The Next Generation of Aotearoa’s Community and Voluntary Sector: Tech as an enabler

In every sector in Aotearoa New Zealand and the world, the last three years of the pandemic have forced us to completely unlearn, adapt, and reframe our ways of working.  In the community and voluntary sector, one of the unexpected benefits of COVID has been a collaborative shift to focus on whakawhanaungatanga to create solutions.  

Forget waiting for government or philanthropic funders to come up with solutions, when COVID arrived we just started picking up the phone and ringing our friends and connections to say: ‘Hey I need this, do you know where I could find it?’  And then, suddenly, everyone was working outside of the usual resource constraints and finding the answers they needed.

“So, really great things [came] from us … not just talking about collaboration but having a real shared issue where we can play on every organisation’s individual strengths to actually work together.”

Community leader [1]

But along with that positive change in perspective, the pandemic also further highlighted a range of inequities and systemic challenges in the community and voluntary sector around our access to the tools and knowledge required to do this very challenging work.

Challenge 1: Learning to embrace technology

COVID is just the latest in a number of foundational shifts I’ve seen in the sector over my career.  I mean, let’s start with technology.  The expansion of technology over the last 20-30 years across business and government has been monumental.  It’s completely shifted what we do and how we do it and because of that, we’ve been able to automate processes and free up people to do other mahi.

But, of course, as in a number of other ways, the community sector is about 20 years behind, technologically.  I believe this is primarily driven by lack of resourcing. We’ve got people in finance roles, for instance, who may have been there for 5, 10 or 20 years and are still running the same manual finance and payroll systems they were two decades ago. We have people without mobile devices, with low levels of digital literacy, working on old computers. We haven’t had opportunity to embrace the myriad of tech tools that could make our service delivery easier.

And now I’m actually being told I have to use a device, which I don’t know how to, I don’t feel safe.

Community participant [1]

When I came on board as Kaiwhakahaere Matua of Hui E! Community Aotearoa, the first thing I did was outsource our finances.  It’s all automated in Xero now and it’s simple, quick and efficient.  I can pull off instant financial reporting for my Board or whatever other info I need. This has reduced the time-cost required to do those kinds of tasks, which has allowed me to re-allocate that time to more purposeful mahi.

Challenge 2: Making technology accessible

When I first arrived at Hui E!, we had to totally overhaul our computers.  One of them couldn’t even access the internet – that’s how old it was.  That kind of technological gap is concerningly common across the sector.  And it’s partly because so many don’t realise that it’s possible to upgrade devices for just a few hundred dollars or find donated devices.

To my mind, accessing the innumerable benefits of technology really requires three key components.  First, we need the technological devices or the software to do the job.  Then we need training to use them.  And, lastly, we actually need to use the devices and platforms available to us to start doing some of the things we’re still doing manually.

In our smaller community groups, you’ll often find that they’ve never heard of the technologies they could be using to streamline their work.  At Hui E!, we regularly use Digital Stuff We Love when looking for new tech solutions. People working in the sector have often had limited, if any, experience using tech tools.

But some of these technologies – like Office 365 for example which provides access to a suite of apps such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, OneDrive, Teams – can cost as little as $5 per person for a licence every month.  That’s a small investment that could make a significant difference for a community group.  And many of those platforms are designed to be super user friendly and really quick and easy to learn.

Challenge 3: Having the right tools to do the job

Probably one of the most important shifts that the next generation of community organisations needs is embracing Cloud-based solutions where they can work and save documents online.  When Aotearoa New Zealand went suddenly into lockdown in 2020, we heard so many stories of people who didn’t have mobile devices and often couldn’t access critical information. Their files and information was stored on local servers in offices (and which can also pose a pretty significant security concern).

We saw organisations just stop operating without warning because they didn’t have contacts for the people they worked with to reach out to them.  It was the same in the last big Wellington earthquake when organisations had to leave equipment behind. They were just never able to get that data back again because it wasn’t hosted online.

Our volunteers were not able to go and work with people, some of them did online … that was a challenge, sometimes for the volunteers because of the generation they are from, because a lot of them were not used to using the technology. And so, bringing them back together was really, really challenging.”

Community participant [1]

Hui E! was fortunate to already be using tools like Office 365 which has a range of Cloud document and messaging services. We also used Mailchimp were we host all our contact database information online – when the pandemic hit.  These virtual tools meant that we were able to continue our mahi from home and respond really quickly to the changes in the working landscape. Other organisations were simply forced to stop because they didn’t have access to the tools required to do their work remotely.  There’s no doubt that the consequences for those groups and the communities they were serving were significant.

How COVID changed our landscape

COVID drove better adoption of mobile devices and using tools such as Zoom and Google Meet but we’re long overdue to really start utilising app and tech tools to help us streamline our service delivery.

Everybody in my organisation now has a laptop, they had training in setting up podcasts, so creating messages using the technologies that are free and online. We have Zoom in all our buildings now so that people can go and work collectively.

Community participant [1]

The flow-on effect of limited access is evident across the sector (and has been since long before COVID arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand).  Even if you’re lucky enough to have the tools to do the job, maybe you’re still working from some old chair getting a sore neck or whatever.  If staff don’t have what they need to actually do their job, everything becomes a pain.

But the tools are out there.  You don’t have to keep working from a 20-year-old laptop that’s too heavy to hold and takes ages to start up.  You can find discounted tech hardware through Techsoup, Trade Me or refurbishing charities such as Recycling for Charity or Remarketit, where devices can be replaced for a few hundred dollars. Then at least you have a starting point to really get to work.

[1] Quoted in ‘COVID-19 Hauora Wellbeing Survey of the tangata whenua, community & voluntary sector

—>Read The Next Generation of Aotearoa’s Community Sector: What’s Needed