Japan: bridging the gap between nonprofit mandate and resources through technology

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AFP |

It is the mission of nonprofit organizations to help meet the challenges facing society. To do so, they must undertake a wide range of activities, including the important areas of employment support and community revitalization.

Despite the broad scope of the work required, many nonprofits operate with limited resources and few if any paid staff. To help bridge this gap between mandate and resources, IT can play a crucial role.

Kamaishi Nonprofit Finds its way in the Cloud

“Our activities will not be sustainable if we do not grow out of a mom-and-pop style of management,” says Junichi Kano, Representative Director of @Rias nonprofit Support Center, a certified nonprofit based in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. The group was founded in 2004 with the mission of helping to restore vibrancy to a city once known for its steel industry. But it was in the massive relief effort required after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that it began its most demanding work.

While city government officials were working under extreme pressure to bring about the fast reconstruction of local communities, their own needs and the needs of their families could not be ignored.

With the city devastated by the massive tsunami, outside help was needed in the huge task of distributing relief goods. With equipment restored by Microsoft, the nonprofit produced videos of the disaster area, making the available around the world via the internet. The response was immediate, with a broad network of people all coming together to help.

As various reconstruction projects were put into motion, daily communication between various aid groups became a critical issue, with more than 100 people needing to be kept regularly updated on what efforts were underway by various nonprofits.

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The complexities of the necessary information, with each team often having dozens of members, meant that emails alone were not the answer. The difficulties were compounded by the need to be in the many local neighborhoods of the various areas of Kamaishi City.

In response, Office 365 was introduced to help bring order and transparency to the communications sharing. E-mails, schedules, shared folders (OneDrive), message boards (SharePoint), and other capabilities were made available via the cloud. Users could easily share information, helping to facilitate collaboration and leading to better coordination and more sustainable programs.

Importance of IT is Often Under-Appreciated

For those active in communications and the cloud, the use of such capabilities may seem routine. However, Kei Kudo, Chairman of the youth support nonprofit Sodateage-Net, says that it often takes time for nonprofits to make full use of IT within their organizations.

Despite the broad scope of the work required, many nonprofits operate with limited resources and few if any paid staff. To help bridge this gap between mandate and resources, IT can play a crucial role.

“For nonprofits that support interpersonal communication like ourselves, the important thing is to interact with people in need of support face-to-face. Many staff see IT as ‘cold, without human warmth,’” he said.

Kudo says that this negative impression means that many nonprofit staff and managers tend to ignore IT capabilities. “They tend to operate in an analog world,” he said, leading to a loss of opportunity to effectively use the power of IT in their operations.

In order to solve the challenges facing society, it is essential to have networking and collaboration among people who share common aspirations and goals, not just those you know personally. Unfortunately, improved communications is often seen as a less lofty goal than the broader hopes and dreams of a nonprofit.

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Specialists, however, say that it is the very nature of the work of a nonprofit that makes effective use of communications tools even more important.

“Even though there is a grand mission in society, if scarce resources are exhausted in daily operations, it is in effect putting the cart before the horse, says Megumi Kusumoto of Microsoft Philanthropies Japan. “To create the social impact you want, a nonprofit has no option other than the proper use of technology.”

Keeping Sight of the Broader Goal in a Busy Work Day

Many nonprofits rely on government subsidies and donations to finance the work they do. These require extensive paperwork showing how the funds are to be used and to ensure compliance with the rules. Such detailed tasks cannot be neglected under the premise that the nonprofit has more noble work to undertake to solve societal issues.

Moreover, many nonprofits are carrying out their work with limited staff, often without any specialized IT personnel. In such cases, IT tools, even those available free of charge, are not utilized. Without the knowledge of the role of IT, especially the cloud, they have no idea how IT tools can be used to improve their time management.

“As long as there is a vision of impacting society where technology is rapidly evolving day by day, not having enough time can no longer be a viable excuse. What concrete action should be taken to accomplish the goal? I would like to collaborate with and support nonprofits with that question in mind,” notes Kusumoto.

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New tools, Greater Impact

In the case of “Sodateage-Net”, it was revealed that potential beneficiaries had difficulty in finding jobs due to their own poor IT skills. In response, an IT skill training course was organized with the support of Microsoft Japan. In the process, supporting staff who also received instructor training had the opportunity to gain confidence in IT and to bring it to their own work.

It is the mission of nonprofit organizations to help meet the challenges facing society. To do so, they must undertake a wide range of activities, including the important areas of employment support and community revitalization.

As a result, many staff said they found that IT was not “cold” and that Skype is “ideal for people we cannot meet face-to-face.” With the introduction of the cloud, new ways of working were discovered. In one case, a female employee who had left the group because she could not find child care, was able to re-join by working from home with cloud-assisted technology. In such cases, both the employee and the nonprofit have benefited.

As staff attitudes towards the project became more positive, their activities gained momentum and spread to other nonprofits that support young people in other regions. This year, the project was made part of the support program for youth managed by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

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A Driving Force for the Future

Such lessons can of course help with future needs. The cloud experience deployed at @Rias Nonprofit Support Center after the Great East Japan Earthquake was applied in April 2016 for workers at Kumamoto Prefecture following their own earthquake. With employees swamped with work on reconstruction projects, the system was part of the “Work-style Reform” introduced for city employees.

Utilizing the “Kumamoto R Net” (Restoration & Reconstruction) developed by Microsoft Japan, its partner companies and nonprofits, the administrative ICT infrastructures were built on the cloud. The “Office 365” cloud was adopted by all administrative agencies to establish an environment for further cooperation with residents.

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While city government officials were working under extreme pressure to bring about the fast reconstruction of local communities, their own needs and the needs of their families could not be ignored. Through workplace reforms, employees could better balance their civil and their family responsibilities.

In the earthquake and disaster-prone Japanese archipelago, collaboration with civil society to effectively utilize the power of IT and the cloud will allow us to be better prepared for what may come in the future and to respond to the benefit of all.

© AFP-SERVICES


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