A Guide on the exact line items you need to fund social impact innovation, and some points to remember.
OpenUp has been developing social impact technology for almost a decade. This time has helped to reaffirm our founding hypothesis: that innovation could be a productive tool for increasing the effectiveness of positive social change work. And a broad range of partners clearly believe in this idea too, if our email inbox is anything to go by!
Yet even as more and more organisations mainstream innovation into their organisation, or at least explore new partners for collaborative innovation, they are frequently confronted with a number of learning curves that slow down their progress toward future-proofing. In this blog, we’ll unpack our experience in budgeting for a good innovation - the first step in this journey.
Good social impact technology, in our belief, should focus on real participation. Our beneficiary communities are not the “subjects” of our technologies. Instead, they are the people we seek to serve better through our use of innovation. And whilst user-centred design encourages developers to reflect on the needs of users, OpenUp advances a philosophy for something that moves beyond mere opinion-gathering and reflection: instead supporting practices for facilitating participation from beneficiaries in design, through to development and implementation, and through evaluation and sustainability. This lays the foundation for collaborations, rather than extractive practices, but is a nuanced and unique development practice.
The Business Case
Investing in social impact technology is not just about adopting modern tools, but it is also about reshaping the way civil society organisations drive change. When we allocate resources to technologies that prioritise real participation, we foster deeper connections with beneficiary communities, whilst amplifying impact. The initial financial outlay into such innovations can seem substantial, but the returns—both qualitative and quantitative—are significant, and are worthwhile use of grants and other funds. It is not merely an expenditure; it's a strategic investment. An investment that unlocks greater value, ensures long-term sustainability, and most importantly, bridges the gap between mission and measurable outcomes. As an added bonus, digitisation and innovation allow you to datafy, and measure impact better.
Designing a Budget
In our experience, developing in contexts of significant digital inequality, technology investment is largely human investment. Although the more “high tech” one gets, the more significant the need for hardware expenses for computing power, this is not really an issue for early innovators in digital contexts like South Africa. In designing your budget, we’d suggest allocating for:
Ideation and planning
Always ensure you allocate sufficient human time for ideating. When creating your project plan, you need to have sufficient technical competence in the room that can help you fully explore feasible products in feasible timelines.
Investment at this stage is also an important opportunity for establishing shared values, and shared priorities, across the full spectrum of stakeholders that will be involved in your development process.
To ensure good technology roll-out, you need to invest in project implementation personnel alongside technical roles. How you specifically design for this depends on whether you are in-sourcing or out-sourcing development. However, typical project implementation roles OpenUp assigns in our development projects include for instance:
- Operations: this will include the administrative and operational staff necessary to ensure your project is running administratively, overseen financially, but also operates efficiently alongside your other organisational projects.
- Product Owner: a strategic role, this person prioritises and refines feature requirements, ensuring alignment between stakeholder needs and the development team's efforts, while guiding the product's vision and evolution.
- Project Manager: this person oversees the project's progress, ensures resources are allocated effectively, and manages stakeholder relationships. This role often serves as the primary point of communication for the project.
User research gathers and analyses user feedback and behaviours, providing insights to guide product design and enhancements based on actual user needs and preferences. In our world, this is then the role which connects the data generated from the users and beneficiaries (these may not always be the same groups) to design decisions. This role can simultaneously collect data to help with overall project impact assessment to dovetail some roles for efficiency.
There will also be hard costs associated with the user research, such as those from workshops for testing out your product with different groups. It is also important to test products in-field, wherever the targeted environment might be. It's important to see your tool “work in the wild”, and to budget accordingly for that.
Given OpenUp’s advancement of open data for transparency and empowerment, our projects are typically very data-driven. Working with data comes with specific costs, such as the human resources needs for the “wrangling” and sorting of data into usable formats, and those needed for analytics - and coordinating the move from the data into the product alongside the development team. Data expertise is also needed to help think about the best plan for visualising that data within the ultimate product selected.
In our experience, wrangling data into workable formats is typically under-budgeted. Good planning in the ideation stages can help ensure the right data pipelines to keep these costs contained.
In some project contexts of course, there may also be direct hard costs associated with the purchase of data.
As mentioned, development costs are largely human costs. Some different bifurcation of costs in the area could include:
- Backend Development: This refers to the server-side development. Expenditures here include database setup, server configuration, and ensuring smooth communication between the front end and back end.
- Frontend Development: This area involves creating the user interface — everything the user interacts with directly. Costs include layout design, interactive elements, and integration with the backend (see further discussion under design).
- Feature Development: Each unique feature or function of the product may have its own associated costs. Development, testing, and refinement of each feature, especially if it involves third-party integrations or complex algorithms, can affect the budget. This section of development is frequently the section that drives you over budget.
- Security: Protecting user data and ensuring secure transactions, if any, should be a top priority. Costs here can involve secure hosting, encryption, regular security audits, and adhering to best practices to prevent breaches.
You should also make sure that your development costing ensures an investment into mobile responsiveness (given how most people access digital content in the country), and design for low-data contexts. For areas with limited data connectivity or where users are sensitive to data usage, optimising the product for low-data usage is essential. This may involve compressing assets, minimising server requests, or developing lite versions of the product.
Human resource expenditure under design will often include support to frontend development, but should also cover design oversight across the spectrum of project outputs. It should not be underestimated how important design is for use and uptake of products by people, and skills in user experience and user interface design are ideal.
Communication and engagement
This should also include the roles that will help liaise between the target and beneficiary communities (who can work closely with the user researcher). Facilitating engagement is another area that can significantly drive up costs, given how consistency and regularity in engagements are frequently key drivers for their success.
If you have any “number of users” metrics in your project plan, you have to invest in communications. This requires personnel, but can also include specific allocations for social media boosts, as well as costs for making video and audio content that can successfully accompany media campaigns. “Build and they will come” is a fallacy.
Software and hardware
The design and development of technology comes with third party software costs both for actual development, but also to facilitate project implementation. Beyond development tools and platforms, expenses might arise from purchasing licenses for proprietary software or subscription fees for cloud-based solutions. Project management tools, collaboration platforms, and data analytics software often carry recurring costs. Additionally, the deployment of the product might necessitate costs for cloud hosting, content delivery networks, and database management services.
There may also be hardware costs. These can encompass server infrastructure for hosting applications (although frequently this will instead be cloud subscriptions), workstations for developers and designers, testing devices to ensure cross-platform compatibility, and other specialised equipment relevant to the project.
In many social impact contexts, providing users with access devices or setting up community access points might also be a consideration, especially in areas with limited digital access.
A note in this area is that when projects move to AI development, the costs for computing power can be substantial if you want to train your own models, etc. This is why a significant amount of organisations will likely be introduced to AI, through AI-as-a-Service products like ChatGPT; but even then, as computing power requirements grow, costs can skyrocket.
Ensuring the longevity and continuous effectiveness of a social impact technology project goes beyond its initial launch, and the sustainability of your innovation project should always be at the forefront of your planning and implementation.
Long-term costs often overshadowed in initial budgeting play a pivotal role in sustaining momentum. Hosting costs, for example, are recurring and can fluctuate based on user traffic, storage needs, and the technical demands of the platform.
The sustainability of any tech-driven initiative also demands an investment in training. As systems evolve or personnel changes, training becomes crucial to ensure a smooth handover, maintaining both the technical integrity and the vision of the project.
Furthermore, managing the expectations of beneficiary communities is paramount. Continuous engagement, feedback collection, and updates can incur costs but are vital to ensure that the technology remains relevant, user-centric, and truly addresses the evolving needs of its beneficiaries. In essence, sustainability is not merely a financial consideration, but a commitment to long-term value delivery.
The most important thing to remember is that an innovation project never “ends”. When we introduce innovation for positive social change, we are committing to evolving commitments that demonstrate an embracing of complexity, potential failure, and a willingness to pivot quickly to embrace new and arising opportunities. While the path of innovation in the realm of social change is intricate, the rewards—transformative impact and deeper connections—are immeasurable. As we embrace the ever-evolving landscape of technology and innovation, we remain steadfast in our belief that, with careful planning and commitment, the fusion of tech and purpose has the power to reshape societies for the better: and a good budget is a good place to start.