Technology Program Funding: Are We Getting it Right?

"Very often success in ICT in the social sector is characterized by the word efficiency rather than effectiveness. An organization can be effective in its mission without being efficient or efficiently run without being particularly effective in its mission. If we are ever to prove that ICT can be used as a positive force for social change then the implementation and evaluative focus must be targeted to achieving effectiveness - hopefully through greater efficiency, but not as a substitute for it."   (Innovation Funders Network, March 2005)


In the beginning, there was technology, and it was good. Or some thought it was… for the nonprofit community... but they couldn't prove it… Two decades since the introduction of the PC and a decade after the commercialization of the Internet, we are still trying to grapple with explaining how technology is beneficial and demonstrating its social return on investment.


The prevailing practice has been to single out and focus upon technology's benefit to a socially responsible process. Maybe that was necessary when technology was less ubiquitous and the Internet was in its infancy - its impact on society still more conceptual than practical. A decade later however, is promoting technology as an "issue area" really the most effective methodology in demonstrating its benefits when organizations like foundations and nonprofits are designed around vertical missions of health, human rights, legal services, etc... and not the individual processes that make them up?


Should technology be treated as its own issue area, like domestic violence, or rather more like a special kind of capacity support? Keep in mind this article is written by die-hard technologists who believe in technology's benefits, but who wonder if its time to promote and evaluate those benefits differently in order to speed and spread its adoption by the nonprofit sector.


Efficiency versus Effectiveness

Very often success in ICT in the social sector is characterized by the word efficiency rather than effectiveness. An organization can be effective in its mission without being efficient or efficiently run without being particularly effective in its mission. If we are ever to prove that ICT can be used as a positive force for social change then the implementation and evaluative focus must be targeted to achieving effectiveness - hopefully through greater efficiency, but not as a substitute for it.


Process versus Outcomes

Some in the IT field argue that a successful process is just as important as outcomes in evaluating IT and that should be recognized. If an initiative's objective is intentionally designed to facilitate the creation of telecenters or to develop communities through networking technologies without focusing on outcomes that may be true. However, most initiatives supported by the donor and civil society community are designed to have outcomes. To put it more provocatively, what good is it to say 120,000 Iraqi police are trained when they cannot be deployed to effectively carry out duties to improve security in Iraq?


While those who research and implement technology may have a point about outcomes having impact, (e.g. at least a telecenter exists for use, a policeman is trained etc.) this outcome is but a piece of the process. Most donors and NGOs are looking for a vertical solution that gets them from A to B in dealing with an issue area. They are hardly impressed with the individual benefits provided by the processes in the middle.


Evaluating Technology Versus Evaluating Projects Utilizing Technology

Much has been made of developing measurements that prove technology actually has a positive social impact. At a recent SSRC meeting, the Gates Foundation presented a rather interesting and intuitive approach they used to assess a number of their youth programs. Rather than developing unique new program evaluations for initiatives whose core difference was the use of technology in youth initiatives - they used a tried and true evaluation tool already employed to test hundreds of thousands of youth and youth programs in order to assess skills. While the form did not lend itself to focusing on evaluating technology skills per se it did provide for the technology-focused youth programs to be base-lined and evaluated against other programs that did not use technology as a core activity. Here again, the focus is on overall program effectiveness with a secondary interest in breaking out technology's specific impacts.

- Jonathan Peizer -