This Track the Container Program from non-profit Sister Schools is an example of how technology can be used to create immersive experiences around giving, fostering emotional connections to causes. It’s just one of the many ways that digital technology can shape the way you give.
“There’s a lot of innovation out there right now to make charitable giving more accessible, but tech in philanthropy is an area that is often overlooked,” says Dorothy Chan, Head of Philanthropy Services & Advisory, Asia Pacific, at HSBC Global Private Banking. “Technology can enhance transparency and efficiency. It is also a source of innovation. Deployed strategically, tech can help shape our giving, and amplify the impact of philanthropy.”
Tech tools can open up new opportunities for donors to support the projects they care about, as well as reflect their passions and values. From digital platforms for giving to tools to promote and diversify sources of funding – even across borders – technology is helping drive forward global impact.
Using AI to inform strategic decision-making
By way of example, The Guoqiang Foundation, founded by Mr Yang Guoqiang and Ms Yang Huiyan, has been funding projects that use artificial intelligence (AI) to measure student engagement with online learning. One project uses AI to read children’s faces and screen their emotions as they consume online educational content. The goal? To assess what content they find most interesting and use this information to inform future programmes.
Another HKD5 Million project screens young people’s online and social media interactions – in collaboration with counsellors – for specific keywords that flag warning signs of poor mental health. Within the first six months, the pilot project identified 30 to 40 students suffering from academic stress or depression, or who were at risk of self-harm, and enabled counsellors to intervene immediately and offer relevant support.
Chan notes that, when embracing cutting-edge tech, philanthropists need to keep security and privacy concerns top of mind, especially when working with children and young people.
Gaming brings nature closer
Another project in the Philippines uses gamification to teach children about sustainability. “In the Philippines, environmental education is gradually being embedded in the curriculum, and this project uses games to reinforce what’s being learned in the classroom,” says Chan. “This means using virtual reality to let students experience the life of a park ranger at the Masungi Georeserve so that they see the relevance of what is being taught in class.”
Tech company Internet of Elephants is doing something similar to promote consumer engagement with wildlife. You can take on jungle conservation missions through an online game, take a virtual selfie with an endangered animal, and outrun a snow leopard using an app called Runtastic. All of these things are designed to raise awareness and funds for conservation efforts.
Blockchain to boost efficiency and transparency
Elsewhere, blockchain, AI and big data are being harnessed as tools to allow funders and recipients to be more strategic in the way they allocate resources. This technology can be used to track and measure impact, following the money flow so it can be used to the greatest possible effect, while improving traceability and reducing fraud.
“Blockchain has a lot of promise in terms of enhancing efficiency and making sure your funds go where you intended,” Chan says. It could even reduce transaction costs when transferring funds to a country with a less developed banking system.
“Some of our clients are also looking at how to use big data to make their giving more effective. They know that there are synergies amongst grantees and are looking for ways to encourage partners to work together and minimise overlap. It’s for their own review; big data can help them identify how they can enhance efficiencies and improve governance.”
There’s also the ability to automate some elements of grantmaking, for example through ‘smart contracts’. These digital contracts can be self-executed and self-maintained, based on conditions and protocols set out in advance and underpinned by blockchain technology.
Chan explains: “If you were to submit a grant that meets certain parameters – for example, to fund a programme that will provide sports activities to at least 100 children in this country – then it will automatically generate the grant without the need for a human to process it.”
However, this technology is still relatively new, and not many funders have invested in building these systems. On the other hand, grant makers also need to ensure grant recipients are tech ready, and consider broadening their funding to cover operating costs and support NGOs with their technological expenses.
“A lot of technology is used to enhance transparency,” says Chan. Typically, the head of a foundation has to juggle a lot of projects and has a number of reporting obligations. Being able to use technology smartly can make their lives easier and their organisations more efficient. “Their resources are limited, so they want to make sure every dollar spent is spent wisely.”
“We see that clients have really started to invest in software to support the management of their grants – enabling them to track what they've given and mine insights for the data that’s available to them. This investment extends to hiring specialists into their teams to perform those duties but finding talent can be a big challenge.”
The philanthropy space is set for further change as technology plays an increasingly important role. Innovative solutions have the potential to improve the way funds are raised and distributed, offer new ways of engaging donors and supporters, and ultimately make it easier to achieve philanthropic goals.