Digital Transformation in the Social Sector
On December 8, 2021, the Social Impact Lab heard from Chuck Slaughter, an experienced social entrepreneur, and SOM alumnus. Mr. Slaughter is the founder and CEO of Living Goods, a company that empowers health care workers in low-income regions to deliver high-quality, cost-effective healthcare services in their communities. Living Goods underlying business model integrates technology into frontline service delivery He is also a Senior Advisor to the Impact investment fund TPG Rise and Managing Director at the Horace Goldsmith Foundation.
Chuck described his thoughts on the role of digital technology in the social sector. Convenience is the key driver for digital disruption. Our desire for convenience as consumers has changed almost all the ways we interact with the world, from how we communicate and connect, to how we travel and shop. The “winners” of the digital revolution thus far are those who entered the market with a digital-first mindset: think about how Uber and Airbnb have outpaced taxis and hotel chains. Market incumbents struggle to pivot their business models toward the lean, nimble, and innovative strategies required to compete today.
The benefits of the digital age extend to the social sector. Education, healthcare and social justice organizations can leverage new technologies to create more impact if they start with a digital-first mindset. Chuck described a few examples: healthcare companies like Ada Health, whose App allows people to easily upload bio-data to monitor chronic conditions and improve health behaviors; and Recidiviz, a nonprofit organization using data-driven interventions in criminal justice with the vision of eliminating parole and probation inefficiencies across the United States.
The digital-first approach for social impact organizations means that the gathering of and hypothesis-testing that used to take years can now happen in a matter of days. Technology expands access to social goods and services, increases the effectiveness of programming, and saves people time and money. Starting with this mindset is easier than changing down the line, but change is possible with the right leadership and strategic partnerships. Southern New Hampshire University provides an example of a successful pivot with their online degree programs: they now have more students enrolled online than in-person, generating more revenue and graduating more students at a lower cost.
If MBA students plan to enter a social impact organization founded in the “pre-digital” age, Chuck provided some helpful advice. First, leadership must be committed to shifting the business model. People are often the root of the challenge—change is hard, and leadership has to set the direction. Second, forming strategic partnerships with experts is essential: do not try to make the shift without the appropriate support. Third, think like a start-up: How would we operate if we had a clean slate? Approaching the transformation with this kind of mindset will keep the organization focused on the end goal when experiencing bumps along the way.
Many underestimate the potential of digital solutions for social problems, but these tools can deliver convenience in the social sector too. We already see examples of this in education, healthcare and social justice organizations. When organizations are willing to adapt to or start with a digital-first model, they can significantly multiply their social impact.
Naturally, then, we had to ask Chuck about the typewriter on his desk. He says he still prefers to type out his letters old-school.