Strengthening Civil Society Through Technology

By Mike Yeaton, Senior Consultant, TechSoup

The TechSoup Global Network includes 63 of the world’s leading civil society organizations working to improve lives globally through the use of technology. TechSoup Global Network partners manage a range of technology capacity-building programs to serve communities in nearly every region of the world. Each network partner tailors its program to the needs of its community and shares insights with other network partners to better serve communities worldwide.

Why is digital capacity particularly important to civil society? What do we as a society risk if access to technology is not fairly shared across all of society? Why is it vital to enable civil society access to technology and cloud-enabled operations?

On December 9, 2021, three leaders of TechSoup Global Network partner organizations joined a panel called Digital Transformation for Good: Civil Society Data from Czech Republic, Germany and Ukraine to address these questions using data from local studies:

  • Marcus Becker is director of IT for nonprofits and grants for nonprofits at Haus Des Stiftens (HDS), a social enterprise and certified B corporation serving NGOs in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
  • Radka Bystricka is executive director of Czech nonprofit organization VIA Association, which helps Czech nonprofits with digitalization and technology and provides them with tools and knowledge needed to successfully function in the digital world.
  • Bogdan Maslych is executive director of GURT Resource Center — Ukraine’s premier accelerator of societal transformation. It reaches more than 50,000 registered users through its online portal and reaches the largest constituency of civil society organizations in the country.

The panel was sponsored by the Cloud Signature Consortium and moderated by sustainability consultant Jo Sullivan.

In what follows, we’ve summarized some highlights from this panel discussion, based on key questions asked. You can access all three studies, along with other civil society insights, on the TechSoup Global Network site.

How and Why Did You Conduct Your Studies?

Bogdan: We conduct a biannual study of Ukrainian nonprofits, which included 1,000 respondents in 2020. We present the findings to a wide Ukrainian audience, including nonprofits, IT companies, and the minister of digital transformation. Our report offers a unique view into civil society, focusing on critical areas such as cybersecurity.

Radka: We have a great deal of experience working with civil society but wanted to get data to confirm or change our assumptions. We surveyed 300 nonprofits and found some surprising results. For example, the state of cybersecurity was worse than we imagined, and the need for affordable hardware even greater.

Marcus: We saw a lack of hard data about the state of digitization in civil society, and wanted to initiate an open and honest conversation. We surveyed 5,000 nonprofits and shared the results and data broadly through a public website, while de-identifying individual respondents of course.

What Is the Typical Nonprofit in Your Country?

Radka: We identified six basic types of organizations which exhibit similar behaviors, largely based on the number of employees. An organization with 50 staff for example behaves differently than a strictly volunteer-based organization and has different needs and priorities.

Marcus: In Germany we found only 17 percent of nonprofits have a dedicated IT staff of any kind, and the majority of those have only one person. We also saw how digital “fitness” impacts all aspects of organizational effectiveness, and this lack of resourcing severely limits the impact these organizations can have.

Bogdan: There are over 100,000 nonprofit organizations in Ukraine, but as in Czechia, most are small, volunteer-based. More than half of them have a budget of under US$4,000, and 41 percent receive no professional IT support.

What Are Some of the Gaps to Digital Resilience You Identified?

Bogdan: We found that only 20 percent of nonprofits have received training in digital security or use of IT — the same figure we found in 2018. Only 6 percent had conducted a security audit, with 22 percent not even sure that that meant. This is a huge exposure for civil society organizations, which are frequently targeted by cyberattacks.

Radka: For most of our respondents, lack of funding is their biggest obstacle. However for larger organizations, staff resistance to change is a major challenge, indicating a lack of knowledge. We also found that one in three have experienced some kind of cyberattack, but only 35 percent have written security policies. It is far less expensive and disruptive to prevent these kinds of attacks than to recover from one.

Marcus: We found that only 15 percent have the tools and knowledge needed for digital transformation. Thus the vast majority are lacking the essential ingredients to successfully transform their work using a digital approach. It’s important to realize that digital transformation is not just automating paper processes, but rather rethinking all aspects of a nonprofit’s operations through a digital lens — that’s when the magic happens.

What About the Impact of COVID-19?

Radka: We received many inquiries from nonprofits about home offices and online meetings. We found 75 percent of respondents are now using cloud storage for some or all of their data — but that doesn’t mean they are using it effectively or securely.

Marcus: We collected data before and during the pandemic, which allowed us to see the impacts. We found that most organizations were negatively impacted, but also they expressed confidence in their resilience and ability to rebound. They also found increased recognition for their work, and greater opportunities for learning and creativity.

What Can Be Done to Improve Things?

Bodgan: We found that NGO leaders underestimate the importance of digital transformation, and at the same time, we don’t see enough investment in their digital infrastructure. Our nonprofits need products, training, and support to move forward.

Marcus: Think of this as a twofold opportunity. Funding impact work directly is obviously important, but infrastructure and skills are necessary. Please consider helping us close the gaps for staffing, skills, and training.

Radka: The TechSoup Global Network is always looking for new partners to help nonprofits. For companies, realize that your employees may very well be receiving services provided by nonprofits in your community. Whatever your skills, products, or services, consider if nonprofits could benefit from free or discounted offers and please get in touch!

Any Closing Thoughts?

Bogdan: To nonprofits I say keep doing the great work you are doing. We members of the TechSoup Global Network will continue to build global support on your behalf.

Marcus: The challenges are real, but optimism is the only way forward. The digital divide is real, but together we can build a more robust and resilient civil society.

Radka: Moving to the cloud is a first step, but the journey doesn’t stop there. When you support nonprofits’ digital transformation journey, you are also feeding hungry kids and fighting climate change.

Looking Ahead

Civil society faces more challenges than ever, and we are grateful for the data-driven insights provided by our panelists. The TechSoup Global Network partners hold individual and joint events all around the world throughout the year — check out a sample of upcoming events you can participate in.

And please reach out to tsgn [at] techsoupglobalnetwork [dot] org if you’d like to partner or support TechSoup Global Network partners’ research agenda in support of NGOs around the world. We’d love to explore this critical need with you!

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