CIVICUS speaks to Chris Worman, Vice President of Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup, a non-profit international network that provides technical support and technological tools to civil society organisations (CSOs). TechSoup facilitates civil society access to donated or discounted software, hardware and services; supplies CSOs with the information they need to make smart decisions about technology; connects like-minded people, online and in person; and works on the ground to create social good solutions.
What is TechSoup and what does it do?
TechSoup is a complicated beast. We are a network of civil society capacity-building organisations working together to help ensure civil society has the resources it needs. We are also a community builder and philanthropic infrastructure. Founded in 1987, TechSoup is primarily known for the first part, for helping CSOs get and use technology. To date, the TechSoup Global Network has helped more than 1.2 million organisations, primarily grassroots community-based organisations, access roughly US$12 billion in technology products and services and millions of hours of free training and support. We also sometimes build technology with civil society through the organisation’s apps division, Caravan Studios.
TechSoup then works through partnerships to help understand technology in context and community. This manifests differently depending on particular needs. The TransparenCEE programme brings together technologists and civil society to build tools and campaigns to encourage participatory democracy. A myriad of other projects through the TechSoup Network address everything from increasing internet access for rural farmers in Colombia’s demilitarised zone, to working on STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) skills with teachers in rural Romania, to developing tools to support social services for Australia’s homeless people.
Finally, as philanthropic infrastructure, we provide a variety of tools and services, such as NGOsource, which leverages our network and community to help US foundations meet their regulatory requirements related to grantmaking across borders. Used by nearly 400 US foundations and common infrastructure for grantmaking abroad, in its first six years of operations NGOsource has helped lower the cost of international grantmaking by more than US$60 million and saved CSOs and funders more than 120 years of human labour by reducing duplicative due diligence processes.
What makes TechSoup necessary in the current tech environment?
We have been dwelling on two trends of the current – and coming – tech environment: contested digital space and the shift of technology to the cloud.
In terms of contested digital spaces – another way of saying ‘closing digital space’, manifesting as a combination of anti-civil society narratives, digital surveillance and policies that challenge rights online, or the lack of any relevant policy at all – TechSoup believes there is an urgent and critical need for CSOs to secure and build their digital reputations, and have the opportunity to join or lead digital campaigns that help build positive, pro-civil society narratives across digital media. The collective impact of individual CSOs that are more able to raise their voices online offers some hope of undermining anti-civil society narratives that would paint us all as foreign intermediaries intent on undermining culture and national identity instead of what we are – an important part of society, locally rooted and locally driven by community-based organisations intent on leaving the world better than they found it.
While increasing the capacity of individual organisations, we need to offer better tools to those who would join or lead digital campaigns. Our work with civil society to design and build the kinds of campaigns and tools they might hope to use to organise their communities from online to offline has shown that through such work, organisations that adopt digital tools for campaigning purposes become more savvy consumers of technology in general, and more committed stakeholders in and advocates for building and preserving rights online – a critical element in bringing in organisations that might not be policy-focused into the struggle for better digital policies.
Finally, these tools, campaigns, practices and communities need to be carefully considered and crafted to ensure safety. As a colleague from a context with closing space recently noted, with the internet came easy surveillance. This is an important point and dovetails into the other main shift we see, the shift to the cloud. All on-premise tools – think everything that isn’t Google Suite or Microsoft O365 –will go away in the coming years. This is both really good and really less good news. On the less good side, most CSOs are not ready to be fully in the cloud due to connectivity issues. Further, for many the cloud is not a safe place due to issues relatred to bad policies or no policies, such as who can access data in the cloud and on what terms.
On the good side, moving to the cloud can lower costs while opening opportunities for CSOs to link data for evidence, to drive advocacy and support new tools. One good example of this is a project conducted by our Irish partner, Enclude, who worked with Irish social service organisations to design a fit-for-purpose case management solution. The tool they built together met, for the first time, the needs of participating organisations, thus lowering their costs to provide services. Perhaps of equal or greater importance, it allowed organisations to pool data and use that data to learn from each other and build evidence for advocacy.
So, whether we like it or not, we are all going to the cloud. This offers opportunities but also necessitates increased capacity to represent and build our communities online, and work to ensure the cloud is a safe place for us all. TechSoup has been working to address these issues in a variety of ways and is in the middle of growing our programmes in these areas from pilot phases to our entire global community, effectively building the infrastructure upon which we can link the million-plus organisations we serve to partners who have technology or policy training capacities and interests and might want to engage the grassroots organisations we reach.
What are the barriers that CSOs experience to access existing technologies?
For more than 30 years, our mantra has been ‘democratising access to technology’. The main barriers to doing so seem related to CSOs choosing and being able to use the best tools for their work. TechSoup tries to lower that barrier in two main ways. First, by being a trusted source for curation and education, helping CSOs know what technologies are available and how to use them through online communities and courses. Though historically we have been quite focused on corporate technologies, this is fast expanding into ‘tech4good’ through projects like our Public Good App House, where CSOs can begin exploring tools that are specific to each Sustainable Development Goal and were built for CSOs and audited for security purposes by us.
Second, we lower access barriers by helping reduce the price point. Through our technology donation programme we are able to offer technologies at an extreme discount – what our French partner used to call ‘solidarity pricing’. The discount makes technology accessible at a price point most can afford – more than 80 per cent of the CSOs we have served have fewer than five staff – while generating revenues that help us provide free or steeply discounted training and support.
What does the data that you have collected through your work tell you about the ways CSOs use or don’t use technology?
The data tells us CSOs use technologies in about as many ways, and at about as many levels, as there are shapes and sizes in civil society. Some organisations are incredibly advanced and teach us new things they have learned or developed every day. Many could use some guidance and support on things that could improve their operational efficiencies so they can spend more time on their programmes. Most, let’s face it, don’t care about technology as long as it works. And that is fine!
The challenge, perhaps, is that very few organisations are fully aware of the ramifications of their technical choices. For instance: do you know where all your data is right now? Who has access to it? When did you last change your passwords? Few are also aware of how deeply we rely on technological infrastructure that is owned, operated and accessible by actors who may have interests contrary to our own. This lack of understanding, and the potentially negative ramifications of it, are exacerbated by the acceleration towards the cloud and increasing digitalisation of society. There are excellent thought leaders in this space – such as The Engine Room and the Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society) and its Digital Civil Society Lab – and I think we are beginning to understand and work on how we can partner, contextualise and bring civil society into critical discussions about digital access and rights – individually, collectively and in relation to digital policy.
We have to. Technology does not seem to be going away and as the world digitises, civil society needs to understand, craft and advocate for digital rights. Civil society is and always has been the champion of human rights. We must do so in the digital space. It will take all of us but it must be done.
What are the typical needs of advocacy CSOs that you seek to respond to?
We primarily help in choosing and using tools, but also we are increasingly providing training on digital storytelling, digital marketing and analytics to make sure stories are reaching their intended audiences, and training on how to work in an online environment cluttered with misinformation. These skills are certainly important for advocacy but are equally relevant for digital community-building and fundraising – both helpful in building a local base in the face of closing spaces.
Digital security is another big area for many. We provide some tools and guidance but those who are truly threatened need a much more personal level of support to map risks and develop plans than we can easily do en masse. We are working on more there but are always happy to recommend partners.
A third area is supporting base-building needs. We are piloting a variety of ways to connect advocacy organisations to the ‘rest’ of civil society – at least the million-plus CSOs in our community. Doing so, however, presents an interesting exercise in framing, communications and community building. Very few of the community we reach would consider themselves advocacy organisations. Fewer still sit around dwelling on rights-based frameworks. Regardless, they do their best to support, defend and enable their communities in their own ways. They can be reached and invited to engage in solidarity with those who are more particularly vocal about rights but it takes work to meet them where they are. We have seen some incredibly encouraging examples of broader bases of support and hosts of unlikely allies when advocacy organisations have the tools to appeal to the broader community, and look forward to more work in this area.
You mentioned the fact that the online space is increasingly cluttered with misinformation. Why do you think misinformation is so easily propagated on social media, and what tools can civil society use to stop it?
A funder recently asked me: ‘won’t we soon have a tool that simply tells us what is fake news?’ Sure. But a lot of disinformation is either fun or empowering to those who propagate it, or both. Our job in civil society will be to help educate voters and policy-makers about why facts are important and disinformation is a threat. We could do that by spending all of our time trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Some people think that is the way to go and not they are not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, technology platforms across which misinformation is spread are much more able to do that than we are. They can incorporate tools that spot deep fakes, monitor stories that are going viral around key words and work with civil society to interpret and distinguish what is harmful and threatening and what is not. They already have human moderators doing much of that work around obvious issues, but they are not trained to know that, for instance, a certain cat meme or dumpling joke is actually a political smear. We know and need partnerships – some of which are emerging around elections in particular countries – to help platforms and civil society meet in the middle.
Another approach, and one that we work with through our programmes, is described earlier: helping CSOs have the tools to build their own narratives, better use analytical tools to understand when their narratives are working and whether they are reaching their intended audiences, and helping to form narrative communities. There are hundreds of trolls, thousands who spread their lies and millions who see it. There are millions of CSOs, hundreds of millions who follow or ‘hear’ them on social media. Enabling each to tell their story, and enabling the collective to coordinate in solidarity, offers an opportunity to flood the digital space with our truths. Once all are moving, we will have more messaging, more quickly, and tapped into more local realities than a handful of trolls could ever manage. If we incorporate analytical tools to understand what messages are working and coordinate around successful messaging across our communities, our collective weight will overwhelm opposition. Until the government shuts off the internet… worth trying until then!
We are building a repository of specific tools and successful campaigns, such as the one we have built at TransparenCEE, focused on digital campaigning. But there are a lot of great resources out there, produced by JustLabs, MobLab and others.
Can you tell us a success story from your recent work?
One of my favorite stories – one that opened my eyes – happened nearly 10 years ago when I was living in a small town in Romania. I had launched TechSoup Romania through a community foundation I had started a few years before. Some funders had supported us to run a convening of technologists and CSOs we were calling the ‘Local Philanthropy Workshop’, through which tech people and CSO people worked on digital storytelling, tools and projects.
On one of the first afternoons, the leader of a local environmental CSO and a tech guy were talking. The environmentalist was sharing that he wanted to make a map of illegal garbage dumps in the county. The technologist asked if he had them in a spreadsheet with geocoordinates. The environmentalist emailed him the list and three minutes later the technologist showed him a googlemap version of what he had been hoping for. The environmentalist walked it across the street to the newspaper and it ran on the front page the next day with an article about illegal dumping.
Three minutes of tech and advocacy campaign came true because the right skills came together at the right time. It is a simple story compared to some of the much larger and more complex ones that have come since, but perhaps more indicative of what success might look like for most of us. Big data and artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning, digital ID and quantum are all good and shiny and important for those who have the data, tools and resources to work with them. For most of us, I believe, simpler solutions supporting the resolution of local challenges – where communities and civil society come together – are perhaps more in reach and perhaps, in aggregate, more meaningful as we seek collectively to come to grips with the influence of technology on society, and learn how to navigate the good and the bad of it as the world digitises.