January 03, 2017

How Tech Donors Could Change the World With $20 Million

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The vast majority of nonprofits struggle with technology, in part because donors consider it "overhead" and won't fund it. Tech moguls like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg could change all that.

Technology is the key to success in our modern world. If you don’t have good tech, you’re a dinosaur on your way to extinction. Everybody understands this — unless you work at a nonprofit.

The problem is this: Nonprofits typically must classify spending on technology as overhead, and the more you spend on overhead (no matter how much it advances your impact), the more the nonprofit-rating industry and many donors will penalize your organization.

Want a fast-track path to a terrible Charity Navigator rating? Invest heavily in your tech.

That’s not the only reason charities struggle with technology. Very few foundations or private donors will fund significant investments in tech.

So while donors — both those who contribute small sums and those who give big — encourage nonprofits to use technology better and are quick to criticize low-quality charity websites, they are the very ones who have created an environment that essentially punishes any nonprofit that wants to improve its use of technology.

Perhaps most frustrating for nonprofit leaders is that we often hear Silicon Valley leaders brag about how many thousands of nonprofits are using their awesome products. The implication is that the software and hardware has been donated, but that’s rarely the case. All but a very select few organizations are paying for the technology themselves. Nonprofits like mine, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are using dollars out of very shallow cash reserves to pay for technology.

Pro bono developer time and resources to build and maintain systems for managing customer relations are about as rare as the nonprofit fantasy of free office space in New York or Los Angeles. And even if we can afford the tech we seek, we probably can’t afford the staff members or consultants essential to running it properly and adapting it to our needs, let alone staying up to date with each iteration of a digital product.

But there is a path toward transforming this situation.

A small number of tech titans who are already altering the philanthropic landscape can change the world even more. We all know the names: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, etc. Nobody is in a better position to forever change the way philanthropy views tech than the visionary tech leaders who successfully made the same case to brick-and-mortar businesses and Wall Street.

What would happen if tech donors joined forces to provide $1 million apiece to charities in 20 cities that can raise just as much from local sources?

Tech leaders could use each of the projects financed in those cities to create a portfolio of case studies that would demonstrate the enormous, lasting impact technology can have on advancing nonprofit missions when donors are willing to pay for it.

At my own organization, we are already demonstrating the value of tech. We show social workers how to use Twitter to persuade veterans who are suicidal to get help. And thanks to social media and our Virtual Veterans Hall, a paralyzed veteran in a rural area who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder never has to feel alone.

Technology helps us change and save lives daily and fight some of the most critical battles on Earth. It can help feed hungry kids, assist the homeless, and deal with myriad other social problems — but only if nonprofits can get the money they need to support it.

Older generations donated trillions to create hospitals, name buildings, establish public parks, and build schools. Today’s  generation of visionary philanthropists can create the modern equivalents by paying for the online versions of these vital social institutions.

In the spirit of the Fords, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, let’s urge the Benioffs, Zuckerbergs, and Parkers to leave behind a lasting legacy that will forever change the way nonprofits operate. But like the transformative businesses they created, that legacy won’t live in concrete and steel. It will live online, and it will truly change the world.

Paul Rieckhoff is chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.