Track Sessions III

H. Technology’s Impact on Philanthropy: 'What can non-profit organisations learn from the technology sector?'


  • Stephen CIESINSKI President, SRI International
  • Ami DROR Founder and CEO, LeapLearner
  • Nicholas W. YANG Secretary for Innovation and Technology, The HKSAR Government


  • Erica KOCHI Co-Founder, UNICEF Innovation

This session started with each of the speakers providing a quick introduction to their stance on technology and philanthropy. Mr Ami Dror started with a call to philanthropists to gain comfort from taking more risks as, without a risk-taking culture, philanthropy would lack the ability to innovate. Mr Stephen Ciesinski noted that philanthropists had been using technology in three ways: (1) to improve their internal efficiency; (2) to connect better with funders; and (3) to form a part of their intervention projects. Mr Nicholas Yang pointed to the rapid change in China and how it has gone from a technology laggard to a leader in one generation.  He argued that countries seen as being “backward” might actually be a source of change, as well as more willing to accept change.

Ms Erica Kochi’s first question was how we could create a culture that was conducive to technological development.  Mr Dror argued that the best way to create a culture of change would be to let young people take a prominent role. Ms Kochi supported this point, saying that leadership at the top was needed to identify young leaders and protect them. Mr Ciesinski provided a macro view of culture, arguing that a culture accepting of change was required for a company’s long-term survival, which meant accepting that some people would be left behind.  Mr Yang’s perspective was that an organisation needed a culture of technology literacy, because it was through an understanding of technology platforms and standards that organisations gained an understanding of how technology would affect their sector.

Ms Kochi then asked the panel to give some examples of the risk or downsides of using technology, starting the discussion by saying that some people might mistakenly see technology as a silver bullet and thus create unrealistic expectations.  Mr Ciesinski believed that one wrong use of technology was when it was used to lead a project.  He stressed that technology should be used to enable the project, but the needs of the client must always be the starting point. Mr Yangs’s view was that two evils stemmed from technology-driven change: (1) disruptions to existing corporate practices, causing difficulty for those who couldn’t adapt; and (2) the unethical use of technology.  Mr Dror argued that the use of technology could lead to a loss of the human touch, and that technical solution often lacked “love”. Ms Kochi concluded this segment by calling on us all to be careful with the use of data, given that NGOs and foundations often had access to critical data belonging to the most vulnerable populations, and there was an obligation to protect and care for this data.  This type of protection must be built directly into contractual requirements when making procurement and be seen as part of the organisation’s budget.  Responding to her comments, Mr Ciesinski pointed out that smaller organisations may lack the financial abilities to address these issues.

Ms Kochi asked the panel for practical examples of technology being applied in philanthropy. Mr Dror felt that some technology providers might be able to support philanthropy with in-kind investments. Mr Ciesinski pointed to the fact that innovation did not need cutting edge technology, giving the example of using simple existing tools like Skype to improve user experience at an NGO. Mr Yang cited The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust’s work on bringing coding to schools as a great example of how technology-related education could be catalysed by the philanthropic sector. A later comment from the audience pointed to the need for more funders who were willing to provide grants to NGOs for improving their technical infrastructure. 

The panel discussion concluded with some quick comment on the future of technology in the next two years. Mr Ciesinski came back to the theme that change was happening and companies needed to innovate or die, while Mr Yang pointed to the power of data as a driver of future technological change. 

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