By connecting various humanitarian and not-for-profit organizations around the globe, NetHope is using technology to help people come together to make the world a better place.

This short profile is part of a recurring series on case studies in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Technology matters. This is a message that Vice Chair and Director of NetHope, Kelvin Cantafio, repeats often, and rightfully so―as using the right technology can help various non-governmental and humanitarian organizations collaborate to do their work better and reach more people.

NetHope is an organization that helps do just that. It currently works with 32 organizations around the world to leverage their skills, expertise and knowledge of the broader community, and to use information and communication technology in a way that benefits people in the developing world. The supporters—private companies like Microsoft, Accenture and Cisco—provide members (including Oxfam, Ashoka, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, the Grameen Foundation, and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) with money, services, products and expertise and collaborate with them to create programs to best reach those in need.

The idea for NetHope sprung from a whitepaper written a decade ago entitled “Wiring the Global Village.” In it, then-CIO of Save The Children US, Edward G. Happ, outlined the need for connectivity between organizations working in the developing world. This connectivity would serve as a backbone for better programming. Better collaboration and communication would increase the effectiveness of services, and better communications infrastructure would benefit organizations and the beneficiaries of their programs.

In addition to building the infrastructure and systems needed for this kind of connectivity, NetHope continues to work to build capacity and expertise in member organizations through training programs. They are also building a system of shared services, using the deep discounts they get from their partners to enable members to use the best tools without their having to procure them on their own.

NetHope is a significant social innovation because it tears down the silos in development. It not only breaks down the boundaries between NGOs, government and the private sector, but also the ones between individual NGOs. The silos made it impossible to achieve economies of scale and prevented lessons learned from being shared at a much broader level.

In addition to addressing the needs for connectivity, NetHope actively works to standardize evaluation and monitoring processes. While there currently are no industry-wide standards for evaluation and project management, the need for standardization is evident: better standards and metrics around impact will mean better funding and better service delivery to beneficiaries.

Why is NetHope a best practice? It challenged the divisions between organizations and sectors and showed how collaboration and connectivity made their work better. And it changed the way that the not-for-profit sector looked at the private sector, from that of a source of funding to one of expertise. In the NetHope model, the corporation is neither the opponent nor the source of money; instead, it is a partner with whom to collaborate to create better solutions and delivery programs.

The success of this approach has been great. NetHope Director Kelvin Cantafio cited examples of employees from sponsor organizations doing secondments at the NGOs they work with, and of organizations that provide not just money and expertise but also deep discounts, up to 70%, to support the connectivity efforts between NGOs.

Shifting the model and the way of thinking away from silos and into collaboration has not been easy. Cantafio outlined a few big barriers that they worked hard to overcome and continue to address.

The first among them was the reframing of information technology as a strategic utility rather than as an operational expense. In most charities, IT is something that needs to be accounted for because it is a necessary expense of doing business. In the NetHope model, however, IT has strategic value not just for the success of the programs, but as part of the programs themselves.

Managing vendor relationships was another initial challenge that had to be overcome, and quickly. NetHope worked hard to create processes and systems that allow a balance between partnership and operational autonomy, giving vendors a partner role in creating solutions but still allowing organizations to deliver the services in the way best suited for their beneficiaries.

NetHope is currently sustainable through member fees and funding from grantors, and is hoping to grow quickly. As it grows, it aims to further change the model of global development work by fostering not just collaboration in connectivity and service delivery, but in collaborative funding and project management as well.

Based on their current success and the impact they are having on people in the developing world, it looks like NetHope will continue to make a difference in big ways in the years to come.

For more information about NetHope, visit: http://nethope.org/

The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.