Monday, August 24, 2009

Peering Over the Horizon

In the movie Big, a young boy puts a quarter in a fortune telling vending machine and makes a wish. When he doesn't appear to get it, he is disappointed. The storyline ends up being a fantasy of "be careful what you wish for; you just may get it."

Such is the business of looking to the future of any enterprise, nonprofits included. Yet that is what I was asked to recently do-- imagine the future of the 21st century NGO. Here is what I said:

From my vantage point as chairman of NetHope and CIO for Save the Children, I see six areas of impact technology and related collaboration will have on International Nonprofits[1].

  1. Virtualization of the organization – Technology has made it increasingly possible to work remotely and in teams that are geographically dispersed. This trend, along with the continuous improvement in personal communications technologies and collaboration tools, will increasingly question the structure and cost of maintaining traditional office space. The “road warrior” will become the norm. For technology, this means outfitting our workers to have access to all their tools wherever they are.
  2. Further digitization of the way we work – More of our work will be done on portable devices from wherever we are. Face-to-face meetings, learning, working on documents, and even social interactions will increasingly move on-line. Technology and communication improvements, coupled with economic pressures, will drive a more self-service culture in the organization. We will need to lead-by-example in setting expectations about how we will work.
  3. Mainstreaming of consumer technology and the web “cloud” resources – employees and partners will increasingly bring their technology with them. Consumer technology is already passing the capabilities of “industrial” technology in a number of categories (witness the iPhone, Facebook, etc.). Our understanding of standardization and information security will need to shift to embrace this. Most students know and expect that the technology is the social network on which they rely.
  4. Innovation from outside – we will need to increasingly look to emerging countries, youth, “skunk works” and other partners as sources of innovation. We will need to partner with disruptive innovators (like Kiva and Vodafone’s M-Pesa) even when it’s threatening to the value chain in which we have historically worked.
  5. The wired beneficiary- we can expect beneficiaries to increasingly drive our program and fundraising agenda as they gain access to information through cell phones and low-cost devices. Social entrepreneurs and local emerging country entrepreneurs will grow quickly and drive ICT for Development (ICT4D) programs in an ala carte and even franchising fashion based on beneficiaries acting increasingly as consumers.
  6. Disruptive Innovations – four potential disruptions enabled by technology are (a) the renegade in-country partner who links directly with suppliers for emergency relief, (b) the beneficiary driven relief catalog with beneficiaries placing orders via portable kiosks, (c) in-country corporations taking the lead on programs and relief efforts in functional areas where they have strengths beyond ours (e.g., supply chain) and inviting us to join them, (d) donor directed projects in the micro-finance (Kiva) and other areas. How we deliver programs will change, either by us or despite us.

These shifts for the international nonprofit community are not new. Many of them have been at work in corporations and schools and are reaching into nonprofits as the “late comers” to the party. They will require two types of humility:

  1. Humility to admit we got our forecasts wrong. Technology changes rapidly and impacts society and organizations in ways we don’t foresee. Ten years ago we would not have expected the degree of penetration of cell phones in emerging countries, and the data access capabilities of mobile phones at almost a 4:1 rate over PCs. When the future is uncertain and there is rapid change smart organizations vary like mad.[2] They run an increasing portfolio of pilots and experiments and constantly test ideas. That which works, they take to scale; that which doesn't, they throw away. That takes humility.
  2. Humility to recognize most organizations will not embrace radical change. I asked Clay Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation research at Harvard, whether he knew of examples where the incumbent organization embraced disruptive innovation internally. He said “no.” The only successes he’d seen were where physical and geographic separateness was required, as in creating the remote subsidiary[3]. Tom Peters’ law of proximity also comes to mind: the degree of innovation is directly proportional to the distance from headquarters. It takes humility to accept the change dampening effects of an entrenched culture (think Kodak) and look to create it, or partner with it, outside HQ.

I heard an interesting rejoinder this morning to looking to the future with humility. It's half right. We are called to approach the future with humility and wonder. Yes, a beginner's mind is more apt to learn and be surprised with an "ah, yes!" rather than an "oh no!".

[1] Selected references:

Ed Granger-Happ, Where Will We Be Tomorrow?, Blog recap of remarks at an NTEN book launch webinar, March 31, 2009.

Ed Granger-Happ, Where Will We be Tomorrow, in Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission, Josey Bass, March 2009.

Ed Granger-Happ, M. Eric Johnson, Joel S Obillo, Nick Richardson, Are Nonprofits Ripe for Disruption?, an unpublished paper, The Tuck School at Dartmouth, August 22, 2008.

[2] See Jim Collins, Built to Last, Harper Collins, 1995, pp. 146-47.

[3] Hung Kim, the VP of Innovation at Ascension Health (a $12B corp.) and former McKenzie consultant, told me, “you must create separateness to innovate.”


  1. Ed, I'm curious.. In the world of non profits, why would you consider Kiva. "disruptive" as opposed to simply an improvement in a non profits ability to not have a large infrastructure and perhaps be more efficient?
    Hope you are well.

  2. A disruptive innovation is one "that improves a product or service in ways that the market does not expect" (See It's also been described as a disintermediation of the value chain (Think iTunes and MySpace impact on the music industry. ) I agree that Kiva offers an improvement, and one I admire, but it's not that simple. If you examine the value chain for Kiva, it's more direct in some respects than the traditional nonprofit, but it still relies on the micro-finance institutions to deliver its services, often at a higher "mark-up" than the traditional NGO value chains. However, matching donors with projects takes out the head-end steps, and with a higher degree of personalization and engagement-- a strong wake-up call for traditional organizations, and a disruption (and rapid growth) that was not expected.

  3. Ed -

    Very interesting thoughts - they resonate completely with my experience with NPO sector over the past couple of years. I especially like the humility portion of your post, although cultural barriers will not allow that humility to manifest itself in many areas. The other challenge is the 'how' - that seems to me where a lot of NGO/NPOs have bogged down in dealing with disruptive change.

    A lot of commercial enterprises, and even some government entities have gone through painful change thanks to disruptive market. While they've taken some lumps and not all of them survived, for the most part they adapted. I would not be surprised to see the same evolutionary process happen in the NGO/NPO space. In some of our more forward-looking clients, they are taking on that challenge head on, but those are few and far between.