The Role of Technology in Social Change: Lessons from the Field


The role of technology in social efforts has grown over the past several years. With the advancement of technological tools, technology has facilitated the efforts of nonprofits, governments, and private sector actors in catalyzing social change. However, the feasibility and the degree to which technologies could support the efforts of collective impact efforts remained unclear. The Collective Impact Forum recently partnered with Sony to survey members of the Collective Impact Forum to understand their technological needs and understand whether there was an opportunity for new technology to support collective impact efforts.

The Collective Impact Forum’s survey garnered 129 responses, most of which identified as affiliated with a backbone organization. Members represented collective impact efforts from diverse issues, including Education & Youth, Employment, Health & Nutrition, and several others.

Respondents faced similar obstacles to communication, data sharing, and community engagement

Among the many challenges initiative members reported, many respondents experience the following:

  • Information overload among initiative members and fatigue among residents: Residents and initiative members are reportedly flooded with information and it can be difficult for organizations to penetrate so much noise. An additional layer of complexity is added when trying to engage with community residents. Organizations reportedly need to better understand how community members prefer to receive information since traditional methods, such as email, are not always successful and can potentially vary from community member to community member.
  • Coordination and alignment within an initiative: Initiative members reportedly have different priorities and ways of working, which inhibit the adoption of shared systems. This creates barriers to data collection and data sharing as participating organizations will work in silos and implement different practices around data collection.
  • Varying data restrictions and data collection practices across members make consistent data collection and sharing challenging: Participating organizations have different restrictions on data sharing, such as legal boundaries around data collection, that prevent organizations from sharing collected data with initiatives partners. Competing agendas further complicate this relationship as different member organizations may prioritize certain data collection efforts over others that may not necessarily align with the collective impact effort’s current needs.

When it comes to technology, affordable solutions are often the most sought after

The majority of respondents reported being satisfied with their current technology. Additionally, almost all respondents aware of how much their organization spent on technology reported spending less than $100,000 per year. Funding is often very limiting for members of an initiative, especially for technological solutions, which makes investing in new costly solutions difficult. Thus it makes sense that several respondents commented that they spend less than $5,000 on their technology solutions. Despite the challenges initiatives face, member organizations are generally satisfied with their current solutions and do not necessarily see the need, or the means, to seek out new costly technological solutions.

Respondents were generally satisfied with current technologies and some even decided to design their own solutions

In response to common challenges listed above, CI initiatives have adopted low-cost, user-friendly technology solutions, such as Google Suite applications, Basecamp, Survey Monkey, and Slack. Technology to support intra-initiative communications was the most common use of technology amongst among respondents.

However, some CI efforts have invested in designing technological solutions to address specific social problems. For example, the Center for Collaborative Care in Arkansas developed HARK, a cloud-based technology platform designed to connect individuals and providers in a HIPAA and FERPA compliant environment. The HARK platform brings together social workers, teachers, health providers, and doctors talk to each other in an integrated manner to provide holistic care to patients. The system’s adherence to HIPAA and FERPA regulation laws allows pertinent stakeholders access to patient information and effectively collaborate with one another while maintaining compliance with privacy regulations. Such technology has allowed the Center for Collaborative Care to overcome several aforementioned obstacles by utilizing a centralized and user-friendly platform that members of their effort could all use.

What do you think?

Do these challenges listed above resonate when thinking about your own work?

What techonology tools have been the most useful to you and your work?

What technology support or tools would you be most interested in having?


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