The State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector

ngos ICTs telecommunications
Wednesday, 14 November, 2007 - 08:14

By Arthur Goldstuck : Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have always been portrayed as operating on a shoestring budget, and being stuck in the dark ages of telecommunications. The reality, however, is that NGOs are heavily focused on efficiency, and information and communications technologies make up a critical element of that efficiency.

This is the overriding conclusion of a study conducted by World Wide Worx in 2007, in cooperation with SANGONeT. The purpose of “The State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector” study was to establish how effectively South African NGOs are using information technology, whether it is making a difference in their ability to serve their constituencies, and whether they are adequately served by the IT industry.

A total of 300 IT and financial decision-makers in NGOs across South Africa were interviewed, and the results were unexpected and startling. Only 1 percent of respondents did not have any PCs, while a further 6 percent had only one PC. One third of respondents had more than 10 PCs in the organisation.  Even more unexpectedly, three quarters of respondents also used laptop computers, and 81 percent used servers in their organisations.

These statistics are the first clue to the nature of the NGO environment: NGOs operate on a very similar basis to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and share many of the characteristics of SMEs in their IT-readiness.

For example, two thirds of NGOs report their primary form of connection to the Internet being an ADSL line, and 16 percent use dial-up. In the 2007 SME Survey conducted by World Wide Worx, 55 percent of SMEs use ADSL, while 12 percent use dial-up. In other words, the two sectors are very similar in their connectivity needs and implementation.

The same applies to operating systems: 95 percent of NGOs use one or other version of Windows, while for SMEs the figure is 90 percent.

The most surprising aspect of the NGOs’ IT readiness was the extent to which they are networked. For 79 percent of the respondents, computers were networked. And of these, 30 percent use wireless networking. The reasons for both high ADSL take-up and wireless networking are simple: ADSL is far more cost-effective than dial-up, and wireless networking is far more efficient and, in the long run, more cost-effective than cable networking.

Organisations were also asked to rate their own level of technology adoption. The results were again closely equivalent to those previously observed in measuring the rate of technology adoption among SMEs in South Africa:

  • Very basic   10 percent;
  • Somewhat basic  24 percent;
  • Average   39 percent;
  • Somewhat advanced 20 percent;
  • Very advanced  6 percent.

NGOs are clearly not shying away from technology, with a small proportion – only 21 percent - saying they are in a basic stage of technology adoption. However, a very high 39 percent regard themselves as Average, indicating tremendous potential for driving more advanced usage of technology among NGOs.

This is emphasised by the fact that the vast majority - 86 percent - of respondents use some form of accounting software. As among SMEs, Pastel is the dominant accounting package, with 76 percent using it, followed by Accpac (7 percent) and Quickbooks (6 percent).

Despite all these positive signs, when it comes to more advanced forms of software, NGOs rely on adapted versions of standard Office software. For example, while a quarter of respondents say they use Customer Relations Management software, most of these are using MS Access (40 percent), Excel (26 percent) and Outlook or Outlook Express (13 percent) for the purpose.

Support for IT systems is largely outsourced, although a relatively high 30 percent manage this need internally. An even higher proportion, 38 percent, managed support of financial software internally, emphasising the importance of financial software and its management to NGOs: whereas almost two thirds outsource overall IT support, less than a fifth outsource support of financial software. This indicates that financial software tends to require substantially less support than IT systems in general.

However, while NGOs seem to have their hardware and software needs in hand, there are many flies in the ointment. This emerged from questions regarding their satisfaction with the quality of Internet connection, hardware and software, and satisfaction with their cost.

It emerged that the vast majority were satisfied with the quality of Office software (85 percent) and computer hardware (84 percent), while a smaller but still high proportion were satisfied with the quality of their Internet connection (73 percent) and networks (72 percent)

However, when it came to the cost of these resources, satisfaction levels plummeted. Only 55 percent were satisfied with the cost of Office software, and 52 percent with computer hardware. For Internet connections, satisfaction with cost dropped to 39 percent, and for networking, 44 percent.

Similar results are found in SME studies, indicating that the IT industry is meeting the needs of small organisations from a quality perspective, but is hamstringing them with the high cost of this quality.

Possibly the most important question of all was that of what impact ICT had on these organisations’ abilities to meet their strategic objectives. The following represent the positive impact rating for each of these key areas:

  • Advance human rights   54 percent
  • Advance developmental initiatives  58 percent
  • Advance training and educational initiatives 59 percent
  • Advance capacity-building initiatives  50 percent

These low proportions lead to the inescapable conclusion that IT investment by NGOs has been geared to the administrative running of the NGOs, rather than to achieving their goals and objectives as NGOs. This, in turn indicates the potential opportunity for the IT industry in more fully meeting the needs of NGOs. When combined with the clear indications that NGOs are at the same level of technological maturity as SMEs in general, it represent a call to action to the IT industry to address the NGO sector as a desirable and viable target market.

- Arthur Goldstuck co-authored “The State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector” report with Steven Ambrose, Head of Strategy at World Wide Worx.

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