NGO Digitalization for Enhanced Impact Scaling

In my capacity as the Digital Transformation Manager at Mentis digital, I have the privilege of engaging with numerous NGOs. Many of these NGOs are local, community-oriented organizations that are making a significant difference within their immediate areas. Despite their impactful work, many of these organizations have limited experience in utilizing digital tools to enhance their program implementation, especially at the community level.

When we examine the statistics concerning NGOs in Africa, specifically in our region, it becomes evident that only 20% are utilizing project management software, and merely 30% have adopted some form of CRM solution. While this might not be surprising given the resource constraints smaller NGOs often face in fulfilling their funding commitments, it’s important to recognize that avoiding digital integration could pose risks to their sustainability.

Sustaining Relevance and Attractiveness to Funders

The pursuit of consistent funding sources remains an ongoing concern for NGOs, regardless of their size. Organizations are perpetually seeking ways to set themselves apart and demonstrate their value to funders. Year after year, we are witnessing a growing influx of funding for projects focused on Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) and Health, with major funders and stakeholders incorporating digital interventions as central components of their health and development strategies.

In 2019, the Rockefeller Foundation committed $100 million to ‘precision public health,’ utilizing data science to potentially save six million lives by 2030. USAID launched its inaugural Digital Strategy in 2020, promising transformative change in its operations. In early 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) unveiled its ‘Global Strategy on Digital Health.‘ These initiatives underscore the increasing importance of digital capabilities; organizations lacking experience and capacity in executing digitally-enabled projects risk missing out on these expanding funding opportunities.

Quantifying Impact

Integration of digital tools significantly simplifies and enhances monitoring and evaluation processes. A 2020 report by the Rockefeller Foundation on the utilization of digital tools in program evaluation emphasizes that technology enables studies to be conducted “more efficiently and cost-effectively, while advancing our understanding of complex social issues.” Real-time program monitoring is now feasible with digital dashboards, offering immediate insights. Depending on the implementation of digital systems, much of the data can be gathered passively, reducing reporting burdens on staff and improving data accuracy.

We recently implemented this firsthand for a client at Mentis Digital. Through an “offline-first” mobile platform used by field agents, health and demographic data are collected from beneficiaries and seamlessly synchronized with the cloud when internet connectivity is available. Program administrators and authorized partners can access aggregated data via web-based dashboards, providing sortable and filterable insights that offer comprehensive operational details. These insights would be unattainable without our digital framework.

Engaging Beneficiaries

Embracing digital technologies opens new avenues for community-oriented NGOs involved in frontline service delivery. Particularly in the context of the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 to in-person services, digital solutions can bridge gaps through channels like SMS, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms. Even in rural areas, populations are increasingly expecting access to information and services through digital channels, driven by the rapid expansion of internet connectivity. For instance, in India, rural internet users surpassed urban users for the first time in 2020. NGOs must formulate a digital strategy to ensure their continued consumer-centricity and relevance to their beneficiaries.

Practical Steps for Digitizing Your NGO

The prospect of transitioning to digital platforms might appear daunting for smaller non-digital organizations, with concerns about costs for devices and staff training versus anticipated efficiency gains. However, this transformation need not be overwhelming or resource-intensive. At Mentis, we collaborate with NGOs to digitize their organizations, and based on our experience, I recommend three practical steps:

  1. Define the Role of Digital in Achieving Organizational Objectives

While the importance of adopting digital tools might be clear, it’s crucial to precisely articulate the goals and gain organizational alignment on the transition’s objectives. Whether the aim is to streamline data collection or establish new engagement channels with beneficiaries, these reasons need explicit clarification. Equally important is involving staff members to ensure the transition isn’t perceived as a top-down decision. Our early interactions with NGOs taught us the significance of engaging partners to define their digital strategy objectives comprehensively, enhancing our collaborative efforts.

  1. Digitize Tools and Workflows

Selecting appropriate tools tailored to your organization’s context is paramount. Consider technical aspects like hardware and network capabilities, along with end users’ tech literacy. At Mentis Digital, many community agents use smartphones with older Android OS versions, and mobile internet connectivity can be inconsistent. Therefore, we designed our phone app to be compatible with Android 6+ and optimized for offline use. The app features a user-friendly interface accessible to individuals of varying abilities. Additionally, explore cost-effective options like free software, such as KoboToolbox, a digital data collection tool that has benefited millions globally.

  1. Foster Digital Skills and Mindsets

The journey of digitizing an organization is an evolving process, not an immediate transformation. Challenges may arise despite meticulous planning. Initiate with a limited-scale pilot project and remain adaptable. Establish a comprehensive program for socialization and skill development within your teams. Create feedback mechanisms involving all stakeholders to refine the technology’s functionality. To guide these efforts, familiarize yourself with the Principles for Digital Development, a framework promoting best practices in digitally-enabled impact work.

Instead of relying solely on classroom training, prioritize continuous learning support for your teams. Combine group learning sessions with mobile resources to aid frontline use of digital tools. Overcoming reservations among less digitally experienced team members may require leadership’s role modeling and encouragement of technology adoption.

As the world rapidly embraces digitization, NGOs must keep pace with change. Don’t fall behind; utilize these practical steps as a roadmap to expedite your journey toward digitization. Embrace digital strategies to amplify your NGO’s impact today and in the future.