Hey tech people, stop thinking only you can save the world


laptop-1176606_960_720Human beings are amazing. Our achievements in various fields throughout history, when we are not busy fighting one another, are breathtaking. Our achievements in technology are things our grandparents, and even ourselves, may have never dreamed about. Soon, most of us will be using an app to get fuel delivered to our cars, until we invent a car that runs on water or the omnipresent energy of the universe or whatever, we’ll travel long distances by Hyperloop, and our phones can be charged wirelessly from anywhere by having packets of electricity beamed from satellite. My partner and I just hooked up a smart light switch in our kitchen and can control the light from anywhere using our phones. I’ve been using this technology to scare my toddler into eating his veggies: “If you don’t finish your carrots, the Light Monster will get so angry…”

With technology having such a huge presence in our lives and work, it has become tempting to see it as the solution to all our problems. Every once a while, I start daydreaming about inventing an app, one that would be so successful that it would generate enough income for my organization so that I don’t have to wake up in cold sweat once or twice a month screaming, “Cashflow! Oh God, our cashflow!” Maybe a Tinder-like app, called Fundr, that allows organizations and foundations to quickly and mutually choose one another (“Hm, has leadership development as a priority, focuses on equity, program officer looks friendly. Wait, doesn’t like to pay for staffing? Cute, but obviously clueless. Swipe left.”)

It’s also tempting for our friends from the tech world to think they have the answers to our sector’s woes too. I’ve written before of the unfounded superiority complex of many people from for-profits who think that they can do a better job than we nonprofits can. The tech sector, a subset of for-profits and now its highest-profile member, should be addressed specifically, because while there are many wonderful and down-to-earth technology professionals, there are lots whose ego is ridiculously inflated. Like this dude, who thinks nonprofits should run more like startups. Or like this “tech bro,” who wrote an open letter complaining because homeless people had the audacity to disrupt his life by…existing. (“I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”)

There’s a great rebuttal to the first dude in a piece called “Technology Start-Ups Don’t Hold All the Answers for ‘Broken’ Nonprofits” by Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (Disclaimer: I’m quoted in that article). You’d think this attitude that the tech sector has all the answers may have died down a bit, but a recent discussion I had with frustrated nonprofit colleagues in the Bay Area, and my own interactions with the nice but clueless techies there and in Seattle reveal that it has not. If anything, it’s gotten worse. So once again, we must bring light to this irritating issue. While technology is awesome and will become more so, and in many ways makes nonprofit work easier, this assumption that tech will save the world is not just false and arrogant, but potentially harmful and should be qualified with some thoughtful considerations:

It perpetuates the chasing of “innovation” and “disruption”: These two tech words have seeped deeply into the nonprofit sector, especially in funding dynamics, and brainwashed many of us. While I am not against trying new things and working on creative solutions, we may have gone too far. The siren songs of innovation and disruption have unconsciously warped people’s minds. A huge frustration that many of us nonprofits have is the fact that many funders won’t fund existing programs, even if they are proven to be effective. Programs and projects have to be shiny and new. And they have a span of maybe three to five years before they’re seen as ho-hum and no longer exciting, disruptive, and innovative. This is a dangerous philosophy, one that leaves millions of people behind as funds are moved from critical programs to support newer, sexier stuff.

It may lead us to ignore root causes of problems: Someone (from for-profit) told me of an idea for an app that allows teachers and other adults to signal to food programs when they run into kids who are not getting enough to eat during the summer, when many low-income students often lose weight because they have little food at home. That’s creative, but our self-congratulations for coming up with such an “innovative” solution may lead us to ignore why these kids aren’t getting enough to eat at home, a complex issue that touches on systemic inequity, poverty, employment, education opportunities, affordable housing, etc., things not easily solved with an app.

It forgets that access to technology is unequal: I was once invited to a presentation by a new organization, one founded and funded by a multi-millionaire from the tech industry. Its mission was to try to engage families to be more involved in education advocacy. During the presentation, the org’s strategies were unveiled, the primary one being using social media and a strong website as a hub to engage families. Several people pointed out that many parents, especially low-income parents of color, don’t have computers or internet, so there also needs to be other ways for them to be involved, or otherwise it will only serve to amplify the voices of families who are white and not low-income. To that, the founder responded, “Well, if they can’t access the website on their computer, they can do so on their smart phones.” I didn’t make that up. Not everyone has the same access to technology, and if we are not careful, tech solutions may further exacerbate the problems we are trying to solve.

It absolves people of the need to give cold, hard cash: There’s the iconic adage in dollar-1362244_960_720fundraising that if you want advice, ask for money, and if you want money, ask for advice (and if you want raw cauliflower florets, go to a community gathering). Well, it seems like we’ve been getting a lot more advice from the tech sector than actual money, and some of us are like, “Yeah, we could find something for your team of programmers to help us design so they can feel like heroes…but really, what we need is more money so we can keep our center that serves people with disabilities open. Can you design an app that will get us more money so we can pay the rent on this place?” There are some problems that can be helped by technology. For instance, I am thinking of inventing sturdy but edible product packaging made out of corn or rice; it’ll help reduce waste, and it’s gluten-free, in case there are any Venture Capitalists reading this. But there are many, many societal challenges that cannot be solved by technology, and we simply need to pay to address them as a society, and this may mean “scary” things like raising taxes so the government can do its job, or funding nonprofits so we can do our jobs (which often are really the government’s job, like taking care of our veterans and providing high-quality education for every kid).

It ignores the fact that tech creates or worsens many societal challenges. The problems with gentrification in the Bay Area are widely discussed. Due to drastic increases in rent and home prices, low-income and even middle-class people are being pushed out of neighborhoods where they had long been residing. Seattle is trying to learn lessons from San Francisco and other cities, but we are seeing more displacement happening, and a significant factor is the growth in Seattle’s tech sector. So low-income people are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods, we nonprofits have to help people find jobs and housing and keep families together, and tech people want to use tech principles to solve these problems that may actually be caused by tech practices? I know the issue is more complicated than that, but the irony needs to be acknowledged. This parallels Enron and other large corporations’ irresponsible practices screwing over millions of people, and then for-profits saying that we nonprofits need to run more like them as we work to help people whose savings were wiped out by for-profits.

Look, I love technology. Most of us love technology and start ups and the appreciate our tech friends for making our lives easier and more interesting. Our work would be so much more difficult if it weren’t for the tools we have. We would have to calculate our expenses and revenues and keep track of our donors and outcomes using paper and pencils like animals. But technology will not save us. It will not save our world. And it should not be expected to. We each have roles to play. Nonprofits are good at some stuff, government is good at some stuff, the media are good at some stuff, tech pros are good at some stuff, etc. Working together using our diverse skills and experience and learning from one another is what will help create the world we want to live in. 

It becomes irritating when one group seems to think they can do a better job than another, and for some reason, we nonprofits have been the de facto group that needs “fixing.” This is BS, and offensive, and we need to keep calling it out from time to time before we internalize it, feel bad about ourselves, and get distracted from doing our jobs. Yes, technology is great, but if we think it’s going to be the holy grail, the magic bullet, the panacea, the Swiss knife of the world’s problem, we’re wrong. Many problems will not have technical solutions, and to believe that they all do means we will fail to address the complex adaptive factors needed to actually solve them.

So tech folks, and board members and volunteers from the tech sector, you’re awesome. Keep doing the stuff you’re good at. You help a lot of us nonprofit folks do our work. When I wake up trembling from night terrors related to funding my nonprofit, for example, I tell my smart speaker, “Alexa, play my cashflow-related night terrors playlist,” and the sound of the Beatles’s “The Long and Winding Road” comes on and it gives me energy to last another day doing this difficult work that I love. I am grateful for that.

But don’t think for a moment that just because you’re great at one thing, it means you have the legitimacy to give advice in an area that you have little experience and training in. I don’t go around telling you how to design apps or wifi-enabled smart light switches. If you want to truly partner to solve entrenched issues our community members are facing, then great. But first, get rid of your assumptions and ego. Otherwise, let’s agree to swipe left.

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20 thoughts on “Hey tech people, stop thinking only you can save the world

  1. Barb Welch

    “Well, if they can’t access the website on their computer, they can do so on their smart phones.” And while they’re at it, let them eat cake.

    1. Dennis Fischman

      Doonesbury had a comic strip years ago in which blue-blood Lacey Davenport was trying to explain homelessness to two of her rich friends. Friend #1: “Oh, that’s awful! But why don’t they go live in their summer homes?” Friend #2: “Shh, dear, I’m sure she’s getting to that.” Too many techie folks who sneer at inherited wealth have inherited cluelessness about social problems.

  2. Tom Slager

    Vu, Nice article. What so many Techies forget is that we are not at a Star Trek level of technology yet where everyone has free energy, a replicator that makes food and an economic system not based on money. Every time we make an advance in Technology, real people get left behind. The agricultural and industrial revolutions put a lot of people out of work. So did the advent of computers and robot technology. Each advance marginalizes, at least for a time, those people who have skills that get replaced.

  3. Lisa Bernstein

    snorted my coffee out my nose. – I would love to make snarky asides with you while sitting in the audience at a TED talk.

  4. Carol Clarke

    Vu, my friend, you have such a sexy way – with words, I mean, ’cause I don’t actually know you:

    “…funding nonprofits so we can do our jobs (which often are really the government’s job, like taking care of our veterans and providing high-quality education for every kid).”

    “We would have to calculate our expenses and revenues and keep track of our donors and outcomes using paper and pencils like animals.”

    You make me laugh (a lot) and you make me think (even more). You’re really very clever, using humour to encourage serious social transformations. Thanks! (I’m doing the same with our staff meeting minutes, and colleagues can’t wait to read them!)

    Hope your wifey and nuggets are doing well. 🙂

  5. Pete Noll

    Like science, technology is a tool. They are both powerful, but they don’t replace the magical unicorns who are intertwined in these complex societal processes.

  6. Mehitabel

    I can’t add anything to this except to say bravo, and I hope a whole lot of tech industry professionals read this and take it to heart.

  7. Sara Abernethy

    Vu – thank you so much for writing this. As someone in the fundraising technology space, it’s so helpful to hear the perspective of someone running a nonprofit. I think you make some excellent points, particularly encouraging folks in the tech world (like me) to NOT make any assumptions about a nonprofit’s needs, or what their challenges might be. It’s important for us to start with a clean slate! The LAST thing I ever want to do with a nonprofit is go on a “tech-splaining” schpeel that wouldn’t even apply.

  8. Becca

    Thank you, Vu, I really needed some good snark this morning. And by “snark” I mean “someone voicing the unspoken frustrations I feel Monday through Friday.”

  9. woodstockdc

    Technology isn’t always benevolent. Services like Uber and Lyft are ‘disrupting’ the economy…right into a situation where it’s totally acceptable for an employer to not pay for benefits because hey! everyone’s a contractor now! The major problem with tech is that it most of the time it only answers the question “Can we do this?” and never even asks the questions “Should we do this?” and “What are the implications if we do?”

  10. Pete Noll

    The other elephants in the room are the tech turned philanthropists or maybe that is explicit? There are a couple big names out there 🙂 And they probably fund more than a couple of us!

  11. Lisa Beatman

    Recent neighborhood development statements said at me (yes, I meant to write ‘at’): “Yes, we’ve reached out primarily through social media and kind of realize our Parks advocacy group is mostly white middle class (here I thought this was going in the right direction), but (shrugs shoulders) oh well -_0_/-. Also, “if someone isn’t using social media they shouldn’t be living in (hip gentrifying Boston neighborhood)!”

  12. Jen Bramley

    Where do you stand on technology non-profits? I work for a civic technology organisation which is doing the best it can to help solve problems using technology – mainly websites and apps. Yes, we’ve had most success where the countries are rich and the population are well connected but we do also have demonstrable success in countries like Liberia and Kenya using a mix of online and offline techniques. We also (and so do many tech non-profits I know and run with) hammer home the need for a mix of tech and non-tech solutions to reach users.

  13. Peg Giffels

    Hear hear! Thanks for nailing it once again. My $.02 is that there is nothing easy about solving problems where someone has to give up something to create the greater good and keep their attention on the problem for long enough to make a difference. That’s what nonprofits are tackling, and there is no app for that.

  14. Ash Shepherd

    A thousand times yes! So sad to see how the terms “innovation” and “disrupt” now carry a negative connotation for me for so many of the reasons you share here. The assumption that a tool like technology is what solves problems is like thinking a hammer alone is what builds a house. Not to mention the assumptions that everyone has a hammer or that it is even possible without one.

  15. Arik Greenberg

    “We would have to calculate our expenses and revenues and keep track of our donors and outcomes using paper and pencils like animals.” …Like animals! Ha! I love it! I’m literally (and not figuratively-literally) laughing out loud.

  16. Dana Doan

    Great article! I’d like to add another dimension to this problem,
    which is how the tech sector sometimes uses and abuses the nonprofit
    sector to create their apps/websites/programs.

    Two years ago, a
    group of game developers solicited data from the nonprofit sector that
    would help them build out a new game designed to teach users about
    child’s rights. The developers became frustrated and annoyed when the
    nonprofit community was not forthcoming with the data they needed to
    make their game interesting. Did they offer anything to the nonprofits
    for their time, data or input? No, not a thing. Just the opportunity to
    contribute to a project that might help to raise awareness about a cause
    they care about. Many nonprofits contributed information regardless.
    Though they never heard back from the developers after that.

    I was in college, market researchers would pay me $100, plus free food
    and drinks, for the time I spent providing them feedback on a new
    product or TV show so they could improve the product and/or marketing
    strategy. Is it crazy to think that the tech community might find a way
    to value their information providers in some way? It could be a
    donation to the NPO’s work, in appreciation for their time, or a
    complimentary tutorial/consultation (e.g., applying the Cloud to their
    work, setting up information management systems, identifying privacy or
    security issues and risk mitigation, etc)?

    Or, how about
    partnering with nonprofits in these endeavors? Could there be a win-win
    approach whereby the nonprofits and tech sector come together to build
    tools that work towards long-term solutions to the challenges both seek
    to address?

  17. LeighzArts

    This is entirely true, but also another point is that, as amazing as tech is, it’s also equally annoying. For example: You have an amazing donor base software program, however if your wifi goes down or your computer freaks out, bye bye doing any of that work today, or answer any of those questions that come up. It’s to easy for information to be stolen, swiped, and deleted. Then it’s gone forever!

    Don’t get me wrong though, it has some major key points that are great, but nothing working 100% of the time.

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