IT in the NGO sector: Still not making IT count

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Following my initial post, this time I will try to bring to you what I have found out in the last couple of weeks about information technology usage and support patterns by the non-governmental organizations in Kosovo. I started off by picking a sample of NGOs from the TechSoup and RBF technology donations beneficiaries list. Most of these organizations are leaders in their field of work and have been around for a considerable amount of time. As such I expected that they would be quite proficient, if not innovative, in the use of information technology. Nevertheless, I found a rather diverse picture.

Most of the organizations I met are at the very infancy of information technology usage. They all have computers and are connected to the Internet, but very few of them have the knowledge to use IT as a driver for reaching their objectives. Most organizations use basic office packages (MS Word and Excel) and e-mail. They all have websites, which are mostly used to publish reports and other publications and in rare occasions to communicate with their audience.

The situation is more balanced when it comes to the usage of social media tools, especially Facebook. All of the organizations I met indicated, enthusiastically I must say, that they are using Facebook heavily both to promote their work and to stay in touch with their audience. Usage of blogs and Twitter is much more limited. While some organizations have indicated that they have had attempts in the past to operationalize blogs as part of their efforts to enable greater scale of transparency and participation, other are in the initial phases of planning to implement blogging solutions in the future.

There are, however, notable exceptions that prove the rule. I have met with organizations that can be a case study of strategic use of information technology. In these cases technology is the real enabler of their operations. They use it to power their internal operations, to communicate and promote their work, but also to crowd source a part of their information gathering. I was really impressed by some of these people.

This brings me to the second issue I want to talk about, the issue of what drives the development (or not) of the information technology in these organizations?

A common denominator in all of these organizations is that most of the technological change is driven by internal forces. There are limited cases when a website or a specific thing has been driven by a donor funded initiative, but in majority of cases it’s the individuals within the organizations that serve as IT help desk, computer programmers, website developers and so on. Very few of these organizations have established support or consultancy links to the IT industry. The reasons for these are various. Lack of information on the side of the NGO or the high price of the services provided by mainstream IT providers are among the top reasons. Even with website development, when not done in house, most of the NGOs deal with small boutique web design companies. As such the information technology usage in these organizations is highly vulnerable to turnover in staff. Furthermore, any further development is conditional on the knowledge and information possessed by internal staff members and cannot benefit from wider expertise in the field.

One finding that was surprising to me is the fact that there is very little communication and experience sharing between NGOs themselves. It is expected that most of these organizations, over time, would form the so-called communities of practice and would share experiences and good practices not only in using IT, but also in other areas of their work. It looks like there is still a lot to be achieved in this direction.

To summarize:

• IT usage by NGOs is still in its infancy. “We have computers”- as one of my interviewees put it.

• Social media is picking up as the main driver of technological change.

• Use and development of IT highly dependent on internal capacities.

• Knowledge and experience sharing, internally and externally, could prove beneficial.

Finally, I would like to close by noting that NGOs form just one part of the puzzle. The other part is the IT sector in Kosovo, about which I will write in my next post.

This post is part of a series exploring social innovation in Central and Eastern Europe. We hope you'll follow the series, ask questions, and share your experiences! To view all posts in the series, follow the tag cee-innovation