Mobile & New Models for Collaboration
When Amanda Garces talks about the potential for low-income communities to transform their lives using mobile phone strategies, she’s speaking from direct experience. Garces is co-founder of Mobile Voices: an award-winning storytelling platform using basic cell phones that was created by, and for, day laborers and domestic workers in Los Angeles.
The project has succeeded in countering anti-immigrant stereotypes while building participants’ skills with digital media and increasing job opportunities. [Garces and her colleagues cite the project’s highly collaborative design process - conducted in an intensive and ongoing partnership with technologists from the University of Southern California - as a key to its resonance and uptake by communities historically underserved by technology.]
Garces was one of the practitioners who shared learnings from community-driven mobile projects as part of ZeroDivide’s recent Mobile Salon - the first in a three-part series of small group discussions between funders, nonprofits and technologists. The Salons and our initial report on the topic are funded through the generous support of the Vodafone Americas Foundation to increase the quality and quantity of mobile projects for social impact.
It’s difficult to overstate the opportunities for such impact - 87% of the world's population are now mobile phone users. Domestically, Pew and others have documented the rise in mobile use across all demographics, especially among African-Americans and Latinos.
But while nonprofits and social enterprises throughout the Global South have generated dramatic results - expanding health care access, sparking grassroots economic development, and much more – our report found that the social sector in the United States has been noticeably lagging in mobile innovation.
Following from this finding, Salon participants explored the questions: “Why isn’t there more activity in the mobile space by the U.S. social sector and what can be done?” One consistent theme was the need for a change in the culture of both nonprofits and foundations to better embrace experimentation and integrate technology throughout an organization’s practices and strategies.
The need for more funding is certainly a given. Foundation participants cited the need for better resources to help make the case for investment to their trustees and colleagues: case studies demonstrating measurable impact, analysis of various grantmaking approaches, and best practices for evaluating proposals in this emerging realm.
After exploring issues related to the “quantity” of mobile work domestically, the group tackled the question of “quality.” Specifically, we grappled with the topic: “What are key characteristics of projects that successfully engage underserved communities and result in social impact?”
Sheetal Singh of TechSoup Global summed up the sense of promise that new models of collaboration are generating: “I think we are entering a new phase of civic engagement which is being enabled by mobile technology. You can see it in the hackathons and participatory design sessions that are popping up all over the county (and world).”
We were fortunate to be able to bring together practitioners who’ve had success with a range of models for their collaboration between nonprofits, community members and technologists - from Youth Radio’s Mobile Action Lab and ISIS, to MedicMobile and Black Girls Code. Each of these projects has struck a different balance in the level of involvement by stakeholders and technologists, appropriate to the nonprofits’ organizational capacity, theory of change, and the availability of tech expertise.
Often-cited in the discussion were the challenges for developers and nonprofits in finding a “good match.” Whether defined as cultural competency or otherwise, most all agreed there’s a great need for fostering better understanding of each party’s strengths, motivations and expectations.
Noah Flower from Monitor summed up another key issue in his blog post about the session: “There may be a lot of interest among the developer community to volunteer and join weekend ‘hack-a-thons’ such as the recent Code for Oakland, but there is only so much that can be done without … a dedicated development team.”
This challenge of incentivizing techies and sustaining their involvement over time came up repeatedly. Suggestions included designating a project manager - a trusted broker - familiar with both nonprofit and techie cultures, partnering with businesses who have volunteers and some ongoing infrastructure to coordinate them, and jointly raising funds for “circuit riders” who could provide high-quality, culturally competent support to a cohort of 5-10 nonprofits over a sustained period.
So, What’s Next?
As hoped for, connections made at the Salon have sparked several one-on-one meetings between participating practitioners, funders and techies. Funder participants are in active discussion about (a) convening follow-up #fundertech gatherings to broaden the conversation to their peers, and (b) fostering some form of a “nonprofit-tech angel fund.”
At ZeroDivide, we’ll be building on the Salon’s momentum by supporting those efforts and generating regular blog posts on the key threads raised in the discussion. We’ll also be convening two more Mobile Salons in this series and synthesizing our learnings in a final write-up to share out with the sector.
What can you do? Write us with any questions or suggestions on future posts, convenings, or simply to discuss your project. And, please help build the public conversation with your own blog posts and on Twitter by using the #fundertech hashtag.
(Pictured: Amanda Garces talks about Mobile Voices.)