Travel in New York City is a mess this week. At least for regular folks anyway. But it’s for a good reason. The United Nations head of states, delegates, and Pope Francis will be in town for the UN General Assembly and security is pretty high.
Along with the regular United Nations-related activity, there is a sense of change and transformation in the air. This weekend the UN will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs will replace the Millenium Development Goals as the UN moves to more inclusive operations to meet the needs of the world we live in today.
A few weeks ago I attended and presented my ideas on innovation and technology-enabled social impact at the United Nations during the annual NGO Conference. While I generally leave UN issues to those like Kofi Annan (no relation) who are better suited for diplomatic dealings, this time I was interested to hear what successes if any the MDGs have had, and why the SDGs approach would be different.
During the 3-day long conference, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how the approaches of UN partner organizations were changing and of the overall inclusive attitude that the SDGs creation process had spawned. While there is a willingness to transform how they operate, a large portion of the NGOs I spoke to are still struggling with how to plan and implement that change. For them, it seems like a daunting task.
While the roadmap to success can seem daunting, there are a few areas that an understanding of the technologies and the behaviors they enable can help the UN and its partners have a greater impact where it’s needed the most.
The simplest way for the UN and NGOs to make use of technology to further impact is by using digital tools to tell better and more human stories.
During the NGO Conference, I was happy to see that a group was experimenting with hi-tech storytelling by using virtual reality. Immersive storytelling is a great way to allow stakeholders to experience the situation an organization is trying to change. It’s also a good way to help envision the future that the organization is focused on creating.
But it’s not just high-tech solutions like VR that are relevant. Organizations can use mobile text to also engage communities over time and weave narratives that communicate and inform. Radio, a format that is dominant in many emerging markets, can also be leveraged. Working with radio stations to record and re-distribute content online and through SMS could help drive engagement among aid organizations and the communities they serve.
To tell better stories, NGOs will need an updated understanding of how media is created, distributed, consumed, and socialized in our highly connected society.
2. Participation & co-creation
To tell good, authentic stories NGOs will need to also ensure that community stakeholders are included in the creation and telling of stories.
During my conversations at the UN NGO conference, it became apparent to me that one of the great faults of the MDGs was that they lacked a critical element: inclusion. Surprisingly the creation and implementation of MDG initiatives over the years largely excluded those who would have to implement on-the-ground initiatives and the local community for whom the initiatives was supposed to serve.
The SDGs, though more inclusive in its creation, will require UN agencies to widen its partnership pool to ensure that co-creation is part of the roadmap and program implementations are contextually relevant. Organizations will need to accurately evaluate and hook into the growing channels and tools that are being used within local communities. Groups and individuals with expertise in these areas can help outline the benefits and use of technology-enabled approaches as well as help update legacy processes to support community participation.
I`m always surprised to speak to non-profits and government agencies who have no real metrics or method of gathering feedback. In talks with many organizations it’s become apparent to me that there is a huge disconnect between what many organization leaders see their role and value is to the local communities, and the reality of what the community really needs and values. Unfortunately, because many UN partner agencies are tenured, hierarchical organizations, there is infrequent internal re-assessment of the problem the founders were focused on and the current needs of the complex communities they serve.
In today’s complex world, feedback is critical to transformation and impact. No organization can maintain relevance without having constant feedback from those of the ground. NGOs will have to spend the time to build in strong, more real-time feedback loops throughout the organization levels to help them quickly measure the needs and impact on stakeholders.
For example, instead of conducting a program evaluation once a year, an organization might be able to tap into a stream of available 3rd party data and metrics to determine program progress.
If this all sounds like a lot of work, it can be, particularly if an organization doesn’t engage the right partners at the right levels. Today no organization can transform and innovate in a top-down, exclusive manner anymore.
Over the years I’ve heard time and time again from NGOs that they don’t have the time or money to rethink how they approach impact. My response has always been that, if the organization is truly focused on serving the community, they can’t afford not to rethink their approach. Whereas in the past, storytelling, co-creation, and feedback were a costly endeavor, technologies have made them more feasible at all levels.
As the UN community attempts to transform its methods from 2016 and onward, they will have to re-evaluate their approach to impact and use all the tools and methods available to them. Hopefully, the SDGs will force many of these organizations to begin leveraging the numerous available tools and approaches that will truly enable success.Tweet