Reframing how we talk about nonprofit data and technology work

This blog post is based on a talk that I gave at UK Community Foundation’s Annual Conference in October 2022 to UK community foundations and other funders. The takeaway is that we can reframe nonprofit data and technology initiatives and work by focusing on ‘Strategy’, ‘Stewardship’, andSustainability’.
Content warning: this blog post is fairly speculative and the suggested framing hasn’t been rigorously tested!

Nonprofit data and technology work is a deliberately loose phrase but the important point is that it refers to instances when organisations that exist without a profit-motive use data or digital tools in their work. We’re still collectively constructing new language to talk about this type of work and so I think it’s important to start with a broad definition.

The title of this blog raises the question “Why do we need to reframe how we talk about nonprofit data and technology work?”, to which there are multiple answers, but I think using different language can help us get some way to solving two problems in particular:

Mismatches between demand for and supply of grant funding

Nonprofit organisations routinely say that they struggle to find suitable funding sources for continuing or beginning data and technology work. We know this anecdotally, and from sources such as the Charity Digital Skills Report which identifies funding for ongoing core costs (e.g. licences, training) for digital and data infrastructure and for scoping out future needs as particular issues, with small charities particularly affected.

A chart from the Charity Digital Skills Survey 2022 in response to the question "Do you face any of the following challenges when
applying for digital funding?" Top responses involve including core costs and applications are designed for new digital innovation.
“Do you face any of the following challenges when applying for digital funding?” Charity Digital Skills Survey 2022. N=238.

And yet there is grant funding available that is dedicated to funding technology and data work in nonprofit organisations, and staff from several community foundations who were in the UKCF session said that they don’t struggle to attract funding for data and technology work, but rather applicants that are both interested and in a suitable position to apply. One issue is that lots of current funding that is available focuses primarily on innovation and funding new initiatives, rather than the maintenance of ongoing systems and projects. Another being that organisations are not able to find funding for scoping or speculative work, which allows them to explore options and pilot solutions.

My hunch is that there is a lack of grant funding for increasing the confidence and skills of staff to use data and technology, maintenance of ongoing digital systems and projects, and scoping work because:

  1. it can be seen as boring or too technical
  2. it can be hard to measure the impact of it and is viewed as too removed from achieving an organisation’s mission
  3. the solution is seen to already ‘be there’. This is particularly true for justifying custom development of solutions rather than choosing ‘off the shelf’ options
  4. many nonprofit organisations work across systems and lack the language to make a compelling case for both funding and being funded to deliver nonprofit data and technology work

Organisations that work across systems need systems-bridging language

The fourth issue is one that I think warrants further attention. Many nonprofit organisations (including grantmakers) could be viewed as being polyphonic organisations. That is they are able to communicate across multiple systems, adapting the substance and style of communication to portray a narrative that resonates with a particular stakeholder group. Community foundations provide a brilliant example of this, and use their ability to communicate using multiple registers to their advantage. In the diagram below we can see the (typical) power hierarchies in fundraising and grantmaking, but through community foundation’s ability to speak multiple registers, they can demonstrate community leadership by influencing people, organisations and systems and acting as an intermediary between them.

However, despite the ability to switch registers, the funding of nonprofit data and technology work represents an example where it is useful to use language that carries across systems and stakeholder groups and doesn’t represent a particular ideology or set of values. For example, it is hard to remove the for-profit connotations in phrases such as ‘efficiency’, ‘profiling’, and ‘data-driven decision making’. Similarly, ‘unlocking the power of data’, ‘targeted interventions’ and ‘economic contribution’ have all been heavily used by government in policy announcements and linked to the use of data and technology by civil society in the Kruger report. For a sector that is guided by its values, and relies on this distinctive value base for its legitimacy and independence, what sort of language allows nonprofit organisations to describe the importance and impact of data and technology work without relying on narratives that align with the public or private sector?

Using Strategy, Stewardship, and Sustainability to reframe nonprofit data and tech work

A recent study in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly found that by reframing overhead costs as contributing to the development of long-term capacity and maintenance of a functioning organisation, donors would be more willing to donate than previously. Even reframing ‘overhead expenses’ as ‘supporting expenses’ made a difference in the likelihood of receiving financial support. The point here isn’t that the activity is necessarily changing, but rather the framing of it within the accompanying narrative. However, as we will see in the third section of this blog, reframing existing work can open up spaces for new opportunities.

In Being business-like while pursuing a social mission: Acknowledging the inherent tensions in US nonprofit organizing, it is suggested that focusing on ‘stewardship’ and ‘sustainability’ could provide an alternative generative discourse for nonprofit organisations to move beyond the money vs mission tension that they often face. I think the same framing could be used for funding nonprofit data and tech work, alongside an emphasis on ‘strategy’ as the third ‘S’. The framings below are suggested for both grant applicants and funders.

Strategy

Means emphasising the organisation’s strategic aims and how this funding will help them to be achieved.

  • By providing a clear link to a strategic aim, the ‘distance’ between receiving the funding and achieving something tangible is shortened and the justification for providing funding is clear. This could be helpful if the funding is for something technical or part of a much longer journey to impact.
  • It is a useful signal to stakeholders that you are not preoccupied with innovation for the sake of it, or keen to be seen as a ‘progressive nonprofit’, but rather you are mission-focused and value-led. This may serve as a useful reminder; if their is no clear link (albeit long-winded) to your end goal, then maybe your efforts would be better spent elsewhere.

Stewardship

Means being good stewards of our own and other people’s resources such as funding, time or data.

  • It may be that we recognise that clients are currently having to tell the same story multiple times in the referral process, which is a poor use of time and could be traumatising. Capturing this information once would ensure we are good stewards of their time and information. This grant application is a great example of how a central and shared information repository can ensure organisations are good stewards of funding, time, and data.
  • We can say that by funding scoping work to explore which areas of our organisation would benefit most from taking part in a specific data maturity learning journey, or which digital tools would best suit our needs, we are being good stewards of both time and funding by not launching straight into an expensive or time-consuming process that doesn’t deliver the desired outcomes.
  • It may be that funding is used to maintain digital resources for use by other community groups or individuals, or that the funding is used to be good stewards of the Earth’s resources by moving to a less-polluting cloud computing provider or to invest in technology which means staff are required to travel less.
  • By emphasising stewardship, we can draw attention to other types of impact which whilst not directly addressing the organisation’s core aims, are important for maintaining legitimacy, upholding an organisation’s values, and are likely to resonate across stakeholder groups.

Sustainability

Means being able to serve well over time. It moves discussion away from immediate outcomes and towards organisational resilience and how by investing in X an organisation’s ability to deliver long-term and societally beneficial change is improved.

  • It may be that to deliver impact over time, a community project or initiative requires the development of bespoke software, without which the project would quickly become unsustainable beyond the funded period, or if a provider of proprietary software stops supporting it.
  • Focusing on sustainability encourages us to consider how existing tools and systems can be maintained, and overcome a desire to fund or seek funding for new or ‘innovative’ work. By maintaining existing tools, we are sustaining good work and not expending further resources in developing an alternative solution.
  • Reframing the funding of ‘core costs’ as facilitating the long-term sustainability of an organisation could be a good way to avoid the nonprofit starvation cycle. When it comes to data and technology work, we know that it can be hard to get funding for things like user licences, salaries for skilled data analysts, servers and other hardware. Reframing these costs as allowing the organisation to continue to deliver its mission in a sustainable and effective way could take us some way to making the funding of core data and tech costs justifiable for funders.
  • Finally, we should look to facilitate nonprofit data and technology work that delivers across the four pillars of sustainability (environment, society, culture, economy) or speaks to a particular Sustainable Development Goal. Whilst it may be hard to measure the impact of a data project that seeks to empower community activism (such as a Data Walk), framing the long-term outcome as being community-led change helps strengthen the case for funding.

A nice example of where we see an emphasis on strategy, stewardship and sustainability in a funding application is in this project description for a grant from Leeds Community Foundation to Neighbourhood Elders Team:

Practical steps for funders

Whilst reframing nonprofit data and technology work through focusing on strategy, stewardship, and sustainability may be useful in most scenarios and for most organisations, there are four practical steps for funders in particular to demonstrate leadership in the nonprofit data and technology space. Demonstrating why we need nonprofit leadership in this space is worthy of another blog, but just as one example: so long as Big Tech firms are being encouraged to “provide, for free, the wiring of our social infrastructure“, we need leadership that serves and reflects the values of the nonprofit sector and community-led initiatives.

So, I think the four steps are:

1) Work with grantees to:

  • Reframe applications around strategy, stewardship and sustainability.
  • Encourage applications for everyday and routine tech and data work, including work that enhances skills and facilitates shifts in organisational cultures.
  • Consider long-term data and technology needs, possibly through pilot or scoping projects.

2) Work with donors to:

  • Incorporate technology and data work into existing funding rounds or grant programmes. This could even be as a ‘bolt on’ package.
  • Capture their imagination as to what is possible through funding tech and data work (possibly by using the strategy, stewardship, sustainability framing).
  • Align people who will be naturally interested in funding this work (i.e. where there is least resistance) with projects that need funding. Lots of people have made lots of money in this space and may be willing to support work which they can see the value in.
  • Become comfortable with funding people and not just work which will deliver immediate outcomes.

3) Change what is valued by:

  • Shifting the funding Overton window. Make it normal and acceptable to fund nonprofit data and technology work.
  • Demonstrating the importance of community influence and control over the tools and systems that they use.
  • Experimenting with funding the development of new types of data-centric nonprofit organisations
  • Demonstrating a culture of reuse and sustainability.
  • Prioritising the development of open and non-proprietary tools and systems that have been developed by their end users.

4) Use your convening power to:

  • Bring people, organisations and systems into contact with one another.
  • Support other funders.
  • Encourage alliances (not consolidation) that achieve strategic aims and demonstrate good stewardship and sustainable practice. The Bucks Data Exchange is a great example of this.

Thanks for reading! If you want to talk or have any comments (however critical!) then please do get in touch! I should also acknowledge the ESRC funding that gave me the time to think about this and write this blog.

Other resources:

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