Erin Baudo Felter on powering non-profit technology, scaling cybersecurity, and why leadership must prioritize digital skills

A Q&A with Okta's VP of Social Impact & Sustainability

Erin Baudo Felter on powering non-profit technology, scaling cybersecurity, and why leadership must prioritize digital skills

Erin Baudo Felter is VP of Social Impact and Sustainability at Okta and leads the company’s corporate social impact and sustainability work. She’s also a member of Connect Humanity’s Advisory Council. We spoke with Erin about her work and reflections on our new State of Digital Inequity report, funded in part by Okta. Here’s a shortened transcript of that conversation. 

Hi Erin! Let’s jump right in. Tell us about Okta for Good and how the organization sees technology’s role in lifting up communities.

Okta’s vision as a tech company providing identity and access management is to enable everyone to safely use any digital technology. The work we do at Okta for Good stems directly from that vision.

To truly include everyone, my team focuses on those who don’t have access to technology or critical tools, what the major barriers are, and what needs to happen to overcome them. We’re working for those unable to access the economy of technology, jobs and the opportunities those bring.

A key part of that is supporting civil society organizations to use technology to better deliver on their missions. We do this by making our products and technologies more accessible to CSOs. And we fund large scale work across the sector to support digital transformation, including in areas like cybersecurity and other risks that nonprofits face.

So, like the premise at the heart of our new report, Okta believes technology has the potential to massively multiply the good that civil society organizations do.

Absolutely. From the beginning, Okta for Good was interested in how Okta’s products and other digital technologies could help non-profits focus more resources on their core mission and less on back-end administration.

Then the pandemic happened and non-profits — like every sector — had to pivot to remote work and service delivery. We saw that many were ill-equipped to do so because of a lack of funding for technology infrastructure and also, frankly, a lack of know-how.

Just as we saw individuals struggle without the tools they needed (we all remember the images of children doing their homework in Taco Bell parking lots), many non-profits providing critical services were also struggling. And so we doubled down on our investments in that space.

These two levels of digital equity — the community perspective and the community organization perspective — are so important and interlinked. And that’s why, when we started talking to Connect Humanity about this report and you were also thinking about it from this dual perspective, we got excited.

We need more data out there for funders, for corporate partners and for the general public to understand this issue. Even after the pandemic, it’s just not understood enough.

We’ll dive into the report in a moment. But first, digital equity and transformation is often discussed in the abstract. Many of the people who completed the survey wrote tangibly about how a lack of connectivity affected them. For instance, a child education provider in India described how they were unable to connect with half their team and beneficiaries during the pandemic because they didn’t have the tools. What are some of the tangible impacts digital transformation has made for the CSOs you work with?

Like that example shows, digital technology is now a foundational tool for almost all organizations. That was born out of the survey right? 95% of all NGOs now see the internet as critical to their work. We see that play out across a full spectrum of organizations, from small community groups to international NGOs.

The Norwegian Refugee Council is a great example of a large global humanitarian NGO with a sophisticated technology team. They work in extremely difficult conditions with staff working in the field all around the world. Security is a huge concern for NRC, given the nature of its work. While they had strong foundations, we worked with them to improve their technology so they could spend more time on their core work supporting people forced to flee dangerous situations. By implementing our identity technology, they were able to provide easier, safer access to digital tools for all their staff, often in trying conditions. Having a single way for everybody to log in and not wasting thousands of staff hours on resetting passwords and additional tech support meant significant productivity boosts and cost savings. These nuts and bolts really matter.

That’s a great example to underline the spectrum of where organizations are on their digital equity journey. We ran the survey to map civil society’s digital haves and have-nots and get a deep understanding of the range of barriers organizations around the world face. 7,500+ organizations collectively serving 190+ million people answered. What were your main takeaways?

To start, I think that 95% stat is pretty remarkable. It might seem obvious to those of us used to ubiquitous internet in our lives. But as a global survey reaching 136 countries, this tells us that we have now reached a point where it’s non-negotiable that the internet is a part of how organizations deliver services.

And in that context, the fact that 3 in 4 organizations are without the tools they need shows the size and importance of the task ahead of us. Add to that, that just 12% said their communities have the internet access they need. That’s the gap. That’s the challenge. These figures may not be surprising to some people, but it’s so valuable to finally have some clear verified global data of what this gap is.

And because demand for digital technology is accelerating, while progress on access is not keeping pace, the gap is getting bigger.

Exactly, and it’s not just infrastructure and availability of technology, but other barriers like digital skills too. That was another eye-opener in the report: that skills gaps were one of the biggest barriers for both organizations and for the people they serve.

This is a dual challenge we need to solve — ensuring organizations can train their people to use technology to operate more effectively. And to scale this up to beneficiaries so they have the digital fluency to reap the benefits.

Oftentimes it’s skills more than tech that’s the real barrier. If people don’t have the knowledge to use technology, the fastest networks and best devices are just wires and boxes. We need to get this part right.

And yet 60% of respondents said their organizations provide no digital literacy training or skills building.

That has to change. We have to invest in skills just as seriously as we invest in technology. Funders need to factor this in when they’re supporting civil society organizations, recognising that this isn’t just a tag-on, but a core investment in a grantee’s ability to achieve its mission. 

At the same time, companies and the philanthropic sector must think of creative ways to advance digital literacy with their partners. Tech companies like Okta have a special role. We have armies of people who can help with the digital skills challenge. 88% of Okta’s employees participated in Okta for Good initiatives last year. Many of them dedicate their time teaching and advising NGO partners on technology pro-bono.

The challenge, of course, is how you ensure these efforts provide the right kind of meaningful support. More money is great. Better technology is great. But the expertise of our people can be a game changer here if we can just harness it in the right way.

And as a security company, Okta has resources to help organizations with cybersecurity — an area in which many CSOs don’t spend a lot of time on. How do you approach that?

The vast majority of small organizations don’t have a tech person. If they do, that person is probably doing four other jobs. They’re not going to have much headspace for safety and security. Non-profit leadership and boards need to see these investments as a mission-related cost, considering the risks out there. It can’t be somebody’s side gig. It should be elevated to how we treat finance and legal capacity.

And so non-profit cybersecurity support is one area we’re investing in, putting over $1 million in the next two years into the digital skills and human capital challenge of cybersecurity. We’re investing in six organizations each trying to prove out a slightly different model of how we can better equip people in NGOs to address cyber threats for their organizations. One of these is a partnership with Net Hope where we’re funding a virtual chief security officer who will work across all 60+ member NGOs of the Net Hope community to offer strategic security advice. This takes a one-to-many approach to solving for the fact that most of those organizations don’t have a chief security officer and never will.

I love the spirit of innovation to overcome the resource challenges of civil society and refusal to accept that organizations go without the critical pillars for effective digital operations. We’re grateful for Okta’s funding for the report and the thoughtful work you do on digital equity. What message would you give to other companies and philanthropic funders yet to get off the bench on the issue?

When Covid hit and digital equity issues became more salient, more companies and philanthropy did get involved — which was great. But they largely funded devices, hot spots, and other short term approaches.

To make lasting progress, we need more folks to make a long term commitment to digital equity. It’s one of the most impactful investments they can make — and for most of them it’ll ultimately help their bottom line as well as meet CSR goals.

So my message would be, don’t be intimidated by the issue just because you’re not tech experts. Lean into it. Partner with organizations like Okta and Connect Humanity who do understand technology. Leverage data and insights like those uncovered in this report. And give multi-year unrestricted funding to support digital infrastructure.

That’s a good place to end. Erin, thanks so much for taking the time.

Happy to, let’s do it again soon.

To learn more about the State of Digital Inequity Report, read the executive summary.

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