Jun 15 2022

To Meet Their Missions, Nonprofits Work to Equip Stakeholders With Tech

Service-based organizations rely on staff, volunteers and others to achieve their goals. That means finding ways to get them access to technology.

Healthcare organizations in Vermont needed help implementing telehealth services even before the COVID-19 pandemic made those services critical. The Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care, a nonprofit organization chartered by the state’s legislature, was on the case.

“Pre-pandemic, we had some state funding to facilitate a statewide telehealth workgroup and were proceeding at what I’d call a normal pace,” says Catherine Fulton, VPQHC’s executive director. “Then March 2020 happened, and we were off to the races. Patients were starting to deal with health emergencies as COVID was emerging, and something we kept hearing from providers was that they could maintain continuity of care only if their patients had mobile devices.”

As with many organizations, the pandemic fast-tracked digital transformation efforts in Vermont’s healthcare system. Overnight, it seemed, getting technology into the hands of people who needed it became VPQHC’s focus, and the group was able to quickly acquire and distribute more than 1,000 iPad devices across the state through its Connectivity Care Packages Program.

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“We asked for $800,000 in coronavirus relief funding and immediately conducted a needs survey,” Fulton says. At first, the organization thought providers would require digital health devices, such as blood pressure monitors and pediatric otoscopes. But after more than 4,000 responses in 10 days, the need was clear: Providers wanted computing devices for their now-distanced patients.

“I thought, ‘My gosh, I should have asked for twice the money,’” Fulton says.

Providing Devices for the Masses

In important ways, nonprofits are different from other enterprises that have embraced technology in recent years. Securing reliable funding is a big part of a nonprofit’s job, as is dealing with tight budgets, supporting volunteers and staff, and pursuing a public mission in challenging times. When it comes to digital transformation and using technology to support those missions, nonprofits are sometimes at a disadvantage.

By some estimates, only a quarter of nonprofits have a defined strategy for achieving digital transformation, and just half of those have the resources to implement their strategy. One of the biggest challenges is actually using the technology, not acquiring it, says Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, a technology capacity-building nonprofit.

“When thinking about technology investment and digital transformation for nonprofits, the budget for a product is sometimes easier to make available than the true cost of technology success,” Sample Ward says. “It doesn't matter if an organization has the funding necessary to purchase the newest platform if the staff that will use it doesn’t have the time to support a successful implementation, or the skills necessary to use it in ways that add equivalent value to them or the mission.”

Many nonprofits partner with technology service providers to help optimize the tech they’re using and streamline its deployment.

Bonnie Collins
We had to work quickly to get technology to people who needed it.”

Bonnie Collins Program Coordinator, Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care

In the second half of 2020, when organizations of all kinds — nonprofits, schools, businesses, government agencies — were scrambling for technology solutions, VPQHC partnered with CDW. “We had to work quickly to get technology to people who needed it,” explains Bonnie Collins, the nonprofit’s program coordinator.

Ultimately, VPQHC acquired 1,325 iPads and 550 TP-Link RE450 Wi-Fi range extenders to help serve vulnerable, low-income or underserved patients in the state. The extenders were necessary for providers that needed greater wireless coverage at their facilities.

Nearly 60 healthcare providers in Vermont have taken advantage of the program, using the iPads to deliver telehealth to more than 7,000 residents, according to Collins. Providers such as Support and Services at Home, which received 270 iPads through the program, have created “lending libraries” at their locations, from which patients can check out iPads and receive telehealth services. Others have simply given devices to patients who need them.

“It really caught on,” says Collins. “I got a call from a small independent mental healthcare provider, for example, with eight patients. If we could get them eight iPads, they’d be able to keep helping their patients. Each organization came up with its own implementation program.”

Going forward, VPQHC plans to use newly allocated funds to expand the program, targeting areas of the state that so far haven’t taken advantage. “With the public health emergency behind us for now, we can take a more calibrated approach to addressing the state’s telehealth needs,” says Fulton. “That’s exciting work.”

READ MORE: Find out why digital transformation must accelerate to meet customer expectations.

Enabling People With the Power of Tech

Virtually anyone can take advantage of 1000 Eyes on the Water, a smartphone app available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play. It’s offered by Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the waterways of South Florida, and was created to support community-based pollution detection and reporting.

The app was developed by a group of technologist volunteers with CDW, who worked with Miami Waterkeeper leadership on the application’s requirements and specifications, ultimately creating a detailed work plan that both sides agreed to. The app interfaces with software for customizing Google Forms, making it easy for volunteers to report on water quality issues in the Miami area.

“We designed the app so that if they wanted to change anything, they’d just have to change it once in Google Forms and it would automatically be reflected across all app platforms,” says Yoel de la Noval, a senior software designer with CDW.

“The overall 1000 Eyes program started with in-person training so volunteers would know what to look for and what to report through email or social media,” says Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper’s executive director. The goal was to attract 500 volunteers (thus 1000 Eyes), but the program has exceeded that number. “We realized an app would be a good way to accomplish the same goal.”

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The 1000 Eyes on the Water app launched at the end of 2020 and has resulted in hundreds of pollution reports from the community. It includes information and images of common issues, such as algae blooms, fish kills and boat discharge, so users know what to look for. It then guides them through a reporting form and allows them to upload pictures or video.

“Different reports need to be handled differently,” Silverstein says. “For example, oil spills need to be reported to the Coast Guard.”

Miami Waterkeeper acts as the middleman, taking reports submitted through the app and contacting the right parties. Not every volunteer report requires action, says Collin Schladweiler, a former program manager with the nonprofit, but about 20 percent have resulted in regulatory agency action or government citation.

“Actual laws have been passed because of this framework of having citizens report pollution,” he says. “It’s important to showcase how people's observations, participation, and responsibility over their waterways has a real impact. Through technology, more people are getting involved every month.”

Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care

When the pandemic began, the Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care focused on equipping people in need with tech, say Executive Director Catherine Fulton and Program Coordinator Bonnie Collins.

Nonprofits Offer Opportunities for Digital Altruism

For other nonprofits, the tech tools of greatest need are software. Replate, an organization in the San Francisco Bay area, rescues surplus food from companies, caterers, restaurants and others, and delivers it to community organizations and food banks that serve people experiencing food insecurity. After the nonprofit launched in 2016, it began working with several Silicon Valley companies that wanted to donate excess food. And because many were tech companies, Replate’s founders decided they had to operate like them, which meant using digital tools from the outset.

“We started with simple Google forms, but that quickly changed,” explains Replate COO Katie Marchini.

Today, Replate hosts its own internally developed dashboard application on Amazon Web Services for matching donors, “rescuers” (Replate workers who pick up donated food) and recipient community groups. The nonprofit attracted financial support from Cisco, among others, and has also received software development know-how through the Cisco AI for Good program.

“They did amazing work helping us with our platform’s matching algorithm, which uses machine learning to figure out how much food surplus might be available where and when,” Marchini says.

The Replate dashboard was designed to be responsive, so participants can monitor their donation activity on mobile devices. A Software as a Service version is also in the works, says Marchini, so that other food rescue organizations can take advantage of the tools Replate has developed.

Illustration by LJ Davids

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