Idealware has written extensively about funding technology projects—see A Funders Guide to Supporting Technology and Funding Technology Projects for proof of that. Technology in and of itself won’t save lives or end world hunger, but the right technology can build an organization’s overall effectiveness and efficiency, multiplying the impact of its work.
However, many foundations are still reluctant to support technology projects. We spoke to a few foundations that award grants for technology capacity building to find out what lessons they’ve learned on what makes technology projects succeed or fail.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
One family foundation inquired with a current grantee about funding its social media efforts. In addition to a grant, the foundation offered several resources and examples to help the grantee, the producers of a documentary film series, determine what sort of social media capacity-building project would further its mission—to help viewers take action in their communities. The details of the project were left up to the grantee, which was asked to provide up to five ideas it might want to explore.
However, the grantee never replied to the foundation with its ideas and the social media capacity-building funds ultimately fell through. Perhaps social media wasn’t as important to the organization as the foundation hoped. Or maybe it just wasn’t interested enough in capacity-building to put in the work that the foundation expected of them. The point is, the granting foundation doesn’t know why the organization never pursued this opportunity. The grantee never communicated how this idea fell short and what might work better. As a result, it may have missed a big opportunity.
Make the Most of Feedback
When a large organization had trouble reporting effectively on key indicators for a policy program, one of its foundation funders grew concerned. The foundation raised the issue with the organization’s leadership, which prompted an in-depth tech assessment.
The findings were troubling. IT was failing the organization. In addition to limiting the grantee’s ability to effectively report on metrics for this particular program, the study uncovered IT issues that affected other departments. As a result of the assessment, the organization developed an extensive and detailed tech road map, which included the creation of a new VP of IT.
While the grantee organization was already well-funded and prepared to carry on with the IT plan independently, the foundation decided to expand its grant to include support for this capacity-building project. This gesture was a powerful statement about the importance of technology systems to relationships between grantors and grantees. Not only was the foundation willing to fund capacity building, it was eager to do so because it meant solving problems that affected the success of both organizations.
Start by Building Capacity Where It’s Needed Most
Sometimes it can be difficult for organizations to identify the real cause of their technology capacity issues. One foundation learned this first-hand when one of its grantees, a citizen science group, had trouble with volunteer recruitment and retention.
This organization was rebuilding its volunteer recruitment and training program after staff turnover left gaps in its volunteer coordination efforts. At the time, its volunteer outreach and scheduling was done through an older chat group, which was separate from the system used to track volunteers. Instead, it wanted to move those efforts to social media. The organization contacted the foundation for help identifying what platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) made the most sense for its needs.
However, when a representative from the foundation took stock of the organization’s existing technology, the real issue became clear—the old, custom-built database serving as a volunteer management system was clearly not meeting the organization’s needs.
Know Your Limits
While we want to help all organizations build their technology capacity, the fact is that not all technology projects will be successful. Ultimately, foundations need to evaluate how ready a grantee is for capacity building.
A foundation focused on funding environmental and conservation efforts told us about a well-informed, well-prepared proposal sent by a grantee that wanted to use technology for the monitoring and enforcement of a vast protected area. This organization had clearly spent a great deal of thought researching the technology available and had developed strong relationships with community leaders who could help implement the plan.
However, while the expense to develop the plan was reasonable, the cost to implement the technology was much larger—nearly twice the organization’s entire budget. The foundation was willing to consider the proposal and took an in-depth look at the long-term sustainability of the organization and its plan, but ultimately had to decide that this organization just wasn’t ready for a project of this cost and scope.