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Five tips for how social sector organizations can use technology to help combat COVID-19’s economic impact
Digital technology has improved how workers get paid, expanded training opportunities and provided more real-time support for new entrepreneurs. For business owners, digital tools have increased important networks and opened access to credit so they can grow, among other benefits. As COVID-19 threatens to push upwards of 100 million more people into poverty as businesses close, households slash consumption and countries struggle, technology can also help ease the burden.
The pressing question for countries is how to harness technology to reach and support vulnerable people and communities. Maximizing technology will be a key component in Mastercard’s efforts to bring in a total of 1 billion people into the digital economy by 2025. Before the new COVID-19 crisis hit, Business Fights Poverty collaborated with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to better understand how to fast-track collaboration between the Center’s partners and grantees to drive financial security at scale, including through commercially sustainable interventions.
In the wake of COVID-19, the insights gleaned during that process will be even more relevant as organizations retool their programs to reach hard-hit communities in an era of social distancing. We are grateful to the grantees for their insights, some of which we share here to spark even more conversation and innovation.
1. Going digital can expand reach without compromising quality
Digital technology has allowed several grantees to be nimble in the face of the upheaval wrought by the pandemic. Organizations that had built a digital infrastructure, for example, have been able to pivot to remote modes of working without interruption and respond to new needs as they arise. MicroMentor, for example, is a free online business mentoring resource for entrepreneurs around the world. With the coronavirus bearing down, it quickly added mentors who have experience with severe economic downturns and post-disaster recovery while continuing to leverage its extensive global network of mentors, which became a lifeline for many under-resourced small businesses owners globally. To go to scale with these new resources, MicroMentor is partnering with organizations that want to tap into its enterprise solution to create a global network effect while also testing different modalities, such as group mentoring through video conferencing.
But organizations must balance the urgency to act with the need to design the technology thoughtfully. Traditional models of deep social impact take time and high levels of human input. In the rush to apply technology to scale, organizations can risk losing the essence of these programs and reducing their overall effectiveness. On the other hand, if a program contains fundamental flaws, the introduction of technology for scale will not likely improve its impact.
2. No need to start from scratch
Leveraging proven technology is a quick and highly effective way for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to expand their reach and impact. Grameen America, for example, partnered with Citi, Apple and Mastercard to introduce a cloud-based management information system designed to significantly modernize and bolster the organization’s operational capacity. In addition, Grameen America moved from disbursing their microloans via check to card-based payments. The organization has now provided $1.3 billion in loans to 124,000 low-income women entrepreneurs who were previously unable to access formal financing. During the COVID-19 crisis, the technological upgrades have enabled Grameen America to continue disbursing same-day loans and move their peer support model from in-person meetings to online.
Data.org is another resource for NGOs looking to use the latest in data science and artificial intelligence for social good. data.org is a new platform to help build the data science capabilities of civic, government and nonprofit organizations. Among the early partners is DataKind, a global nonprofit that connects social sector organizations with data science tools and talent. To jumpstart innovation, data.org has launched a $10 million data.org Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge, issuing an open call for breakthrough ideas to harness the power of data science to help people and communities thrive, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
3. One size doesn’t fit all
When presented with an exciting technology that could transform program delivery, like being able to reach millions with bite-sized learning tips and reminders via text messaging, it’s easy to forget the unique needs of the users, like cultural appropriateness or literacy levels and familiarity with digital tools.
For example, the Digital Wages Toolkit was designed to be responsive to the needs of different users. Developed by Business for Social Responsibility, the toolkit is an online, open-source resource to increase garment factory owners’ use of digital wages and workers’ financial literacy, many of whom are women. The toolkit built on the HERfinance Digital Wages program by creating tailored online and open source videos, quizzes and animation. These modifications have made the toolkit more relevant to its audience and expanded its reach to more women, whom for many is their first opportunity to engage with technology.
Reaching different groups may also require a different balance between technology and “higher-touch” approaches. There are many ways to boost digital inclusion, including early engagement to improve confidence and skills, ongoing support and the use of rewards, such as certificates, to keep users motivated and engaged.
As governments increasingly recognize the safety of digital wages during the COVID-19 crisis, these and other open-source tools will become even more important and relevant.
4. Invest in your people
As COVID-19 accelerates the move to digital platforms and tools, NGOs and social enterprises along with their for-profit peers will need to build up their workforce’s skills with new technologies. A smooth transition to digital tools also requires buy-in across the organization providing the service, with an accompanying shift in organizational culture and processes.
Trust, patience and training will be critical in preparing staff for new roles and responsibilities. If organizations, and particularly their leaders, do not devote attention to these human factors, failure is a real threat. Funders need to allow time for this kind of culture change and for possible adaptations along the way.
5. Take a long-term view and rebuild a more inclusive and resilient economy
COVID-19 offers an opportunity to rebuild programs and institutions to be more inclusive and resilient. Going to scale is a learning process and requires a willingness to take a long-term view and keep an open mind as to what “success” looks like. There will be setbacks and continua trial-and-error. Pooling experience and knowledge will help to avoid repeating the mistakes of others and will generate new ideas and partnerships that have a greater impact than could be achieved by any single organization.
These challenges create opportunities for private sector funders to serve as collaborative partners who leverage their own assets beyond financial grants and commit to the iterative process required to build more effective programs.
There is a wealth of technology and expertise that can be brought to bear on the challenges we face, particularly through innovative partnerships that leverage the skills and assets of the private sector. However, care is required to ensure that the very impact sought is not lost in the rush to expand. Program quality is essential to both effectiveness and scalability: one cannot be sacrificed for the other. This requires understanding and designing for the specific needs and desires of the target audience and bringing employees, funders and partners along on the journey.
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