Blog Post

Digital capacity for Immigrant & Refugee-serving organizations

Recently I presented a "lightening talk" at the Future of Good's Dismantling Digital Barriers Summit. As they summarize, "Social-impact organizations are fighting two simultaneous battles: the first is trying to bridge the digital divide for demographics who lack access, and the second is working to build and grow their own digital infrastructure as an organization. Proper support is needed now more than ever through collaboration, funding, and policy change."

The Summit sought to understand "what is digital equity? Who is left behind? And how do we close that gap?" It's a topic that has taken on increased importance in our sector. You can watch the three plenary panels at the link above.

I thought I'd share my speaking notes.

Hi, everyone, my name is Marco. And next year I will celebrate 30 years of working in the immigrant and refugee serving sector. And I'm telling you that because I realized that more than 20 of those years have been spent working on digital, from websites, social media, talking and sharing how technology can be a tool in my sector's work, building online communities of practice, and more.

And I'm telling you all that because I think it's important for us to realize that this conversation about digital isn't actually new. And in our sector, it's been happening formally for more than two decades with research, sector convening, discussing what works and what doesn't work, what needs to be done to make it work, including how it needs to be funded. And to be clear, I'm talking about digital capacity from a service perspective. So, not marketing, volunteer management, fundraising, etc. But technology being used by service providers to serve Newcomers and communities.

And I think that's similar for a lot of other nonprofit sectors across the country. I can point to most non-profit sectors and find historical discussions, even digital service models that have been developed more than 10 years ago that show promise and are as relevant now as they were then, along with emerging models that show equal promise and are at risk of being just as ignored now as the others were then.

Strengthening the Hybrid Service Environment - image of 3 images

What I think is interesting is that we have come to a realization over the last couple of years during the pandemic, when everybody pivoted online, how possible digital is as a service delivery tool in our communities. Many in our sector who were resistant to technology now understand its place, and potential for impact on creating access to services for some, service choices for others. We’ve also learned a lot about the digital divide, which is essential to understand to inform our work. 

But we are closer to discussing what techies call an omnichannel service strategy. Nonprofits have a model for that, it's called no wrong door. Which is to say that omnichannel is simply a technical innovation of an approach we’ve aspired to create as a community for decades in our sector and other social/community service sectors as well. 

Omnichannel strategy and no wrong door strategy

And so it feels like the conversation about digital is kind of new, but it really isn't. And I just want to start there because I think it's important to recognize that our approach to digital also has to be grounded in our experience, and our foundational values. I like to bring people back to the sector’s 12 core values, which were created by the sector in the late 90s. And I  do that because they're completely relevant to how we approach digital today. When it comes to digital we seem to forget everything we already know. In fact, we’re told that everything is new and we have to shift paradigms, and other consultant speak. But, that foundational knowledge, expertise, and community genius can and should be applied to our digital efforts. When it comes to iteration, innovation, and our future, I like to remind folks in our sector of where our roots are. Over 20 years ago the sector created 12 core values.  These can and should ground us as we look at innovation and reach for technology solutions. Our solutions must be aligned with our values.

List of first 6 of the 12 core values of settlement work
List of final 6 of the 12 core values of settlement work

For example, we’ve realized that we cannot do equity work without considering digital. But equally importantly, we must ground our digital work with an equity lens - which means anti-racist, anti-oppressive, inclusion, safety, and access. According to a recent UN report, what we all need to be doing is Inclusion by Design. In the tech world I've heard of privacy and security by design, but this is the first time I've seen digital inclusion by design used. I like it. It makes sense. It's the right frame of mind to bring to our and all work in digital and hybrid service delivery. 

Do any of us truly do inclusion well? Not really, but we need to. And one way to do that is to make it the foundation of all of our digital work and efforts.

In our sector, no technology project should be considered complete without front line workers and Newcomers present in its development. I’m not talking about performative consultations, surveys, and focus groups, although those are certainly important to bring voices into the work. But with seats at the table throughout the entire process. We must centre staff and Newcomers in all technology-related planning and decision-making.

I think it's important to start with that grounding. 

We have significant digital innovation in our sector. And for many reasons, it's not acknowledged, but it exists and can be built on.

We have homegrown CRMs, smartphone apps, chatbots, online service portals, digital literacy projects for Newcomers. Technology is a viable tool for direct client service delivery and is being used in that way by the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. But it’s a bit transactional. And our goals as a sector are more transformative, around community development and systems change. So our digital aspirations also need to be transformative.

collage of sector tech mentioned in paragraph above

When we think about digital capacity, we need to learn from newcomers directly. We don’t do that enough, as I alluded to earlier. The sites on the left have existed for decades. Most of these websites are in English, but there are many more in other languages. Newcomers use them in their immigration and settlement journeys. Newer online social networking and information sites such as those on the top right mean Newcomers bypass mainstream settlement services even more. That’s both OK and a danger when it comes to misinformation and disinformation. Online groups and digital messaging apps and channels mean that the conversations are increasingly private and hidden from us.  And that’s a challenge.

Collage of newcomer-led technology sites and platforms

So, we’re innovative and have capacity, but, the transactional bling of technology isn’t enough. We need more.

  • Agencies lack suitable policies and guidelines for technology use to serve clients.
  • Agencies are not sure how to be strategic around technology planning, choices, and evaluation.
  • Agencies are not sure how to hire or skill up their staff, and they’re unsure how to address the nuanced reality of the digital divide among Newcomers and communities.
  • There is a lack of knowledge sharing and transfer of promising and successful practices within the sector around digital service delivery, as well as between sectors.
  • Funders lack capacity to manage, monitor, evaluate, and move flexibly with technology requests and work in the sector.

I think this isn’t that different from what we know and understand about technology in the broader non-profit sector.

So where are we going?

Cartoon about tech aspirations

Our sector has spent time learning from providing services remotely during a pandemic, building on more than 20 years of learning about digital services. And we’ve developed a proposed roadmap to get us to the future. The themes are not that different from the past 20 years of research and evidence, probably because they’ve never been implemented and still remain. 

sector technology themes and priorities

The digital settlement organization of the future is a hybrid service delivery organization, which again, is not a new conversation. But perhaps naming it helps us to conceive of what is actually to realize it.

And while we’ve been thinking about, researching, and living this reality for some time, we have nonprofit digital maturity models we can use and build on. I particularly like this model from NetHope, an organisation that supports international humanitarian organizations in their digital transformation. I like it in part because technology is only one piece of the puzzle. 

Nethope digital nonprofit model

This is a draft version of the Nethope model, applied to our sector. If we look at their categories, in our context, we can start to see what our priorities might be. 

Digital Settlement Agency model based on Nethope model

So at the core, at the centre, is newcomer centric data. We need to create that a seamless omnichannel/no wrong door newcomer settlement experience journey. We need to centre Newcomers, whether they access our services, or not, in our plans. 

When we think about people, we're talking about professional development in our context, building a baseline and professional competencies framework for our work, including knowledge mobilization and transfer. When we're looking at process, we're talking about digital, and data maturity and risk frameworks. Frameworks we can not only build on but learn from, borrow, customize and implement in our sector. 

Technology, in our case, needs to be grounded in digital inclusion and equity. This needs to align with our sector values of access, anti oppression and inclusion. 

When we're thinking about readiness, this is where we need to talk about baselines in hybrid service delivery, where we have a common minimum standard or floor of infrastructure and competencies that no agency and no individual should fall below. We can certainly exceed those baselines, and should strive to, but at their core, we all should have access and support to build those baselines. 

Support means investment. When it comes to investment, I like to use what Alan Broadbent from Maytree called the three I’s of immigrant integration: intentionality, instruments and investments. We need to be strategic, we need to be intentional about what we're doing. We need to have the right instruments, tactics, or technologies in order to address what we’re being intentional about. And we need investments in those instruments and in that strategy in order to make it happen. 

Data is key to all of that. In this model, data is at the centre, labelled as Newcomer. It's really being newcomer centric, fully understanding newcomers and communities. Understanding newcomers, their needs, assets, preferences, and challenges makes the technology and service intervention decisions much easier.

And as we look deeper at the job of the front line settlement practitioner, their jobs are changing.

Competencies of front line workers, including digital

On the left we have identified common core competencies. Those are being complimented on the right with digital-related skills. Front line workers are also Digital Navigators for their clients, working to address digital equity issues, building digital literacy assessments into their intake and assessment work to ensure that their services are built for the people they serve and their ability and preference to access a hybrid service model that includes online and remote approaches. This is a new way to work. In a hybrid service model front line workers are more important than ever. They’re not just systems navigators, but now also digital navigators for Newcomers. It’s a lot to ask and expect. And it’s something we’re still struggling with.

All of this points back to the investment piece.  

On paper, our sector’s biggest funder, IRCC is on board. Their expressed vision aligns with the research, sector experience, and recommendations made to them. That feels like progress. 

As you see here, IRCC has a vision for clients, service provider organizations, or SPOs, and themselves:

Clients have access to hybrid service options..

Service providers continue their digital transformation, in a hybrid service delivery format.

The next big national Call for Proposals is in two years.Over the next 2 years IRCC committed to continuing to build an evidence base of what works, and identified specific areas where they know the sector is looking for guidance - cybersecurity, privacy, digital literacy, and committed to building digital guidelines and standards that will be part of the next call for proposals in 2024.

IRCC's vision for digital settlement services
IRCC digital priorities

On the one hand, with that call we’ll know what priorities IRCC will fund as we continue to evolve the digital settlement agency. But, we can’t wait until then.

IRCC has been part of the research and working groups over the past few years. Up until recently we’ve worked openly and collaboratively with them. It was a refreshing change from past patterns. But, it’s been 8 months since the first convening of the National Steering Committee on Technology. And while they've met somewhat informally since then, IRCC hasn’t indicated their intention to seriously continue a process that started almost a year ago. Committee members are frustrated. The sector doesn't even know they've met. There's been no progress, except at the individual organization level.

A roadmap that was created for the sector remains untouched. Sector leaders are focused on many priorities, all of which pull our sector in many important directions, often with few resources. But building digital capacity is no longer a nice-to-have. It is a priority for service providers. It is core to how we do our work and serve our communities. We are in a leadership vacuum when it comes to the sector’s transition to a hybrid service model. 

So, what can we do while we wait?

Woman with hands held up in the air

We can definitely not wait. Because that next IRCC national Call for Proposals is a false milestone.

While we need to build up to it, guide it, and determine the priorities, we need to be acting now.

So, we'll do what we always do, which is to be resilient and innovative in the face of uncertainty and adversity and lack of leadership when it comes to digital. Some of us are working with emerging groups like the Canadian Centre for Nonprofit Digital Resilience. Some organizations are convening to have these discussions. Many more digitally mature agencies continue to move forward on their own, making progress toward digital maturity. Others are being left behind. It’s all a bit disjointed. It would be nice to move together as a sector. We have the interest and need to build digital capacity but we need some leadership to move it forward. 

And while I want to end this presentation with cautious optimism, it’s harder to feel that way than it was 8 months ago.

I spoke earlier about recognizing and harnessing the innovation and genius in our sector and among Newcomers. As a broader non-profit sector, we can and should do that at scale, nationally. That’s why events like this Dismantling Digital Barriers Summit are so important.

We need to lean on and learn from each other. Build on each other’s work, success, and learning. And move forward together as a broader non-profit sector to gain the kind of momentum and collaboration that rises above and perhaps smooths bumps in our own paths with what others have figured out in theirs.

I look forward to connecting with more of you as we build that path together.

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