Our personal and professional networks now spread larger than ever before. Today, if I am looking for advice or information on a new program that piques my interest, within minutes I can search my LinkedIn contacts to find someone who is connected to that program. One quick email asking for an introduction, and the same day I could be directly connected with the person with whom I need to speak. Or, if I’m interested in learning a new skill, such as how to code with Ruby on Rails, I can register in one of many free Massive Open Online Courses and access expert-taught material at my convenience.

Needless to say, these advancements are making impacts across industries, but how are these changes impacting the social sector and its ability to become more efficient and innovative? Are new tools given to us by technology improving the way social sector professionals learn, lead and manage day-to-day activities? To some degree, certainly.

Yet, huge potential remains for social sector leaders to embrace today’s technological innovations to the fullest extent.

As useful as it is to connect by email on LinkedIn or even a MOOC, social-sector leaders still crave personalized engagement. When it comes to complex social issues, ongoing relationships must be built into the learning experience. At theSedge.org, we have developed an online, social-enterprise education course that combines global access of online learning with the intimacy of in-person collaboration. The structure of theSedge.org’s BOOST Academy allows participants to engage in long-term, meaningful and authentic relationships while exchanging valuable knowledge and experiences across organizations and borders.

Building a space for peer mentoring gives nonprofits room to develop their entrepreneurial thinking and skills together. With this type of support network and quick access to tactical business resources, nonprofits will feel more confident and empowered to employ entrepreneurial endeavors to diversify funding.

In a collaborative online learning environment, access to information about innovations can speed up organizational learning curves. In the past, like-minded professionals connected with each other at conferences and networking events, where the majority of attendees were locally based. At best, an annual conference brought together thought-leaders with some global representation, but the high cost of attendance often prohibited some organizations from participating and benefiting from the experience.

Today, with a bit of research and the will, a nonprofit or NGO can learn about organizations with similar social missions operating anywhere in the world. For example, a farming cooperative in Australia could share their innovative distribution strategy that a Canadian cooperative could replicate and accelerate growth. Having the opportunity not only to learn about them from afar, but also to connect with them personally in a shared online learning experience, opens up a new world of possibilities for the transfer of innovation.

For nonprofits, another advantage of the hyper-connectivity offered by new technology is that it allows us to feel “intimate” on a global scale. With near-immediate news and social media coverage, issues faced by people in far corners of the globe reach ears and eyes around the world in a matter of minutes. Individuals can absorb new information quickly from a variety of sources—not just third-party news outlets. Fueled by personal accounts and varied perspectives, we form empathetic bonds to global events.

With this empathetic connection comes the desire to connect, contribute and be a part of each other’s lives and experiences. Social impact organizations can leverage this phenomenon to boost support for their cause and access more resources. For example, Kiva is able to collect and distribute small donations from the crowd—which add up to massive amounts of funding—to finance micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries.

From my experience, the social sector needs to take advantage of technology as a hugely untapped opportunity for the global community. One reason for the slower adoption rate is that those working in the social sector are ‘people-people.’ More so than other industries, those working for a social cause are driven by the human connection and opportunity to meaningfully and authentically interact with others. Unfortunately, technology has not yet been able to masterfully transfer this dimension of personal relationship building into a digital format.

In the same way conference attendees leave a conference feeling empowered and connected within a shared vision for change, online learning should recreate similar feelings. Only once this is achieved will the social sector be able to maximize the learning benefits of our hyper-connected, global community.


This post was first published by 1776 on February 18, 2014; see the original article here.