Tech Innovation in the Non-profit Sector

By Alice Pearce on 29 Apr 2019

Excited by the future-focused vision within some of our not-for-profit clients, we thought we should take a look at a few of the innovations transforming the sector, both internally, and in service delivery.

As we enter what the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, describes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the most successful organisations will be those that recognise and plan early to transform to place technology at their heart.

Before your non-profit can begin to adopt many of these exciting new ideas though, you will need to follow the approach of our client The Welcome Trust and get your cloud infrastructure in order first. In a technology led organisation, cloud is the foundation for many of the advances you may wish to adopt in the future.

Digital Donations

One of the most striking factors in this new technology focused era is the ‘speed’ of change – some new technologies can spread very rapidly. One example of this is the contactless collection box.

Contactless donation kiosks at the National History Museum, London (image courtesy of Goodbox)

We all want to give, but as we increasingly use cards for small payments, loose change isn’t something we always have to hand these days. Solving the problem, contactless collection boxes are springing up everywhere, from museum entry systems and even portable systems for buskers.

There’s still some way to go though – in a response to Government in June 2018, the Charity Finance Group reported that 74% of charities had not yet attempted to take contactless donations. Cost is seen as the biggest barrier, yet it seems card systems can soon pay for themselves.

Forging ahead:

The National History Museum introduced the contactless system ‘Goodbox’ and found visitor donations increased by 22%.

Church of England trialed contactless in 2017 and their success has led to roll out to 1600 churches, cathedrals and religious sites across the UK. The trial found donations tended to be larger than with cash.

TipTap – A contactless tip device for buskers, developed by a student at Brunel University is just one of number of new devices we may see popping up on the streets. London’s mayor supported a pilot scheme in May 2018 with a device created by iZettle, a Swedish tech company that had just been bought by Paypal. Buskers on the scheme found the devices increased their takings.

One enterprising Big Issue seller in Bristol paid £30 for his contactless device and says it paid for itself in days.

Transformational Tech making an impact

Technology for Food

The World Food Programme (WFP) is leveraging technologies ranging from satellite imagery and landscape monitoring software, to food computers and hydroponics, to solve long and short term food needs across the world.

In one example, WFP is working with a number of partners, including MIT and hydroponics’ experts H2Grow, to run 10 food computers in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. The food computer uses robotic systems to control climate elements including air and root-zone temperature (no soil required) oxygen, hydrogen, and even electrical conductivity. The most successful crops will be scaled up for production helping economic self-resilience within the camps.

Knowing in advance where food aid will be needed and how much food can be produced in a particular region, could make a big contribution to achieving zero hunger.

Stanford University’s Sustain project won a World Bank Group Big Data Challenge Award for its system to predict crop yield. Combining the use of publicly available remote sensing data and machine learning, they found their inexpensive system out-performs all other methods of predicting yield several months before harvest.

Big Data for Good

Concerns about Big Data have been big news, but Big Data has much to offer for positive outcomes.

While the Stanford Sustain project was one of the winners in the World Bank’s Big Data challenge, the challenge highlighted many innovative projects with the cumulative power to make a positive difference. You can read more about these projects in the pdf link here.

Map for Environment is an open repository for environmental data that enables non-technical users to produce maps of human activities such as logging roads, agriculture, dams and fracking wells. The app developers, Maphubs, believe their user-friendly mapping system has helped to drive sustainable cocoa farming in West Africa, monitor soybean expansion in Bolivia, and track energy infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Citizen science data brings enjoyment to the public while gathering valuable data in areas such as species distribution to help plan for threatened species. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) has 930,000 participants, including schools, engaging with the environment while sharing valuable data. This data is helping us to understand our environment, from tree health to the New Zealand invader, flatworm, distribution.

Blockchain Technology

When it adopted Bitcoin donations in 2014, The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), was the first UK charity to accept digital currency payments. At that time, even the tech sector was only beginning to get to grips with the potential for digital currencies and blockchain technology.

RNLI were looking at future technological trends when they made their decision, and it was surely a winner, assuming they were successful in gaining Bitcoin supporters at the time, since a Bitcoin back then was worth around $500 and even after its crash from the heady heights of $20,000 each in December 2017, still has a value many times that of 2014.

Blockchain technology began with Bitcoin, but has exploded into a burst of innovation over the past few years, with ideas for its uses ranging beyond payments into areas such as supply chain, logistics, food provenance, distribution of solar energy and water resources.

Many blochchain startups are focused on the unbanked, using blockchain to overcome the problems of assuring identity for populations such as refugees and those living in extreme poverty. Companies such as BanQu and Humaniq are already signing subscribers and bringing innovative startups to deliver services to these populations via their platforms.

Fintech software company, BanQu was formed in 2012 by a group of individuals experienced in working on global aid projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. First they helped found business in Africa, then, to overcome banking problems they encountered on the ground, they developed the BanQu app.

Built on blockchain infrastructure, the app allows users, communities, families, aid organisations, governments, banks and payment companies to interact. With its secure and immutable characteristics, blockchain allows BanQu to solve the problem of identity within the banking system for those people who are refugees and/or living in extreme poverty. BanQu has many exciting ideas in the pipeline to extend the possibilities of blockchain for these populations.

IoT and Wearables

Open Challenges have proven to be a great way for global organisations to identify new technology applications.  Unicef, along with technology company, Arm, and design company, frog, launched the “Wearables for Good Challenge” in 2015, seeking ideas to solve some of the most pressing problems facing children.

From 250 entries, two winners have continued through the next stages of development and launch.  Khushi Baby, monitors the health care of mothers and babies, helping to improve vaccine uptake and SoaPen, a portable soap, encourages hand washing.

Unicef is keen for other organisations to help take the submitted ideas further. You can view their catalogue of submissions here.

The Michael J Fox Foundation is working with Alphabet company, Verily Life Sciences LLC, on a project to provide multi-sensor study watches to 800 US participants in the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI). The study was launched in 2010, with Verily coming on board in May 2018 to add another dimension to data gathering, with the aim of discovering biomarkers of Parkinson’s Disease and its progression. Resembling a normal smart timepiece, the watch will monitor tremors associated with the disease, providing researchers with much more accurate data, helping to speed advances in early diagnosis.


One of the most impressive and potentially transformative new technologies comes from, New Story, a US non profit housing charity, that has teamed up with a 3d printing startup to develop a 3d printed house which can be produced within 24 hours.

3d printing is still in its infancy, but is already firing creative entrepreneurs to develop innovative applications. In addition to large scale ideas such 3d home, another, more modest application, is allowing artists in African villages to send designs digitally to Europe where they can be recreated for sale.

Download our Not for Profit Transformation Whitepaper to learn more about the impacts of new technologies and how to prepare for for them.