Checklist for Funders of Tech Projects
The work of non-profit organisations, particularly campaigners and advocates, is increasingly entwined with new technologies. There are myriad ways in which organisations can encorporate new technologies and new uses of data in their work; sifting through these options and helping grantees to make strong and sustainable decisions about where to put their effort is becoming a key role for grantmakers across many issues areas. Often grantees are looking for quick fixes to long term goals. They can also be unrealistic about the impact the technology will have, whether the technology is adequate for their strategy, and the amount of time and resources needed to realistically implement. On the other hand, when an organisation can successfully achieve their goals by using technology, it can have impact that goes well beyond the sector.
Here are some pointers to help evaluate whether a proposal to support a technology project is a worthwhile investment:
- Can you identify and follow a believable theory of change, organisational strategy, or chain of action, which the technology project your grantee is proposing will advance? Is there a clearly defined advocacy or organizing strategy to which the tech will contribute?
- Do they articulate a good understanding of the audience they are trying to reach and level of demand for using technology to solve the problems they seek to address? Have they given focus to potential users of the technology and whether there are unique barriers to accessing the technology that will affect who can participate in the project?
- How might your grantee have solved the same problem without technology – or are they addressing a problem that couldn’t be solved without technology?
- Are they attempting to create something new? These kinds of projects produce huge hurdles and they rarely succeed. Proceed with enormous caution.
- How will they maintain the project? Is there a plan for sustaining the project after this funding cycle is finished? Are you expecting to see a follow-up proposal to keep it running, and/or to see it folded into their core operations requests to you and other funders?
- Is the technology appropriate for the context or will it somehow undermine their goals? For example, are they using bulk SMS to try to engage community and bring them into a campaign? Bulk SMS often is seen as an unwanted communication and an irritant. This can be hard to identify but is always a question worth asking.
- Do they have the capacity to implement the project? A good indicator is if they have an experienced project manager who has dealt with technology implementations, and who clearly also understands the broader strategic goals of the project/organisation. If they don’t, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fund them but you should expect a steep learning curve and might want to encourage a focus on building this capacity going forward.
- Have they identified all the expertise needed (again, linked to the organisation’s broader strategy)? Such as:
- Web Developer – a programmer who specializes in the development of web applications
- Graphic designer – who assembles together images, typography or motion graphics to create a piece of design for published, printed or electronic media.
- Data Analyst – aids in the process of inspecting, cleaning, transforming, and modeling data with the goal of highlighting useful information and suggesting conclusions.
- Social Media Expert – guides others in the use of tools and platforms people use to publish, converse and share content online
- Online Cartographer – specialises in creating maps for use in online content.
- What licensing are they using? Open Source is preferable, especially if they are wanting to share their efforts with others, or want to keep their data portable. Proprietary may provide short-term gains, but also might be the only choice they have.
- Have they considered how the technology might be putting people at risk? IE, storing names of activists in an accessible database or in a contacts list on a mobile phone. Sending email or SMS giving times and locations of actions and protest?
Tech funding Best Practices
- Be flexible. Technology projects often evolve as they are implemented and forcing grantees to adhere to strict timelines and budget lines can work against the ability to achieve success.
- Provide good feedback mechanisms and easy ways they can update you on changes and get quick approval and input for changes to their project.
- Define evaluation parameters at the beginning, and don’t rely on output metrics but rather outcomes (and hopefully impact) based on long term goals.
- Make connections in your portfolio. Are grantees working on similar projects? Can they learn from each other? Look for synergies and possible collaborations.
- Promote use of Open Source and Open Data. Advise your grantee to stay away from software and systems that will lock in their data and provide problems with portability in the future.