“Three female non-techies build a tech platform for the non-profit sector” sounds like a dream headline for anyone writing on technology and its impact on society in India. Not only are women founders rare in the tech startup ecosystem in India, the number of women founders who build a technology product even though they are not from a tech background themselves is even rarer. But with the launch of OTTER (Online Tech Training Engagement Resource), a technology platform for the non-profit sector, the Tech4Good Community and its founders, Rinju Rajan, Anusha Meher Bhargava, and Akhila Somanath, check all the boxes.
The three co-founders do have a background of working in the development sector—all three met when they were part of Amnesty International’s India team: While Rajan was a star fund-raiser, Bhargava and Somanath were involved in training and development. During their stints at Amnesty, and through their work with non-profits in India, they first became aware of the gaps in tech knowledge—sometimes quite basic ones, such as the ability to do digital record-keeping —among many of the more than three million NGOs in India. They also realised how this was holding back these organisations from scaling their efforts and having a greater impact.
In 2018, the three founders, who had all left Amnesty by then, got together and brainstormed about what they could do to address this gap. Their first case study was with a Raichur, Karnataka-based women’s organisation, Jagrutha Mahila Sangathane (JMS), a Dalit women-run, community-based organisation working at the intersection of caste and gender.
“While working with them, we understood that we couldn’t just swoop in and give them solutions. So we spent time with them just watching and absorbing what they were doing—from making terracotta jewellery as part of their self-help group to making posters for their on-ground campaigns for women’s and Dalit rights. The trust had to be built first,” says Rajan.
They found that the organisation had been recording all its data manually through paper forms or registers. This was actively hindering growth—the data was scattered, disorganised and most of it remained uncollected. This included donor data, member data, beneficiary data, and information on past events and campaigns. A few years earlier, they had lost a lot of the paperwork when their offices got flooded.
“What started with making a shift towards transferring data on to Excel sheets transformed into a full-blown digital data collection exercise,” says Rajan.
Through an association with Google Earth Outreach, the Tech4Good Community got Google employees to train the staff of JMS in tools like the Open Data Kit, a free, open-source toolkit for collecting, managing and storing data in resource-constrained environments. This allows for data to be collected offline and submitted whenever internet connectivity is available.
The Open Data Kit is just one example of tech tools—many of which are freely available but aren’t used by NGOs unaware of their existence—that can be integrated into the community work many of these organisations do. For instance, Tech4Good has also helped organisations set up Management Information Systems (MIS) with Salesforce, use open-source maps to plot data points geographically, and create digital payment channels to help in fund-raising, thanks to collaborations with fintech companies and payment gateways like Razorpay.
“The Google-Tech4Good Summit (in 2019) was a revelation for us. We learnt about tools that would help us in our day- to-day work and made connections with corporates who create these tools…they in turn helped us learn these tools better and showed us how we can customise them to our needs,” says Anirudh Dutt, founder of Let’s Be The Change (LBTC), a Bengaluru-based organisation that works in the field of solid waste management.
During the pandemic, Tech4Good helped the organisation map data using Google My Maps, which helped it visualise the spread of volunteers and resources. In fact, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s municipal corporation, picked up the idea from LBTC and used My Maps to map covid-19 care centres across the city during the second wave of the pandemic.
Tech4Good, which has so far helped over 600 NGOs, got a grant from Facebook through its CSR initiative, FacebookPragati, earlier this year, as well as grants from the Omidyar Network and the EdelGive Foundation. It now hopes to reach many more through OTTER, which connects Indian non-profits with mentors and tool-makers to amplify their social impact.
Non-profits across India can use it to understand the gaps in their technology access, get support to solve these issues, and access mentorship from companies like Google, Salesforce, Atlassian, GiveIndia and Razorpay, which have collaborative projects with Tech4Good.
“As soon as a non-profit signs up to OTTER, they get a diagnostic tool to identify any technological gaps they face, and tools to bridge that gap,“ says Bhargava, who is also chief insights officer at the organisation. “When NGOs run efficiently, their work helps many more beneficiaries, so the impact is incremental,” adds Rajan.