From Technophobe to True Believer…My Journey to Using Technology to Bridge Inequality Gaps

Guest post by Denise Howell, VolunteerMatch CFO

This post is part of Blog Action Day 2014.

How technology inspires giving and addresses inequality.I remember listening to Mari Kuraishi, President of Global Giving, at the Independent Sector a few years ago. She spoke about how we can find the greatest richness in our careers when we aren’t looking or have not factored it into our life plans.

I think back now to her message she shared, and how true it has been for me. I would never have expected, almost 4 years ago, to embark on a very different frontier in nonprofit work. I am not a technology person. I appreciate all that it has to offer, but it has generally stopped there. I have tended to focus on the downside of technology – folks seemingly disconnected from others by tuning into their music, iPad, smart phone etc. no matter where the setting. Technology can make our lives easier in certain respects, but can also cut us off, if we’re not careful, by limiting our focus and experiences.

My start in the nonprofit sector began when I was in banking. I worked with a board to address the lack of opportunity for very talented individuals with disabilities in engaging n meaningful job opportunities. It grew from there.

I’ve spent a good number of years in social services and foundation grantmaking, both highly complex structurally, and from that work, I thought I had seen everything about nonprofits and their significant work toward addressing inequality, including homelessness and low income housing, food insecurity, education, child development, immigration assistance, employment assistance, healthcare, literacy, and environmental sustainability. This is the work and the passion that drives all of us in the nonprofit sector every day: addressing inequality, imbalance, needs not yet addressed or addressed inadequately, lifting each other up when we need help.

So what compelled me to join an organization with technology at its core? I had certainly heard of VolunteerMatch, but I didn’t fully “get it.” When an opportunity to work here presented itself, I was intrigued. I came to my work here believing that I had seen all aspects of philanthropy. But this work has completely changed my world view and showed me a powerful aspect of philanthropy I had never seen.

Nonprofits with technology at their operational cores have created such a powerful contribution to societal needs. VolunteerMatch, DonorsChoose.org, Global Giving, and Kiva, to name some of the best and most successful, have broken the barriers for all of us to be a part of the solution toward creating a world where inequality can be eliminated. So, Ms. Kuraishi was right. It has been a very rich and rewarding journey. Not just for me, but for the millions of lives we have touched.

What is really at the essence of how we go about achieving success toward alleviating inequality in its many forms? It’s largely through giving – philanthropic support. Giving of ourselves and our time is one of the most powerful ways that we can work toward addressing social needs.

Remember that line Oprah Winfrey always used in her editorials? It was “what I know for sure.” Well, what I know for sure is that people love to give. During these past several years, I’ve come to know how technology can create opportunities for us to give in more ways than I ever thought possible. Before joining VolunteerMatch, I viewed philanthropy as immune to technology – social media, websites, all of it. I thought giving was too personal and that people need to be close to, and actually see the programs they are giving to before offering support. But technology, surprisingly, brings us closer to people and issues which may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from where we live, but still close to us – because we care and we know now more than ever that something that happens far away can affect us in our own communities, too.

Technology-based nonprofits such as ours at VolunteerMatch make the giving so easy. I’ve learned that giving doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Knowing that the time and money we give can be very manageable and affordable is even more empowering.

VolunteerMatch has tracked millions of connections, hours and impact of individuals and groups giving incrementally to successfully address so many challenges. VolunteerMatch has also reconnected me with to the truer, broader meaning of philanthropy. I, like many of us, have previously associated philanthropy as inaccessible and intimidating for all but affluent individuals. But philanthropy includes giving of ourselves and our time, knowledge and experience too. Both financial and nonfinancial giving are critically important and valuable.

Volunteering can be quick, or recurring and long term. Whatever we do, it is making a difference and it is good enough to give what you can. And nonprofits can find the best volunteers and engage in our educational resources. It is a welcoming experience – even for a technophobe! I have learned that technology can be just the opposite of what I initially experienced.

My faith in technology has been transformed through our work, as well as the work of some of our amazing peer organizations. Each organization is literally connecting millions of people locally and throughout the world, meeting needs and bridging inequality with the use of technology. And even better, these organizations allow all of us to participate with small investments of money and time. The results are tangible.

Our mission here at VolunteerMatch is to make it easier for good people and good causes to connect. I’m very proud of our success at achieving that mission, and it is visible to me every day. Everyone visiting our office is greeted with the giant live map in our lobby with our real-time tracking of people making connections to volunteer all across America.

In our office, we walk the talk, too. We volunteer together and we have amazing volunteers come to us with so much talent to share. We have had many come through our office, and I still see their faces and remember their projects. I am richer for knowing them, even if only briefly.

When I stop to think about the world without our technology-powered nonprofits, I am blown away by what a difference technology can make in addressing the inequalities that exist in our world. We can each do something. I work for an organization that makes that possible, and I am truly fortunate for the experience.

I welcome all of you to explore how technology-driven nonprofits can help you bridge the inequality gap to make your work, and your lives, rich and full. We can be a powerful partner to you in your great work. You, like me, will be transformed by the difference we can make.

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