What It's Like Helping Nonprofits Develop Software—and What We All Can Learn

November 4, 2020 Derrick Harris

Building useful software is rarely easy, but many organizations at least have access to software developers and aren’t working with data that could get people killed. Nonprofit organizations often aren’t so lucky—they’re the ones working with scant budgets and at-risk populations—but there’s a lot that everyone can learn from how they succeed even with those constraints.

In this episode of the Cloud & Culture podcast, Ellie Ereira discusses VMware Pivotal Act—the initiative she runs and helped create to help nonprofits improve their operations using the tried-and-true Pivotal Labs methodology. She shares a wide variety of experiences from working with organizations across the globe, where concerns range from maintaining applications over the long term to making sure data doesn’t find its way to terrorists.

Below are some text highlights, but you’ll want to listen to the whole episode to hear more about VMware Pivotal Act and how the lessons it’s learning in the non-profit sector can apply to organizations of all sizes across industries. You can also read this recent blog post by Ereira and Aly Blenkin.

Plan for unintended consequences

“The organizations that we're working with are often working in quite difficult environments and often working with quite vulnerable people. So, to give you an example, we've done projects where we've worked with young people who've been in foster care, as they turn 18 and transition out of the care system. … We've done another project with an organization called the Collaborative Cash Delivery network, and that was looking at how to coordinate distributing cash in emergencies as part of a humanitarian response to things like floods and earthquakes.

“In those kinds of instances, there are really high stakes involved. ... we really try to make sure that we're building tech in a responsible way. And one of the ways that we do that is by taking a step back and really looking at the whole ecosystem and all the different people that are involved in that to really avoid making any unintended consequences of what it is that we're actually designing and building.

“We just really want to make sure that we're not adding any additional harm. That's something that's actually relevant in all kinds of projects, but I think especially when you're working with traditionally underserved communities, then that's extra important.”

Planning for the long term—even without developers

“What we found when we started with Act is that a lot of nonprofits don't have software engineers or designers or product managers. ... So we are learning how to adapt our program. Where we are finding those teams, we can lean on the experience that we have with Labs. But where we don't have that, we've really got to expand the way that we work. 

“And so a lot of that involves really taking a long-term view, thinking about sustainability and impact. Like, if we look at this problem and we ... deeply research it, we look at the systems evolved, and we think, ‘Actually, yes, software here could really make a difference,’ we have to think about, ‘Well, who's actually going to maintain it after the end of the engagement?’ And so we've looked at a few different models around that, where we've built something in such a way that we're able to get that first version out the door and then pause and wait and see how it works in the real world.

“And then it might be the case that the nonprofit could work with another agency or a contractor further down the line. But the hope is that we've built up their skills in some ways so when they are at that stage, they're using some of the techniques that we do in terms of thinking about outcomes rather than outputs, and so I'm more likely to hopefully get a piece of technology that actually works for them and hopefully is driving impact.”

Data security can save lives

“They were telling us— these members of these different NGOs who work in [the cash-delivery] space—around some of the risks that are involved in this, and they keep what they call beneficiary data, which is information about the people that the NGOs are looking to support and distribute cash to. And they were talking about the dangers involved in that, because in some of these countries that they're working in, there are terrorist organizations. They were giving us the case of Somalia, where there are terrorist organizations like Al-Shabaab, and explaining how important it is to keep that information really secure. Because if an organization like that or any other nefarious actors were to get hold of it, then they've got a ready list of information of people who are about to be receiving money. 

“That could definitely be misused and information that could be highly sought after. So you really have to bake in this level of security and think about these things before just jumping in and building something quickly.”

Learn more

VMware Pivotal Labs

Pivotal Act

Building Products with Nonprofits—Lessons Learned from VMware Pivotal Act

Design-led Solutions for Humanitarian Aid


About the Author

Derrick Harris

Derrick Harris is a product marketing manager at VMware.

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