Winter 2004-2005

Innovation in Nonprofit Technology: NPower Arizona
by Patrick McWhortor

Innovation is not new to nonprofits. Faced with overwhelming community needs and tight budgets, nonprofits are always finding creative ways to build resources and deliver services. Yet when it comes to technology, many nonprofits don't have the resources or support to innovate new technologies or new uses of technology in their own work.

This article explores what technology innovation means for nonprofits - how some organizations are using technology to increase their impact, and how others can take these case studies and replicate the success in their own organization. It also discusses the roles that funders and technology service providers play in ensuring that all nonprofits have access to high quality, mission-driven technology services.

Valle del Sol is an example of a nonprofit integrating new technology to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery in the community. The largest Hispanic behavioral health and social service agency in Phoenix, Valle del Sol has case managers visit families in their homes, helping them connect with services for substance abuse, family crisis, and other support.

Valle del Sol, Inc. logo

As with many social service organizations, much of the one-on-one client work of Valle del Sol happens in the field, while the data so important to facilitate and measure the impact of that work lives in a computer at headquarters.

Valle del Sol saw this as more than just an efficiency issue. They found that clinicians in the field were making notes and completing forms with the knowledge and understanding of the family in front of them, but information and data was being entered later into the computer by other staff without the same level of knowledge about the client. There was a risk of data being entered incorrectly or inaccurately, or funding agencies being billed inappropriately. Valle del Sol wanted to find a way to enable staff in the field to quickly, easily, and securely gather and upload data about clients, streamlining the process and reducing the chance of errors.

Valle del Sol staff testing out a PDA

Valle del Sol staff testing out a PDA:
(l to r) Travis Muggar, Director of Technology Center;
Luz Sarmina-Gutierrez, President & Chief Executive Officer;
Julie Brodmerkel, Counselor 1/Team Leader-Youth Services

Today, the solution is literally in hand. Valle del Sol is introducing wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) to 60 of its case managers, equipped with software that manages all of the forms and data needed by field-based clinicians. Family members can sign forms on the PDA screen, preventing the need for paper forms. And once the data and signatures are gathered, they are instantly transmitted by wireless communications to the database at headquarters.

Valle del Sol estimates case managers can see as many as two additional clients per day, a 20% increase. Further, Valle del Sol can assure the data is clinically accurate, reducing the risk of data and billing errors. Finally, field-based case managers will have all of the most current data available about clients on their PDA, which is connected live and securely to the Valle del Sol database. This allows them to spot patterns in the data and suggest interventions while they are with the client. These results improve effectiveness and expand the capacity of services provided directly to clients.

For social service nonprofits, the old rules said that clinicians worked with people, while data was often the property of processing personnel back in headquarters. But if real-time access to data can make a difference in service delivery, clinicians need to use it as a tool.

Valle del Sol solved that problem through innovation using wireless technology. They demonstrated the observation by Michael Hammer and James Champy (in "Reengineering The Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution," HarperBusiness, 1993) that "the real power of technology is not that it can make old processes work better, but that it enables organizations to break old rules and create new ways of working - that is, to reengineer. It is this disruptive power of technology, its ability to break the rules that limit how we conduct our work, that makes it critical."

Over the past three decades, information technology has significantly changed the way businesses work, increasing productivity, helping create new industries and spurring innovation. Similar to the productivity gains and transformations seen in the private sector, technology has the potential to transform nonprofits.

We already have examples: web-based earned income tax calculators that dramatically increase the number of low-income individuals applying for and receiving earned income tax credits; easy-to-use web sites with self-help legal information enabling legal services providers to serve many more individuals and families (see Julia Gordon's report for the Project for the Future of Equal Justice); and advocacy web sites such as changing the nature of grassroots engagement.

When we match the positive disruptive potential of technology with the passion and experience of the nonprofit sector, we build healthier, more just communities that can better offer safety, housing, economic opportunity and access to the arts to all members.

What is Innovation?

We can think of innovation existing in "layers":

  • Adaptation: New ways of doing the same thing (this is how Valle del Sol approached innovation).
  • Transfer: Applying an existing way of doing something to another activity.
  • Invention: Envisioning and creating a whole new activity.

The impact of innovation should be at least one of the following:

  • Improvements in the way customers experience the organization.
  • Direct benefits to customers.
  • Expansion of the number, diversity or geographic reach of customers.
  • Improvements in business processes that solve problems.
How Can Innovation be Successful?

Can other nonprofits envision innovative solutions, as the information technology team at Valle del Sol did? Valle del Sol has more than 175 staff and will invest more than $130,000 in direct costs to develop their solution. How can nonprofits without that level of resources and capacity consider innovation? For that matter, how does any organization replicate their success?

This case study and the literature suggest five criteria for success:

  • Investment: technology innovation needs to be seen as a fundamental "R&D" function within the nonprofit sector.
  • Success Metrics: Projects must articulate "bottom line" measures, which are tied to one of the four potential impacts of innovation outlined above.
  • Collaboration: in order to make the case for R&D, nonprofits must collaborate to develop tools and strategies that have an impact on customer service and community impact. Funders are more likely to support investment in broader community impact solutions than technology tools for one organization.
  • Expertise: Experts in the nonprofit world are rarely experts in technology, but they understand their customers. Nonprofits need technologists who do not sell software and hardware, but who take the time to understand and use the expertise of nonprofit staff, like Valle del Sol case managers, to build a solution.
  • Inspiration: Nonprofits need reengineering case studies published in books and articles; like the corporate sector, nonprofits need an entrepreneurial marketplace to stimulate an ever-growing range of technology ideas and applications for nonprofits. This could also spur collaborative opportunities. At the end of the day, this means nonprofits sharing with one another.

As nonprofits think about innovation, they will need the support of nonprofit technology assistance providers (NTAPs), such as locally based NPower programs, that foster the knowledge sharing, understanding of nonprofit expertise, and collegiality that lead to innovation.

NPower logo

These providers should demonstrate and embody the five success criteria of innovation. They should develop technology plans that are mission-driven and build the capacity of nonprofits to serve their communities. They should focus on service more than just technology, posing questions such as "What do your customers need most from you that you aren't delivering?" and "What key population aren't you reaching that you want to?"

This type of inquiry goes beyond simply providing a piece of technology, and will lead to true technology solutions and innovation. NTAPs need to be enablers of innovation focused on improving the quality of life in our communities.

Innovation also requires resources. Funders can help nonprofits accelerate the adoption of mission-supporting technology by providing grants that fund specific technology projects, or by encouraging nonprofits to think through how technology can extend the impact of new or existing programs. Working together, nonprofits, NTAPs and funders can create a culture of responsible, collaborative innovation that will benefit the entire nonprofit sector, and especially the people it serves.


As Margaret Wheatley notes, "Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren't there before."

"Innovation" is a keyword of this century. We hear it from business leaders, technologists and academics. But innovation can begin in anyone's mind, inspired by a desire to make the world a better place. What better minds to put to innovation than nonprofit leaders who are already passionate about service to their communities and earth? Hopefully, this article will inspire at least one leader to imagine an innovation to explore and pass along to the sector, making a difference in the lives of more people, in more communities than previously thought possible.

Additional Resources

More on Wireless and Nonprofits
Handspring Foundation

Inspiration for Innovators
The Innovation Journal
Real Collaboration

Nonprofit Technology Inspiration
NPower Tools & Resources

More Nonprofit Technology Assistance Providers
TechFinder (search tool for providers)


This article was inspired by the invaluable contributions of staff and members of the NPower Network. I also wish to thank the talented staff at Valle del Sol for sharing their story with other nonprofits and promoting collaboration through knowledge-sharing.

Patrick McWhortor is founder and CEO of NPower Arizona, an affiliate of the NPower Network. McWhortor has spent 15 years in Arizona nonprofits and government, and some time in the technology sector. He was also an advocate for education and environmental issues in the Arizona legislature.

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