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Utilising Technology for Good

The COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone, not least those working in the sustainable development, environment and health sectors. NPOs are best placed to support communities, organisations and local partners through the relationships and trust they’ve already established. 

NPOs bring economic and livelihood opportunities and can quickly adapt their responses to the needs of communities. For many individuals and families, they are the only outside point of contact during a crisis. 

While there are social, ethical and legal considerations, technology provides an opportunity for organisations to modify or even reinvent themselves. South Africa’s primary food security non-profit, Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) shares some tips on how NPOs can use technology to adapt and respond to a crisis and better meet the challenges of the future.

1. Stay true to your values

Many organisations devoted to development work feel pressure to change track during a crisis, often in a new direction or one seen as beneficial by their donors. This process needs to be responsibly managed and checked against their ethics, values, and outcomes. 

While pivoting may be necessary for the survival of many NPOs, we believe it’s important to stay true to your values and goals. “It’s not about changing what you do,” says Kate Sheldon, Operations Manager at FTFA, “it’s about being resilient and adaptable in accordance with your values.” 

FTFA has a responsibility to its beneficiaries to continue doing what it does best – supporting communities to grow their own food. “Rather than changing our focus to support sewing cooperatives that make face masks, for example, we’re asking how we can better assist our beneficiaries and provide value to them through what we already do, the networks and partnerships we’ve formed, and the space in which we operate,” Kate adds. 

2. Adapt to remote work

The challenges presented by lockdown have forced many NPOs to either close or quickly adapt to their employees working from home. At FTFA, we have spent years structuring our internal processes around cloud-based productivity platforms, which let our employees access the system from anywhere. This includes equipping our servers with next-generation security so we can access information and documents generated over a decade ago.

“We’d been using cloud-based productivity platforms to keep agendas, run meetings and track projects, so we didn’t need to implement other programmes or technology,” says Kate. “However, some teams required extra support and training to prepare them for working from home.” Having strategic systems in place is beneficial, but these need to be combined with sufficient training and encouragement to make the adjustment to technology easier.” 

One of the biggest change-management challenges we have experienced is the belief by staff that they would be replaced by automated processes. “This simply isn’t true,” says Chris Wild, FTFA’s Executive Director. “The interesting thing about our space in particular is that we require a human touch to everything we do.” What becomes relevant is how employees adapt to changing technology and incorporate it into their jobs, benefiting our beneficiaries.   

3. Switch to virtual M&E 

Visiting communities and projects to gather the information needed to assess, monitor and evaluate progress is impossible during a pandemic. There are several ways for NPOs to use technology to continue their important work. One simple way is conducting interviews over the phone or through virtual meeting platforms. Another is asking community members to take photos with their mobile devices and share them over cross-platform messaging. 

At FTFA, we conduct pre-assessments over the phone before sending our facilitators to site. This can be quite costly in terms of time. However, once you start the process and combine it with later ground-truthing, you are able to better perform such assessments. In our case, we’ve even switched to using low-cost messaging services, with a high degree of accuracy. Because we know the communities in which we operate and have experience in such assessments, we have been able to select the most effective way to use messaging technology.  

4. Use apps to communicate with different groups

Before the crisis, FTFA used bulk text messaging to communicate with large groups of people. We combined this with cross-platform messaging to keep in contact with groups of farmers, educators and communities. 

With the restrictions on physical meetings, these tools have become essential for sharing information. Whatever tools, apps, or technical solutions an organisation uses, they should be both relevant and accessible to their target audience.

5. Make the most of data

At FTFA, data is a core competency that has driven our strategy for many years. Using data effectively is key – from capturing and storing it, through to the analysis that drives our business strategy. 

Chris Wild, Executive Director of FTFA, says it’s important to understand your long-term data strategy and the reason you’re collecting and processing data. “Without knowing your strategy, you run the risk of multiple challenges – from scope creep to wasting time. If you haven’t been capturing data since the beginning of your operations, you might as well get the data elsewhere.” For example, FTFA uses data to make the value chain more efficient for both beneficiaries and sponsors. “We started with just 10–20 data points and variables, but now we have up to 400 data points we collect on any given project. A ranking algorithm processes these variables to enable us to see the potential of a project before it starts – allowing us to target projects with a higher likelihood of success.” Greater success means more food-secure communities.

At FTFA, we use data to get a statistical mean across certain categories. This lets us optimise our infrastructure spend over time and determine which variables lead to the success of a project. We can build auto-correct measures for better implementation and response to challenges such as the recent pandemic. We use data to draw conclusions (such as the amount of biomass created from the trees we plant), to create methodologies and models (for example, to determine how many trees a company would need to plant to offset its carbon impact), to create explanatory notes on carbon standards and how to ethically use carbon credits, and much more. Most importantly, data-driven insights drive strategic direction to best serve our beneficiaries, who are the most vulnerable in times of crises.

And control that data

Of course, data has the ability to do both good and bad, so the ethics behind it are crucial. Internal controls and mechanisms are important to prevent data manipulation. Our goal is to use data to target funds towards deserving projects and ensure tangible benefits to our beneficiaries. FTFA controls data in four ways: 

  1. There is no single point of entry when it comes to collecting data. For example, to eliminate bias when assessing a project, we send two facilitators rather than using a single person on-site. 
  2. Access to data is restricted according to roles in the organisation. We created a custom-built backend with different dashboards for different levels of users. This means employees can only access the data that they need in order to function.
  3. We protect ourselves from conflicts of interest with clear legal and ethical frameworks, bullying and intimidation policies, and non-disclosure agreements. These guard against any undue pressure that would result in an incentive to manipulate or share data outside the organisation. 
  4. Our system is robust, backed by clear communication frameworks and system monitoring.

“In the future,” Chris says, “we’re going to see databases interacting with other databases to provide advanced insights that change projects beyond what we can imagine. AI programmes that interpret this data will help us understand social problems more than we, as humans, understand them ourselves.”

6. Use contactless delivery

During the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential to deliver food and supplies with minimal or no interaction. Organisations also had to adapt their processes to meet strict government regulations.

At FTFA, we responded to the need for contactless delivery by stopping all training workshops and gatherings. Instead, we concentrated on doing resource drops that enable our projects to continue growing food. Apart from our current projects and beneficiaries, we broadened our reach with the Grow Your Own offering. This initiative lets community groups and small-scale farmers apply for support by filling out a simple online form (shared over email and cross-platform messaging). 

We believe this was a vital response to the disruption of the supply chain and loss of jobs and livelihoods caused by the crisis, which have led to rising food insecurity. By delivering seeds and seedlings across the country, we’re delivering value to communities that need support more than ever before. 

7. Raise funds through partnerships based on trust and accountability

There is the very real potential for a global recession, including a deep and sustained one in South Africa. This presents a host of unique challenges, including putting pressure on corporate budgets and funding opportunities. 

For FTFA, the relationships and credibility we have established with key donors and long-term partners are crucial to our survival. We built accountability and transparency into our system. “We created custom-built dashboards for donors to see the number of workshops we’ve held and keep track of all operations and finances, so they can measure the impact of their support,” Chris says.

FTFA has been capturing and analysing data in the agricultural space for the past 25 years. “A donor can bring us a potential beneficiary, like a school, with certain variables and outcomes they want to achieve. We can plug this information into our database and our algorithm will rank it according to the project’s chance of success. This results in less waste, as it allows us to select projects according to predetermined criteria,” Chris continues. Best of all, the more we feed projects into the system, the more the algorithm self-adjusts. “We’ve hardly tapped into the potential of the data we use. It gives us incredible insight into what makes a project successful – allowing us to direct funds where they need to go and drive greater impact.”

As donor capacity and availability constrict, NPOs must rethink their business models and build new and stronger alliances based on trust and accountability.

8. Do your checks and balances

When using any of these tools, take time to consider the best way to integrate them into your projects. Always check that:

  • The content and technology you use are feasible in the context in which you operate.
  • There is enough support and training available for adoption and maintenance.
  • You address privacy and security issues when using technology.
  • The introduction of new technology does not do harm. (For example, by increasing existing vulnerabilities and power imbalances in the communities you are trying to help.)
  • Short-term adjustments match long-term strategic goals.

This crisis has presented us with many challenges. While the future looks uncertain and volatile, the work of NPOs remains paramount for society’s most vulnerable populations. By using technology and data-driven insights, development strategies can create opportunities for innovation and higher-level engagement.

If you’d like to partner with a company that reaches vulnerable communities and improves food security, contact us today.

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