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COVID 19: How Nonprofits Can Foster Digital Resilience

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TechSoup Canada has been tracking the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic, working hard to release hands-on articles to help the nonprofit sector navigate these unprecedented times. Keep an eye on our blog for emerging stories and more COVID-19 resources for Nonprofits.

It has been over a month since the Government of Canada closed its borders in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. During this time, life inside the country has radically shifted to accommodate the closure of non-essential businesses and, of course, the increased calls for social distancing. For many nonprofits, these changes have ushered in a series of dramatic changes––from the way their work is now organized all the way to how services are delivered to constituents. As the sector continues to re-organize and re-imagine its day-to-day operations, digital transformation has enabled many of us to cope with the loss of in-person contact. Digital tools are reinvigorating traditional forms of organizing and have been instrumental in supporting the recent surge in local volunteering and mutual aid. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) writes, “the explosion of creativity online to keep us connected and sane during these tough times is a bright spot in a pretty dark time.”

At the same time, no one knows how long the pandemic will last––or how many other changes it will bring along with it. For this reason, now that the initial rush of organizing and responding is beginning to stabilize, it is important to think strategically about how to sustain and support our work in the long-term. Enter digital resilience.

What is Digital Resilience?

Digital resilience is more commonly associated with the protection of one’s online security-- especially in relation to potential data breaches and other digital risk factors. As nonprofits, however, our resilience extends much further than technology. As the coronavirus has shown us, adapting to this crisis is asking that we rethink our mission and find new ways to remain connected to our constituents––many of whom were already facing greater degrees of vulnerability and risk. In this unique moment in time, our digital resilience encompasses two other crucial dimensions: sustaining our efforts over unknown periods of time in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t lead to burnout, and adding new layers to our work in order to close the digital divide. This means that, now more than ever, digital skills play a crucial role in strengthening community-building and advancing digital rights and equity.

Digital resilience is a vast topic with many applications. In the sections that follow, we provide a round-up of emerging resources and prompts to help your nonprofit think about how to foster its own digital resilience from a variety of perspectives.

Digital Skills for Online Outreach

More and more nonprofits are thinking about how to bring their work to online spaces. Finding ways to continue organizing and building movements is especially top of mind for organizations whose work regularly takes place in community centers and on the streets. As 350.org points out, “Our fights for justice are as important as ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, but our activism must adapt to the new landscape. That’s why many grassroots groups and nonprofits are moving their work online and shifting their organizing to a digital space.”

To support this transition, several veteran groups with years of experience in digital organizing have rapidly mobilized to release a number of valuable resources to support the efforts of nonprofits now working to accelerate their own digital transformation.

  • The Mozilla Foundation is coordinating a series of Community Calls focused on Movement-Building From Home. These calls are open to anyone interested in discussing online community- and movement-building with peers around the world. Running until May 7th, each week participants will have four call times to choose from plus access to notes and recordings for anyone who can’t join live.
  • Social Movement Technologies is a nonprofit that specializes in providing strategy, training and campaign support to build people power in the digital age. To date, their trainings have been delivered to over 2,400 social change groups, and many of their modules are available in several languages. Nonprofits who are looking to enhance their digital outreach might be especially interested in their Digital Campaigning Certificate Program.
  • 350.org has been coordinating online teams since their inception. To support other nonprofits during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have recently launched Ask a Digital Campaigner, an online page where other social change organizations can submit their questions about online outreach directly to them. In addition, they have curated a library of resources and case studies which includes modules such as Facilitating Online Meetings and Trainings (also available in German and Spanish)

Enhancing Digital Security

Of course, an essential component of digital resilience is guaranteeing online security and establishing good policies and practices that support it.

  • Nonprofits who are new to digital resilience, or who were perhaps beginning to draft their own policies before COVID-19 hit, might find Tech Impact’s Nonprofit Technology Policy Workbook a helpful starting point. The document outlines best practices to protect an organization’s data and reputation by providing clear guidance on how to mitigate and manage risky situations.
  • To learn more about the basics of digital security, Blueprints for Change has released a handy open-access document for campaigners with advice that applies to just about anyone in the nonprofit world.
  • If you’d like to learn more about what exactly constitutes a digital threat, there are a series of short, animated videos on YouTube that provide an accessible entry point for understanding some of the most commonly cited digital resilience issues. For example, you may be wondering what exactly is malware, or you may be looking for easy steps to follow in order to secure your iPhone, secure your Android or secure your network access. And, of course, don’t forget our latest guest blog, 7 Ways to Bolster Your Nonprofit’s Data Security
  • For more on the topic of resilience planning during tumultous times, check out this guide developed by our friends at TechSoup US, The Resilient Organization: A Guide for Disaster Planning and Recovery

Let’s Talk About Digital Privacy

As more of our work moves online, and as governments continue to deploy tech tools to track the spread of the virus, an important conversation around digital privacy is emerging. This is an important conversation to follow because decisions that are made today may end up affecting our governance systems and rights in the long-term. As Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation writes, “the design decisions we make will have a huge impact whether we move into an era where privacy-by-design and good data governance are the norm, or end up laying the data gathering foundations for the dystopian science fiction future that many of us imagined when we first heard the term ‘contact tracing’ a few short weeks back.” His article titled Privacy Norms and the Pandemic offers some early prompts to help us, as a sector, think about the digital future we want.

If you are interested in digital privacy and would like to keep following ongoing debates and developments, there are a number of platforms that are tracking the evolution of this important story:

  • The Electronic Frontiers Foundation has recently launched a COVID-19 and Digital Rights page that covers anything from surveillance to free speech, as well as innovation and online life. They also regularly host online debates and webinars with leading experts on the topic.
  • In Canada, Digital Justice Lab works with diverse communities to build alternative digital futures and to shape a better understanding of technology and its impact on communities across the country.
  • If you are new to the world of digital privacy and are looking for a quick introduction, you can find a series of illustrated short videos on YouTube that offer a policy and systems-level view on the current conversation. Videos cover topics such as cyber threats, privacy and data protection, and the technology behind cybersecurity.
  • CBC News is also regularly tracking this story. Its latest article asks whether we can protect digital privacy amid the push to use phone data to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Avoiding Burnout

Another key dimension of resilience is maintaining healthy habits in order to avoid burnout. Because we do not know how long this ‘new normal’ will last, we must remain mindful and pace ourselves so we can continue in our new routine for as long as it is necessary. A number of resources have been published lately to assist in this area:

  • A recent article brilliantly titled Zoom Exhaustion is Real points out that, “there is a different quality to our attention when we are online. We are hyper-focused on the few available visual cues that we normally gather from a full range of available body language. Or perhaps, we are totally distracted and checking email while we are supposed to be conversing or listening.” The author offers six strategies to stay balanced and foster mindfulness.
  • Similarly, MindYourMind.ca has compiled a long list of self-care prompts specifically tailored to the COVID-19 pandemic. As they write: “With lots of changes happening around us, it's important to keep in mind the ways that we can take care of ourselves. These times may be tough, but so are we!” (We also have a post on the topic of  mindfulness and stress management on our blog.)
  • Another strategy many are finding helpful is to consume the news responsibly. This might mean setting a daily limit on the quantity of information that is consumed and/or balancing that intake with verifiable good news

Culture Shift & Team Bonding

As Equality Labs write in this Medium article, “culture change is a foundational part of getting to digital security or resilience”. They offer a series of thoughtful and actionable considerations for any team who is new to thinking about digital resilience. Tips include:

  • Setting up a strategy meeting with Operations and Program leads to think about internal tech capacity and to realign systems “at the speed of trust, consent and risk collectively”.
  • Adopting a trauma-informed approach to shifting the work culture: “Colleagues who have triggered their survival response modes are likely to be thinking tactically, from a “fight, freeze, or flee” mindstate. This may mean it isn’t possible to strategically shift work culture within a team until the psycho-social dimensions are fully realized”.
  • Offering training sessions for new technology or processes that your organization is going to introduce, so that staff receive guidance and support in implementing these changes. 

Bonding and building trust are also important elements in the conversation about digital resilience. Consider setting up activities and rituals that help team members connect in informal and supportive ways (though make them optional, so people don’t feel overwhelmed by yet another task to accomplish). Activities might include virtual lunch and learns, offering a digital lounge space for socializing, and other ways to build trust online. You can also introduce tools to invite greater participation in meetings, for example, by using the whiteboarding and co-annotation feature on Zoom.

Updates on WFH 

If you follow our blog, you may be familiar with our first COVID-19 article, How Nonprofits Can Establish Effective Telecommuting Practices. Since its publication, there has been a proliferation of guides, stories, and tips on how to implement ‘work from home’ measures. Below is a round-up of our favourite new resources to help you stay up-to-date on all the best practices:

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How is your organization engaging with digital resilience during these times? What issues and priorities are on your mind these days? As always, feel free to leave us a comment below to share with TechSoup Canada’s community. We’d love to hear from you!