Digital transformation of the social impact sector for a sustainable tomorrow

The social impact sector is at a turning point of digitalisation akin to the past four technological revolutions. The use of the next-gen technology is a similar paradigm shift to how social innovations can construct and replace old institutions.

There is no question that the sector is often under pressure to do more with less. With growing demands and shrinking resources, organisations are looking for ways to increase efficiencies and deliver better outcomes. One area that is receiving a lot of attention is digital transformation – the process of using digital technologies to create new – or significantly improve – organisational value propositions.

When done right, digital transformation can help social sector organisations drive down costs, higher efficiency, service deliver, increase transparency and accountability. Additionally, by harnessing the power of data and analytics, social sector organisations can make more informed decisions, identify new areas for growth, and better measure impact.

Well-suited for social sector

There are several reasons why digital transformation is especially well-suited for the social sector. First, the social sector generates a large amount of data that can be leveraged to drive smart decision making. Second, many social sector organisations operate in complex ecosystems with multiple stakeholders. Digital tools can help simplify these interactions and make it easier to track progress and measure success. Finally, there is a growing expectation from corporate philanthropists and other stakeholders that social sector organisations will be able to use technology to demonstrate impact.

Digital innovation for social good Digital transformation, currently, is the buzzword for corporates in the Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) world. But what does it mean for the social sector? And why should we care?

The answer lies in digital resilience – the ability of these organisations to withstand and recover from disruption caused by digital technologies. Why is this important? Because as our world becomes increasingly digitised, the risk of disruptive events such as cyber-attacks, data breaches and system failures grow. And while the private sector has been quick to adapt, the social sector has considerably faced difficulties in adapting to the pace.

According to NetChange’s long-running survey of technology use by non-profits, only 11% view their organisations’ approaches to digital as highly effective. This is a problem because the social sector is uniquely placed to make a positive impact on society.

From healthcare to education, charities to NGOs, the sector touches the lives of millions of people around the world. But if it doesn’t embrace digital transformation, it won’t be able to meet the challenges of the future. And that would be an obstacle in created an equitable tomorrow.

Higher efficiency

Digital governance can help social impact organisations to achieve their missions in a smarter, more efficient way while also reducing their environmental footprint. Through digital transformation, they can automate and streamline their workflows, saving time and resources. While there are many different digital governance tools and approaches out there, one of the most effective is ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). ERP applications can help social impact organisations track and manage their work, from start to finish. 

With suitable ERP software, they can integrate data across different modules like purchasing, inventory management, personnel management, banking, fundraising, donor management and more onto one platform. This level of visibility and accountability can help ensure that any system challenge is notified immediately and is resolved in a timely manner with greater efficiency.

The India story India, poised as one of the fastest developing economies, has always found its economic growth tied to its carbon emissions and the demand and supply gap in natural resources to generate power.

Though the country has made its commitments clear by aligning with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of erasing all forms of hunger by 2030, the mammoth task will require new and existing applications of science, technology and innovation across food systems and addressing all the dimensions in food security. Innovative capabilities oftentimes are drivers of economic and sustainable development as they are critical not only for ensuring nutritious food at all times but also for harnessing agriculture and the broader food system.

Mid-day meal an excellent example

India’s mid-day meal programme is an excellent example of how industrial engineering and enterprise tech can work in tandem in the endeavour to not only eradicate malnutrition in children but also ensure their education.

Sustainable, frugal innovations such as food-testing labs, rice-sorting machines, insulated silos, solar-powered kitchens and storage options among others, combined with an emphasis on local sourcing of ingredients, empowering local communities can enable organisations to end hunger and ensure nutritional security for children.

However, the journey to tech frugality and social innovation isn’t as easy as it may seem. So, what is holding social innovation back?

First, it is important to understand the difference between social innovation and social entrepreneurship. The latter has been used in recent years to describe the creation of small businesses that operate for a social purpose rather than solely for profit. Social entrepreneurs are not interested in making money; they want to make a change.

The “social” aspect of a business is often its driving force, but it also presents challenges. Social enterprises have to be innovative because they do not have access to resources that can be found in the private sector – namely capital and scale – which means they must find ways around them. They also need effective management structures to ensure their impact reaches as many people as possible and can be sustained over time. And because most social enterprises are not-for-profit, there are a host of issues around how to attract investors who are willing to give up their money on an uncertain cause.

Social innovation, on the other hand, refers to the creation of new solutions or methods that are designed to tackle social issues. It is driven by innovation and creativity, not profit alone. And it is the application of entrepreneurial risk-taking to address social problems.

It is important to note that social innovation is not about creating a business that does good; it’s about finding new ways to tackle existing problems and challenges. This means that social innovations are often disruptive: they disrupt existing systems and processes and disrupt the way we think about our world. Social innovations also tend to be scalable and sustainable – which means they can have a real impact on society at large.

Lastly, integrating technological advances in daily operations requires a cultural shift and has to be driven by leadership. The top leadership needs to recognize the value and importance of technology integration in operations and its impact on growth, productivity and sustainability. Organisations should also invest in developing a robust digital infrastructure that can support the adoption of new technologies. This would require the standardization of processes, close collaboration between IT and operational departments to identify pain points, knowing the cost of downtime, etc.

It is also important to focus on developing a workforce with the right skillsets that can leverage technology to generate more value for an organisation. Digital transformation requires employees who are willing to learn new skillsets and be open to change. Organisations need to attract the right engineering talent and develop a culture that encourages such learning among employees.

Addressing the STEM talent shortage in the sector will require systematic changes in the way education is imparted at the college level. Robust state programmes need to be launched to endorse the employability factor of the sector. Because talent is the only lever, that can drive the transformation of any kind in the sector and help in building an equitable, sustainable future.

(The author is the chief information officer, The Akshaya Patra Foundation)

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