Product teams: The next wave of digital for NGOs?

The era of the re-launch is over. How orgs can apply "product" principles to continually deliver the best technology.

We’ve reached a fascinating point in the evolution of technology within nonprofit and social change organisations: everyone we work with at Greenpeace and beyond seems to agree that digital has a critical role to play, but many struggle to find the staffing models and structures that enable their technology to truly thrive.

Sam DormanSo we asked Sam Dorman to speak with us about his experience helping the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) put a digital “product team” in place. Sam, a technology consultant who has worked closely with IAVA for years, reflected on how the product team approach transforms the relationship between technology, organizations and the people they serve.

You’re sitting down for your first meeting with an NGO’s digital, comms and tech leads — how do you explain a product model to them?

This is about putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to technology. It’s saying, we know that technology is essential to delivering our programs and having the impact we want to have. So we’re going to have a skilled team here that knows how to deliver it.

A digital product team is there to make sure your organization is using great, high-quality technology that is fully aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish, and really delivers the experience you want to create for people. Both internally and externally. It uses methods of “product management” that have emerged as best practices in the tech world, and acknowledges that we need to be just as sophisticated about how we manage technology in the social sector.

I think people have learned to have such low expectations when it comes to technology. Everybody kind of assumes it’s destined to be an area of frustration. But your technology should be great! It should be helping you. It needs to be reliable, it needs to be trustworthy, it needs to be easy to use, it needs to have great design, and it needs to deliver real value, consistently. That’s what this structure helps deliver.

How does the product team work? Who does what?

Well, one key point is that we’re actually not talking about a “tech team” of developers or IT specialists. We’re talking about people who understand how to drive and manage smart investments in technology. It’s more of a tech strategy role than anything very technical. You’re still working with external specialists when it comes to designing and developing things.

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