It’s 2007. Steve Jobs has just walked off the stage, having delivered one of the most iconic—and seminal—presentations in business history. The iPhone now ushers in an era of mobile-first digital interaction. And, at the heart of this interactivity is the app. But that was 15 years ago. Are apps for nonprofits relevant? In this post, I’ll discuss what you need to know when considering an app for your organization.
Short for “application,”an app is simply a piece of software designed to run directly on a device (hence the term native app). Typically, when most people think of apps, they’re referring to a mobile app, i.e., software for a tablet or smartphone, but over the years, the definition of “device” has expanded to include not just phones but desktop computers, home appliances and even car navigation systems.
Since their operation is reliant on the device itself and not the web, apps must be developed in the language of the device upon which they’re operating. For example, iPhone apps are currently built in the programming language Swift, and Android apps in Java.
An app’s tight integration with the device results in a superb user experience, allowing users to access the full spectrum of device functionality. But this experience comes at a price. Given the complexity of native app development, the cost of building a native app can run well above $100,000 per platform. Accordingly this cost structure has put native apps out of the reach of many organizations – both for-profit and -non.
The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 triggered a rush of native app development across the globe as developers sought to make their fortunes in Apple’s app store and the Android equivalent, The Android Marketplace (now Google Play). Initial enthusiasm for native applications caused even some storied tech experts to proclaim that the end of the Web (and websites) was near.
Over time though, as technology progressed and developers and businesses sought solutions to the challenging and expensive world of app development, alternatives emerged.
Progressive web apps—essentially apps that live on the web but feature capabilities akin to native apps—offered a viable alternative to their native counterparts. Embodying the look and feel of a native app, progressive web apps are built on the web, and can thus work across any device, and are even downloadable to a phone.
Concurrently, the web itself began to catch-up, thanks primarily to Google.
As mobile device usage skyrocketed, Google updated its search engine algorithm to consider a website’s “mobile-friendliness” as a ranking factor-even going as far as prioritizing the mobile version of a website over the desktop version in its rankings. This in turn pushed web developers to create the best mobile website experience possible and improve technologies that would support mobile website development.
With the web now a legitimate competitor to native apps, the web didn’t disappear as some had predicted, but neither did apps, leading to today’s environment wherein apps, progressive web apps, and mobile-friendly websites co-exist.
Today, apps for nonprofits can mean traditional mobile apps that reside on a smartphone, progressive web apps or web-based apps that are created for websites to perform specific functions. For example, we created a website portal for the Hope Chest Scholarship Foundation that allowed prospective scholars to apply for funding directly on the foundation’s website. Similarly, we developed a program review system that allows the World Childhood Foundation to assess and provide resources to community-based organizations that prevent child sexual exploitation.
Apps for nonprofits like these are designed to streamline workflows, provide high-level and accessible data and empower organizations to operate more efficiently. Perhaps most importantly, they offer alternatives to those organizations that don’t have the wherewithal or necessity to build a fully-conceived native application.
In short, yes. Nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations need to run as efficiently as possible, and technology has evolved to the point where cutting-edge digital capabilities are within the grasp of even small organizations.
From fundraising, to data collection, grant processing, and members-only portals, apps-whether native, web-based or hybrid-do indeed work to save nonprofits time, provide efficiency, and over time, money.
When it comes to apps for nonprofits, the first step is to determine where the need lies:
Based on this initial focus, seek out a team or developer that has deep experience in planning, architecting and deploying apps for nonprofits. The right individual(s) will help you scope your project and provide guidance, support and training as to its implementation. Look for a digital partner with whom your organization can grow over the long-term, as digital transformation is here to stay, and processes and tools will become increasingly plentiful and complex.
I’ve touched on a lot here, but given the importance that digital technology and transformation will play in the coming years, it pays to think deeply on these topics. I encourage you to do your own due diligence, and then work to develop a strong system of digital tools and processes that improve your program offerings and provide your clients, donors, and stakeholders with the best experience possible.
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