communities we serve. There’s so much power in that.”

For members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain, the learning curve with the Chromebooks was minimal, since they were accustomed to using the devices at school. Staff at the club also created a new virtual engagement team geared toward having a meaningful impact with kids at home when they were not at one of the facilities. Communicating through Chromebooks was part of that program.

“A lot of the kids were able to talk and open up,” says Perez. “They gave us feedback on how to work with them. They needed that outlet.”

Today, Perez is looking forward to a future in which students can pair t­echnology with real-life situations for enriching learning experiences. The club has partnered with North Carolina State University on a computer programming pilot program with Boys & Girls Clubs members. Another pilot will involve filed trips tied to science, technology and math.

“During the pandemic, we tried our best to close the gap with remote learning engagement,” says Perez. “As it becomes safer, we’ll start taking them to places. Members will be able to get their hands dirty and also learn what goes on behind the scenes with technology. We want to give them a full experience, something that they wouldn’t get at school or anywhere else in the community,” Perez continues. “It’s part of our mission to enable kids to have fuller, richer lives.” 

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