M-Theory: How technology is helping the helpers Melanie Baker September 28, 2017 Columns, Featured, M-Theory The telephone is a divisive bit of technology, far beyond issues of who invented it or how much cell services should cost. Despite obstacles like the maze of automated phone systems, some people think that making a call is the best option to get information or assistance. Other people will search for every possible online alternative before resorting to a call. Now, getting help when Netflix overcharged you is one thing; getting help when you’re in crisis is something else entirely. Having to resort to a mode of communication that feels uncomfortable or is difficult for you to use isn’t necessarily a great way to start, and could even discourage people from reaching out at all. Our local nonprofit services organizations know this, and have been working on updating and broadening how they can help people in our community. The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASC) has been running an online chat pilot program every Thursday evening, where people can reach out via SASC’s website. They also advertise the service and its online hours via their social media channels. (Disclosure: I am on SASC’s board.) Earlier this year, Shore Centre’s Lindsay Butcher joined Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp for female entrepreneurs to engage, brainstorm, and get help from a new cohort of thinkers and skilled tech workers. Ideas like a Buzzfeed-esque quiz about pregnancy options or sexual health might seem a bit frivolous for a serious topic, but it’s a familiar, non-intimidating, and “sticky” way to impart critical information, particularly to a younger audience. These are just two examples of how local organizations are thinking ahead and involving tech to address potential clients’ needs. In some ways, the basic services they provide have remained the same for decades. But in other ways, they are constantly evolving. Online chat, video chat, even text messaging have potential as technologies that may be more comfortable for many people. They can also help make services more accessible. For example, those in rural areas may not easily be able to get into the city for a counselling appointment. At the same time, assessing and adopting technology needs to go hand in hand with addressing privacy and security concerns. While there’ve been plenty of cases in tech where this gets overlooked, there are ways that tech can help with better knowledge management and security. In some cases organizations need to do a detailed intake and record a fair bit of sensitive information from a prospective client, which must be kept confidential within the organization. In other cases the person seeking help or information needs or wants to remain anonymous. Tech can organize and/or protect information, and make necessary processes clearer to prospective clients. Another concern regarding information is accessibility and accuracy. There are billions of websites out there, but how many would you trust? And how do you tell if the information is solid? Content management systems, for example, are one way organizations can publish a lot of easily searchable and updatable information for clients. (Publishing and updating materials online is also vastly faster and cheaper than printed information.) More sophisticated software and browsers, as well as the ability to post information in a variety of media, can make accessing information much easier for those with disabilities or those who just have different preferences for consuming information. Blogs and social media are another way that organizations share timely and useful information, while also developing community, boosting fundraising, showing (rather than just telling) their services, and demonstrating that they are dynamic, responsive, and locally involved. Plus, the tools to do these things are largely free these days. Another way tech can help nonprofit services organizations is by making donating fast, easy, and secure. Some people aren’t comfortable donating online, and given some of the donation user experiences I’ve seen, I don’t blame them. But when there are people like me who do most of their donating that way — often via user interfaces and processes that are just awful — it can literally cost orgs money, and they need every penny. Let’s not forget making it easy for donors to share and encourage others to donate as well. These are a few ways tech can help the helpers. Often, those who work in the nonprofit space have been there a long time. It’s a calling for many. They don’t need tech to tell them what the next big trend is or how to run their organizations. Their focus is on helping as many people as they can, as well as they can, every day. Technology needs to fit into and boost that, not overwhelm it. In fact, many startups could learn lots from nonprofits. They do more with less in ways techies could hardly dream of. Initiatives from the tech sector are well-intentioned. And often they help techies feel better about the spaces they enter and occupy and the changes they catalyze. But nonprofit orgs don’t necessarily need them. Well, aside from their money. One-off donations are great and always welcome, but recurring donations (like automated and monthly) are better. Or in in the case of rich people or big companies, a lump sum without usage restrictions that provides regular interest is excellent. These types of donations enable organizations to have a reliable, recurring stream of funding, which makes financial and operational planning easier. Volunteering is good, too, but only if you’re really planning to commit. Orientation, training, and managing volunteers is a resource cost to orgs. It takes a while for you to become useful enough to “pay” for yourself. And “voluntourism” might make you feel good about yourself, but actually does pretty limited good. Much like social media shares that aren’t actually accompanied by any action. Life is bumpy for most of us from time to time, but a silver lining to that cloud is that most of us end up with a cause that’s close to home. Start there. Do your research. See how you can help. Don’t assume you know best what the professional helpers need from you. Oh, and SASC’s upcoming fundraising gala is both a great cause and a great party. Just sayin’. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or email@example.com. Photo: Computer Help Desk Sign, by Library and Information Services Metropolitan State University, is licensed under CC0 1.0.