How technology is propelling nonprofits through a crisis to help even more people in need

Samantha Nelson was just learning how to be a mother again when the pandemic sent her into lockdown with her two kids in Portland, Oregon.

The children had spent 14 months in foster care while she underwent treatment for a drug addiction. She was ready for a healthy new start, but the virus meant she could no longer clean houses, babysit or even safely take her son, who was born with a rare congenital defect called Goldenhar syndrome and relies on a breathing tube, on bus rides to a crowded grocery store.

Two paper bags sit on concrete in front of a door

The Contingent’s new My NeighbOR platform connected community members in Oregon during several crises this year. (Photo provided by The Contingent)

A Native American Youth and Family Center advocate helped Nelson, a member of a Sioux tribe, sign up on a new platform called My NeighbOR. And just like that, bags of groceries started magically showing up on Nelson’s doorstep, letting her and her kids stay safely indoors together.

“It’s just awesome to see people in my community do things like that for other families in need, especially with everything going on right now,” says Nelson, 31. “It’s pretty scary, and you wonder how you’re going to get everything you need. But we’ve had so many blessings this year.”

Nelson’s story is a bright point in a year when nonprofit organizations are facing ballooning needs even as donors have lost jobs and stopped giving, fundraising events have been canceled, and volunteers have been stuck at home.

Technology is helping groups from Portland to Nairobi bridge those gaps in this critical time.

The Contingent, the nonprofit supporting Oregon’s foster-care children and families that runs MyNeighbOR, not only managed to keep up with double the number of inquiries amid the pandemic, societal unrest in Portland and catastrophic wildfires — it even expanded and sees no signs of stopping.

A woman in a mask stands behind stacks of plastic tubs

The Contingent was an early adopter of new technology, which helped it expand this year despite numerous challenges. (Photo provided by The Contingent)

Right To Play, a charity headquartered in Toronto that uses the power of play to protect, educate and empower children in 15 countries, has been able to keep donors engaged in efforts to combat an increase in sickness, child labor and early marriage due to school shutdowns and economic hardships.

And HIAS, which was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and has grown over the years to serve people of all faiths who are fleeing persecution, is relying on technology to help more refugees than ever find safety around the globe.

The nonprofit sector has a significant presence. In the U.S. alone, charitable organizations generate more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product and employ more people than most other industries. But since the groups generally steward their funds to prioritize the programs and services they provide above administration and overhead, many have been left behind in the increasingly digital world.

“And then along comes COVID, and you have a paper-based system but you’re suddenly in a world where you can’t work in an office together, or engage with donors like you normally do, or have a fundraising gala,” says Erik Arnold, the chief technology officer for Microsoft Philanthropies’ Tech for Social Impact.

The pandemic set back by years progress that was being made fighting problems such as poverty, gender inequality and diseases that mostly affect the poor, including tuberculosis and malaria, as resources were redirected to fight COVID-19, says Justin Spelhaug, the global head of Tech for Social Impact.

“Nonprofits will need to emerge from this COVID tunnel stronger than when they entered so they can be set up to get back on track toward these efforts,” Spelhaug says. “Technology can be a multiplier, so we’ve invested in a digital foundation that makes innovation more effective in this sector.”

Nonprofits will need to emerge from this COVID tunnel stronger than when they entered so they can be set up to get back on track.

Microsoft designed the Common Data Model for Nonprofits (CDM) in 2018 to help organizations connect data across all applications and platforms. The CDM addresses specific data needs unique to nonprofit workflows, such as fundraising, constituent management, program delivery, overhead rate calculation and the ability to report back to donors about their impact. It also sets a standard for any technology partner working with charitable groups.

Building on that foundation, the company began developing applications to lower the cost to nonprofits of implementing new technologies and increase the impact of their programs, Spelhaug says. The next step is fundraising and engagement, he says, “because funding is the lifeblood of a nonprofit.”

Right To Play realized several years ago it needed a new software system to manage a boost in monthly donors wanting to help support the increasing number of children benefiting from its play-based programs. The organization became one of the first to implement the Fundraising and Engagement offering, built on Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 Sales customer relationship management software in the cloud.

Fundraising and Engagement is based on the nonprofit CDM and helps organizations pull together analytics to better engage with constituents and donors and finetune campaigns and marketing to boost donations. It’s the first Microsoft-supported product specifically tailored for nonprofits, which have a very different modus operandi than commercial organizations.

Nonprofits have to manage many forms of donations, programs, volunteers and donors, some of whom give monthly and others sporadically or only at events. Bespoke solutions for all of that could cost millions of dollars for each group, Arnold says, but Microsoft’s investment “takes the customization out of the equation.”

Since the nonprofit landscape is wide, from child sponsorship to climate change, Microsoft is relying on its partners — firms that provide support for the company’s products or services — to manage the “last mile” of tailoring and delivering the Fundraising and Engagement system, Spelhaug says.

And through the Tech for Social Impact program, most charitable organizations — more than 4 million of them around the world — qualify to get free licenses for as many as five Dynamics users and 10 PowerApps users, with a 75% discount beyond that. It’s a sustainable business model that ensures Microsoft partners can afford to provide the software and ongoing assistance needed, but at an ethical price for nonprofits, Arnold says.

In less than two years on the Fundraising and Engagement platform, Right To Play boosted the number of monthly donors from 100 to more than 3,000. And that was just the beginning of the group’s “total digital transformation,” says Chief Executive Officer Kevin Frey. It went from “a rudimentary system” of spreadsheets for financial and program information across 22 countries that would often take staff weeks to collate “to a single system of truth,” Frey says. “It’s just a different world for us.”

A man kneels next to a group of children

Right To Play Chief Executive Officer Kevin Frey meets with a group of children in Lebanon last year. (Photo provided by Right To Play)

The new platform freed up staff’s time and provided insight and analysis to better steward and retain donors, Frey says. And the group’s new ability to predict revenue has helped it operate with clear sightlines years ahead so it can reach many more children.

Right To Play also began adopting Teams, OneDrive and SharePoint last year, so when COVID-19 hit the world, “we were able to pivot on a dime because of the cloud,” Frey says. “For our work in rural Africa, we’re more connected now than we were before COVID, because Teams has allowed us to become a community.”

Janine Ayoub, Right To Play’s director in Lebanon, says she and her 21 staff members use all of those tools on their smart phones, which are more stable than computers amid daily power outages, to serve more than 15,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugee children scattered in camps around the country. Through the pandemic and the tragic explosion in Beirut in August, staff and volunteers were able to quickly communicate and access information for decisions on how best to help the kids and their parents, teachers and coaches.

Since HIAS helps people escaping persecution, it developed a new case-management solution built on Dynamics 365 to help keep its vulnerable clients safer while they seek help.

The waiting rooms in HIAS’ Nairobi offices are often full with refugees applying for assistance, but the lengthy intake process previously meant staff often couldn’t process everyone by the end of the day. That not only was a risk for the refugees having to travel across the city multiple times — gender-based violence, in particular, has been on the rise — but it also meant that some would try other HIAS offices, leading to duplicate entries and confusion.

Lucy Juwa attends to refugees seeking help from HIAS in Nairobi. (Photo by Brian Otieno/HIAS)

The organization started using the new Dynamics platform in May for its operations in Kenya and quickly cut caseworkers’ time to process new intakes by 80% and the time to retrieve existing case information by 40%, thanks to the standardization of the system.

“We want to provide the services quickly and not have people moving around a lot and endangering themselves,” says HIAS Chief Information Officer Rui Lopes. “We’re seeing huge gains this system is starting to provide in Nairobi. That time translates into helping more beneficiaries.”

Now HIAS is rolling it out to the other 15 countries it serves and expects it to “mushroom in a positive way,” Lopes says. The case management system initiative is “our crown jewel right now. It’s the cornerstone of our digital transformation strategy and plan.”

In Oregon, The Contingent was an early adopter of Dynamics and the CDM, says Chief Executive Officer Ben Sand. That put the group in the unique position of being able to adapt and respond to major challenges across the state over the span of just a few months this year.

Two women and two men stand in a row, smiling and holding their thumbs up

From closest to furthest away: The Contingent’s Ben Sand, Brooke Gray, Renita Williams and Peter Kim (Photo provided by The Contingent)

“The week before the pandemic really hit Oregon, it just felt bleak. There was desperation, a frenzy around what was beginning to take hold, and the state’s Department of Human Services was really looking to us to help families, as other nonprofits didn’t have a robust response to the need,” recalls Brooke Gray, who leads the nonprofit’s Every Child program.

“We had a team meeting on a Friday and determined we were going to step into this space and offer ways for neighbors to respond to needs that existed in their community. And 36 hours later, we were able to stand up an emergency response platform.”

The new My NeighbOR platform, with the last two letters capitalized for Oregon’s postal abbreviation, allows foster families or children to enter their needs, and people in the community to see those requests and respond. The Contingent’s director of technology and data, and also its only IT employee, Peter Kim, built My NeighbOR on Dynamics to connect people by their postal codes, all over the state, all from his living room.

A few months after the pandemic sent the state into lockdown, nightly protests against racism began in Portland, soon followed by devastating wildfires that forced massive evacuations and burned homes.

“We just kept ramping up, and it became a way to meet the tangible needs of families and walk alongside kids who have struggled with trauma in this hard season,” Gray says.

Sand credits The Contingent’s stability and ability to respond to “the confidence in Dynamics, that the tool has the flexibility and agility to do it all.” He and his team envision eventually sharing their systems with other nonprofits and agencies amid efforts to improve the foster-care system across the country.

In the meantime, Nelson’s gratitude for her neighbors — and for My NeighbOR — just keeps growing. Last week someone offered through the program to pay the delivery fee for donated furniture from a community warehouse, and she received both a couch and a bed, meaning she won’t have to sleep on an easy chair in her living room anymore.

“We’ve been through so much, and so much has changed this year, and I’m still trying to process it all,” Nelson says. “But we’ve gotten a lot of help, and we didn’t feel alone.”

Top image: Samantha Nelson with her children, JayLynn, 9, and Landon, 8. (Photo by Brady Holden)