Author: Steve Ballmer, Co-Founder of Ballmer Group, Founder of USAFacts and former CEO of Microsoft
Making communities safer. Paving more pathways to good jobs and careers. Increasing access to quality mental healthcare. Providing housing for the unhoused. Ensuring kids can read by the 3rd grade. These are just a few of the critically important and extraordinarily complex problems we ask human services and other nonprofit organizations to address. Unfortunately, far too often, these organizations are stuck with outdated technology and siloed data that limits their visibility and constrains their capacity—hindering their ability to take these challenges on.
When I was CEO of Microsoft, we were obsessed with developing tools that improved efficiency—because we knew that efficiency improved outcomes and customer experiences for business. I’ve seen the business community flourish because, for years, they’ve been able to access the tools, technology, and software that allow for data sharing, rich customer engagement, outcome tracking, and relationship management.
As I transitioned to Ballmer Group Philanthropy, where we focus on expanding economic opportunity and making the American Dream more accessible, it became increasingly clear that the same digital transformation that has powered American business innovation has not been as accessible to nonprofits and human service organizations. And at the same time, demand for services is outstripping the capacity of these organizations to deliver them.
Let me be clear—technology will never replace human capacity, human hearts, and human caring. However, without more access to technology and tools, organizations are telling us that they face inefficiencies and struggle to scale. These organizations provide critical, irreplaceable services and opportunities for all Americans. As a society, we rely on these organizations, and as funders, we have a responsibility to ensure they can meet the needs of their communities.
We need to think differently about how we invest in digital infrastructure. Let’s continue the example of a business: when you operate a company, you spend money. That spend is often classified in one of two ways: expense—that is, the cost required for a good or a service—or investment—that is, the money spent now to grow your business, your capacity, and your capabilities in the future.
For far too long, we as funders have treated nonprofit technology as an expense—a required spend to operate the organization. I challenge all of us to consider a different model: technology as an investment, as the down payment for future growth, capabilities, and organizational capacity. Furthermore, it is a necessary investment, not an optional one. We would never ask the Ford Motor Company to stop investing in its manufacturing capabilities, yet we continually ask service organizations to create more value without the long-term investment in their capabilities. That must change.
Our rethink must go beyond just reclassifying the spend and making more of it available (though that’s a good start!). Other barriers to digital infrastructure investments exist—in particular, the lack of high-quality, sector-specific software and the price point of the software that does exist. These barriers were creating friction in the marketplace and challenges in the broader human services sector. But, in 2018, we at Ballmer Group Philanthropy found a path forward with Social Solutions.
A company with deep experience in the sector, Social Solutions was in the midst of developing the right kinds of tools that nonprofits, particularly those in social services, need: a cloud-based platform that is flexible enough to meet the case management needs of social workers, the reporting and analytic needs of the organization, the user experience and engagement of the community as a whole, and the measurement and evaluation needs of boards and executive teams that operate these organizations. The platform they’ve built integrates publicly available data and combines that with the high-quality outcomes and impact tracking that allow leaders to make smart and strategic decisions.
Of course, it’s not just about creating the right tool. We also needed to create the right price point. So, as part of our partnership with Social Solutions, we created a $25 million fund called Impact Partners. This fund provides matching grants to nonprofits for technology enablement and digital transformation using the Social Solutions Apricot platform. Social Solutions identifies, supports, and trains the nonprofits, allowing us to extend our impact far beyond what we could achieve on our own. More importantly, this fund ensures that organizations have access to high-quality tools at a price point that is both sustainable for Social Solutions and affordable to the organization. To date, over 250 organizations have implemented their case management software and have impacted the lives of over 2.5 million school children.
Here’s an example of impact: one of the grant recipients I’ve personally engaged with is LINC (Local Investment Commission in Kansas City). They have experienced tremendous results with adopting Social Solution’s case management software. LINC has a massive network within the Kansas City region, working directly with 52 Caring Communities sites in partnership with seven public school districts. Through integrating technology within their network, they have been able to save more than 85 days’ worth of time and 18,000 sheets of paper per year and turn more resources toward improving their direct work with children.
This approach to investing in the sector is just getting started, so the potential to have more impact—especially at a time of great need—should be energizing us all. Targeted grants at scale, specifically for technology planning, acquisition, and adoption, is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to help create lasting change for nonprofits and the communities they serve and helps us rethink what it means to support these organizations.
At Ballmer Group Philanthropy, we believe that the American Dream should be accessible to all. We need to make sure that nonprofits on the frontlines have all the tools they need to keep our communities healthy and secure. We hope that other funders will join us in investing in a strong technology infrastructure that sets up nonprofits and human services for success.
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