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NGOs and the Cloud

Building Communities and Promoting a Culture of Information Sharing

Connecting to the cloud 
Meg Yarcia - April 18, 2013
Breakthroughs in information and communication technology have heralded the age of nearly borderless and boundless access to knowledge. Cloud computing, which allows people to run applications and store data over the Internet, leads the list of such developments.

This article was supported by a grant from Symantec Corp.

Cloud computing has had a tremendous impact on NGOs. Their adoption of the technology has helped to cut operational costs, streamline the flow of communications, modernize accounting systems, and facilitate resource management. Indeed, the cloud has introduced a paradigm shift in the way people manage information. Email, websites, social media, webinars, and e-commerce — all of which are based on cloud computing — are now fundamental elements of NGO operations.

Cloud and Convergence

Cloud solutions are more than just a supplement to an NGO's technology architecture. For one thing, they have great potential for the convergence of stakeholders — from donors and partners, to supporters and beneficiaries. Cloud technology thus serves as the cornerstone of communities, which organizations can leverage in initiatives for knowledge transfer and capacity building.

Already, we see how social-networking platforms are utilized for gathering support for causes or how document-sharing applications have revolutionized information dissemination. And we know that much more, such as raising funds or curbing the spread of communicable diseases, can be achieved with the right framework and tools.

The next sections feature three success stories that illustrate the efficacy of cloud technologies in engaging constituents in new ways. This engagement is now possible because the cloud has eradicated time and geographical and logistical constraints. The three case studies are followed by a brief review of the approach and how the cloud can be further maximized by NGOs.

Success Story #1: Climate Research Powered by the Cloud

Climate Learning Initiative Mobilizing Action for Transforming Environments in Asia Pacific (CLIMATE Asia Pacific) is a network composed of environmental educators in the Asia Pacific. The educators come from civil society, organizations, academic institutions, and government. CLIMATE Asia Pacific raises awareness, builds capacity, and engages in dialogue, alliance work, and policy advocacy.

Convener Frances Quimpo says that much more is needed in the field of education, in order to address climate change and achieve sustainable development in the region. CLIMATE Asia Pacific's member organizations therefore work to bridge knowledge, values, and skill gaps among people, especially the poor, in order to address environmental challenges.

As the first alliance of its kind, CLIMATE Asia Pacific faced an enormous task to bring together organizations from different countries, backgrounds, and political affiliations. Furthermore, it had to delve into a topic that is not often given much attention by educators or policymakers.

Taking advantage of cloud technologies, CLIMATE Asia Pacific launched its flagship research initiative: a collaboration with DVV International, Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE), and Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) Philippines. The initiative features the rapid mapping of climate-change learning initiatives in the region. It also recognizes the need to inform grassroots communities of the environmental situation and to assess the working environment. The goal is to build a network of environmental educators.

Data collation for the scoping study was facilitated through email to 297 organizations. These organizations were involved in climate-change education in eight countries from April to June 2011. Countries included Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Korea. While country reports were assigned to different member organizations, the end goal was to produce a single, coherent publication. Thus, each study was uploaded through Google Docs for other members of the alliance to comment on. Then the files were shared to the public through a digital library. (The digital library also features CLIMATE Conversations, a forum where interested parties can share their thoughts on climate-change education.)

The approach offered cost-efficient opportunities for collaboration — an important benefit for small organizations with little funds for meetings that would have required international travel and accommodation. Organizations that participated were able to save time, which allowed them to focus on their core mission: climate-change education. Most importantly, they are now able to convey information on the status of climate-change education in the Asia Pacific to policymakers and development organizations all over the world.

Success Story #2: Advocacy Through Social Media

In the Philippines, the advent of climate change has never been more manifest. In recent years, the country battled disasters of unprecedented magnitude, among the worst of which were typhoons Ondoy (Ketsana) and Pepeng (Parma). Meteorologists predict that Filipinos can expect an increased frequency of droughts, typhoons, landslides, and flash floods. All of these lead to destruction of property and loss of precious lives. Promotion of disaster preparedness has become an urgent mission among development workers.

Oxfam has begun to address this in partnership with several other organizations. Partners include Action Against Hunger (ACF), CARE Nederland, Plan International, Christian Aid, Handicap International, and Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE). The group is also supported by the European Commission Director General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

The group has launched a social media campaign for disaster risk reduction (DRR). It leverages the country's active netizens, especially 6 million Twitter users and 30 million Facebook account holders.

The #icommittodrr campaign was launched on the International Day for Risk Reduction in October 2012. Oxfam solicited status messages, photos, blogs, video clips, and other media that highlight girls' and women's participation in preparation for disasters and the impacts of climate change.

Participants were asked to share their pledges on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media platforms. Statements like "I commit to reuse, reduce, and recycle" or "I commit to plant more trees" were made public. In this way, the campaign encouraged thousands of people to reflect and talk about a very important yet often ignored topic.

DRR Oxfam Philippines program manager Janice Manlutac explains that the campaign specifically targeted the young adult population. This gave it a better chance of going viral. It was designed with a very positive and hopeful tone. The campaign introduced a cartoon about Cristy SuperPinay, a brown-skinned female superhero, as well as an official logo in fuchsia on a vibrant green background. These elements began to create specific branding for the virtual community of disaster risk-reduction advocates.

In conceptualizing #icommittodrr, organizers were especially keen to provide an "alternative public face apart from the well-known pictures of disasters." Campaign announcements were posted on personal as well as community pages by members of the consortium. Celebrities — musicians, actors, and actresses — were also tapped to popularize the advocacy. The campaign generated more than 1,000 tweets and hundreds of photos of people who happily expressed their commitment to build safer communities.

Success Story #3: Partners and Network Management in the Cloud Era

Asia Society for Social Improvement and Sustainable Transformation (ASSIST) is an international NGO focused on capacity building. It manages projects in more than 10 countries under six thematic areas. Through its work, it deals with hundreds of other nonprofits, donor organizations, private companies, government agencies, business chambers, and networks.

ASSIST therefore requires a program to manage various stakeholders, in order to successfully conduct its fora, training workshops, conferences, and awareness campaigns. It came in the form of Salesforce, a leading constituent relationship management (CRM) solution vendor. Salesforce provided ASSIST with 10 free user accounts under a grant for nonprofits in 2010. These accounts were distributed to people based in ASSIST's offices in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. They were also distributed to select personnel in other places where ASSIST operates, such as Cambodia, Nepal, and China.

Today, says ASSIST's partnership and network management director Kamesh Ganeson, Salesforce serves as a database of more than 4,000 contacts. The database provides a ready pool of sponsors. It also manages information about people who want to receive information on ASSIST's initiatives. The initiatives are as diverse as a CEO forum on responsible production, a workshop on energy audit, or a paralegal training on domestic violence.

For Ganeson, the tool has been useful to communicate with associates and constituents and track the history and progress of relationships with stakeholders. He especially praises Salesforce's features that allow him to easily share files among colleagues and partners, merge contact records, or monitor donations and pledges.

Like any other CRM solution, Salesforce works best when complemented by the judicious use of other cloud-based applications. These could include email, Skype, or social media platforms, for example. To date, ASSIST has established a Facebook community page and 10 other pages for its projects, as well as accounts on Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. It has even successfully conducted an international photography competition that covered 67 member countries or territories of the Asian Development Bank. It used only Facebook and an email account to do this — a much simpler and convenient way of organizing a contest.

Unleashing the Cloud's Full Potential

Through these examples, we see the cloud's role in bringing people together, especially towards a cause. We note, however, that NGOs cannot rely solely on cloud technologies. Initiatives will be successful only when there is also extensive work on the ground. CLIMATE Asia Pacific still conducted face-to-face planning and writing workshops for its research. Oxfam held an on-site launch activity for its #icommittodrr project. And ASSIST regularly organizes networking activities and meetings with its partners and donors to ensure constant communication.

Cloud-based campaigns also need to be incorporated into a more solid framework. For instance, both CLIMATE Asia Pacific and ASSIST have not yet installed "donate" buttons on their websites. This prevents them from accessing funds from ordinary page viewers who want to contribute to the cause. As for #icommittodrr, the campaign was conceptualized primarily to build awareness. Yet its Facebook page and hashtag could also be used to raise funds or call for rescue volunteers should disaster strike. More steps need to be taken to turn the campaign into a united community that can be called upon for quick action.

But surely, if they are equipped with the information they need about the cloud, NGOs will soon be able to address these concerns. Sixty percent of participants in Techsoup's Global Cloud Computing Survey agreed that lack of knowledge is the greatest barrier to greater use of the cloud. (The 2012 survey included respondents from more than 10,500 nonprofits, charities, and NGOs.)

Indeed, adopted with a sound strategy, cloud computing can help organizations accomplish goals big and small and change the world, one megabyte at a time.