Opinion
July 25, 2014

Social Change Requires Foundations to Help Nonprofits Extend Their Digital Reach

History shows that big social change often starts small. From civil rights to the rise of the Tea Party, the seeds of many national movements were planted by small groups of people talking around kitchen tables.

While computer screens and smartphones may have replaced those kitchen tables, it’s still true that small groups of people with big ideas can spark powerful social change. But now more and more of that work can be powered by new tools that offer faster and more affordable ways of connecting with thousands of people with tweets or text messages.

Yet many of the organizations that do vital work on social-change issues like immigration, gender equity, and human rights are so small and financially strapped they struggle to capitalize on the new technology tools that could strengthen their public outreach, marketing, and fundraising. That needs to change fast if these organizations are to reach their potential and reap more donations from individuals so they no longer need to depend so heavily on foundations.

Some nonprofit experts argue that because social-justice advocacy will always involve face-to-face contact—through canvassing, meetups, rallies, and other such efforts—digital competency shouldn’t be a priority. But evidence suggests otherwise.

While technology shouldn’t replace time-proven community-organizing strategies, it can enhance them by giving nonprofits rapid and cost-efficient access to millions of people who want to get involved in some way. The Obama campaign, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Kony 2012 all used video and social media to rivet public attention quickly. United We Dream—the nation’s largest youth-led immigrant organization—successfully used technology and social media to advocate for protections that are allowing many young immigrants to stay in the United States and get work permits.

Today people who want to get involved are coming to advocacy groups in all kinds of ways—by responding to emails passed along from friends or through Facebook posts or mobile alerts on their smartphones. Social-justice groups, in turn, have to be ready to capitalize on those signs of interest, including raising donations that were once largely derived from direct-mail solicitations.

That means understanding that there’s no longer a bright line between individual "donors" and "activists." Now, it’s about building one list that includes everyone who participates in some way with your organization. In short, fundraising can no longer be decoupled from engagement.

Philanthropies have been slow to help social-change groups get the skills and workers they need to make better use of technology, but that is showing signs of change.

Recently a group of grant makers that support efforts to help immigrants and refugees asked Public Interest Projects, a charity that works with hundreds of donors and their grantees on projects involving social-justice issues, to survey small and mid-size social-justice groups across the country to figure out what they need to strengthen their digital footprints and what foundations can do that would make a difference.

The results of this survey were illuminating:

  • Almost all small social-justice nonprofits are experimenting with online giving. They’re also using Facebook, Twitter, and mobile technology but for a variety of purposes so they need help with all approaches, not just one.
  • Nonprofits rely on digital tools more for marketing and communications efforts than for fundraising and were even less likely to use these tools to advance their programs.
  • The top two barriers to using digital tools to raise money and rally supporters are lack of funding and too few staff members. Those trump issues of time constraints and limited knowledge.
  • Half of the groups haven’t been able to afford to hire additional staff members to oversee online activities so they are asking employees to take on digital tasks in addition to existing duties they are already juggling.
  • The staff members most likely to oversee digital activities are executive directors, many of whom are running organizations that are overburdened and understaffed.
  • Four out of five organizations have never received funding to strengthen their ability to raise money or mobilize supporters through digital tools.
  • Nonprofits said that if they did have financial resources for this work, they would use it to hire more workers to oversee digital efforts. They said they would give lower priority to hiring consultants to develop or put in place a digital strategy.

The survey also asked 25 grant makers focused on social-justice causes to weigh in.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly half have already provided money to help nonprofits do more fundraising and outreach efforts online, and 56 percent said they’d consider a future request to give money for that purpose.
  • Asked what would sway them to give, grant makers said they wanted to know that digital strategies would be integrated into the groups’ larger organizing, fundraising, and civic engagement and that the money would help expand a group’s reach. In addition, they wanted to hear that the technology could help strengthen a group’s financial sustainability and reduce its need for continued foundation aid.
  • A key reason foundations don’t make more grants to help nonprofits expand their digital capacity was that they don’t receive enough requests for it.

These findings suggest the smartest ways for foundations to help nonprofits advance their technology reach:

  • Support training sessions, webinars, and customized technology aid for grantees, especially efforts that bring together nonprofits working on similar issues to teach one another.
  • Sponsor "learning circles" that allow groups to share ideas and experiences in digital efforts—both those that worked and those that didn’t.
  • Test innovative digital-fundraising, civic-engagement, and social-change efforts at the state and local levels.
  • Provide small grants for discrete digital-technology projects and upgrades.
  • Identify what works, finance case studies, and distribute this information to nonprofits and foundations.
  • Develop measurements and evaluation systems that groups can use to assess their success in experimenting with digital strategies and tools.
  • Offer scholarships for staff members to attend conferences that focus on how technology can advance social change.

The results of this study underscore how social-change efforts can be more powerful and efficient if foundations offer nonprofits the skills and money they need to fully exploit the power of the digital era. That means foundations must understand that technology is no longer a one-time or stand-alone investment; it’s essential to incorporate it in every aspect of nonprofits’ activities and operations.

Social-justice groups, too, must be ready and willing to embrace technology’s potential to help them achieve their goals, seeing it not just as a tool but also as a larger strategy to integrate throughout the organization.

Foundations that care about changing the world need to think hard about the risk of not providing nonprofits the money and other resources they need to go digital.

Without this financial boost small social-justice groups that already do so much with so little may never see their ability to move big ideas from the kitchen table to the world stage.

Cynthia M. Gibson is an independent consultant who developed and oversaw the national survey for Public Interest Projects. Berta Colón and Michele Lord are co-directors of Public Interest Projects. Geraldine Mannion is director of the U.S. Democracy Program and the Special Opportunities Fund at Carnegie Corporation of New York.