A Closer Look at the Nonprofit IT Pyramid: A Framework Love Story in Four Parts (Part Four)

Pulling it All Together

Not long ago, we introduced you to the Nonprofit IT Pyramid – a simple framework we use to (1) help us understand how nonprofits adopt technology, and (2) guide our own programs to ensure they are well-aligned with the needs of nonprofits. Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a closer look at examples of nonprofits using IT at each level, but we aren’t done yet! After years of teaching nonprofits strategic technology planning, I have found that the Nonprofit IT Pyramid doesn’t fully “click” until we follow one organization’s experience from the bottom to the top of the pyramid (or from the transactional to the transformational use of IT, as Akhtar recently put it). Seeing how it all comes together helps organizations start envisioning what their own path up the pyramid could be. And that’s just the kind of forward thinking we want to inspire!

NetHope versus the Pyramid

NetHope formed in 2001, when Edward G. Happ – then CIO at Save the Children – realized that several of the world’s largest development organizations (Save the Children, World Vision, Red Cross, etc.) all faced very similar IT challenges in delivering their missions. Happ saw the opportunity to help the CIOs of these NGOs share resources, skills, and knowledge around technology. What resulted is a unique collaboration of more than 30 of the world’s leading international humanitarian organizations working together to tackle social challenges in the developing world. Today, NetHope represents humanitarian development, emergency response and conservation programs serving millions of beneficiaries in more than 180 countries. The organization is a catalyst for collaboration and innovative IT solutions.

But, we all start somewhere…

Even NetHope, tech beacon that they are today, had to start at the bottom (of the IT pyramid, that is). Their experience in the pyramid illustrates the importance of building a strong foundation of stable and secure technology that enables an organization to focus on more mission-focused IT solutions. In its early days, NetHope struggled with the same issues many nonprofits do: its members were on different versions of software and operating systems and their staff lacked the know-how to use the IT tools it had. Before NetHope could tackle the big IT vision, they had to start with the basics: get its members on a common software platform and train staff. With the help of donated Microsoft software and curriculum, they did just that.

Next, NetHope members, in partnership with Accenture, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others, launched a shared-services model to provide greater collaboration among its members. With the standard platform in place, members were able to use IT to address an array of common services such as help desk, procurement, and training. The shared-services collaboration realized 15-40 percent savings gains and, more importantly, it built capacity in the field to enable greater service delivery.

With a stable foundation and optimal service delivery processes in place, NetHope was well-positioned to pursue how IT could serve their mission and beneficiaries. They set out to transform connectivity, communication, and collaboration during disaster response by developing the Network Relief Kit (NRK). Created with help from Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Accenture, and others, the NRK is a backpack that uses solar power and satellite communications to provide Internet connectivity, even in the most remote of locations. Requiring only 15 minutes of setup time, this innovative IT solution (dare I say, Jetpack?) enables communications in the field during the critical days immediately following a disaster. As I write this, NetHope member organizations are using connectivity tools and resources (including the kits) to coordinate on-the-ground relief efforts in Pakistan. (The NetHope consortium has also played a critical role in resuming broadband Internet connectivity in Haiti, facilitating ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts there). This is the ultimate in transformative technology – NRKs truly help NetHope save lives.

But I can’t design (nor do we need) a solar-powered backpack, you say!

Well, thank goodness for that! We know that not all organizations are going to have the need, resources or alignment that NetHope did to create the equivalent of the Network Relief Kit for your organization. What matters is this: That we understand what’s possible when we stop thinking of technology as a back-office, administrative headache, and start thinking of it as a strategic mission-delivery tool. The solution at the top of the pyramid for your organization may be completely different than NetHope’s (likely much simpler), but I hope their example will help you think creatively.

A Call to Action

Understanding the pyramid framework can change the way nonprofits talk about and approach technology adoption. As Edward G. Happ said, “We have to start, not with an inward technology focus, but with a look outward to the technology that can move our missions forward!” Happ advises that we cannot spend all our technology time and resources at the “Lights-on, base of the pyramid” stage, and that – even as we shore up our IT foundations – we should be thinking about technology at upper levels of the pyramid.

So here’s my call to action: Look up. Take the pyramid framework to your next staff/board meeting, and talk about where your organization’s use of IT is today. Then take 30 minutes to talk about what technology at the top of the pyramid could look like for your organization. I can’t guarantee you that having this conversation will get you to the top of the pyramid, but I can guarantee that – if you never have this conversation – you won’t get there. Imagine if NetHope didn’t take the time to have this discussion… How would their ability to respond to disasters be different today?

Try it. Tell me what you think. And here’s to using technology, not just because it’s cool, or the hot latest trend, but because it’s going to help us change the world.

Missed the previous installments?
Part One in this series available here.

Part Two in this series available here.
Part Three in this series available here.

Lindsay Bealko helps Microsoft Community Affairs put technology know-how in the hands of nonprofits through resources like webinars, NGO Connection Days, and software donations. With several years’ experience in the nonprofit sector, Lindsay understands the unique challenges and opportunities nonprofits face when trying to adopt technology to help them meet their missions. She tweets (occasionally) from @linzbilks.

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