Transforming a Non-Profit from an Analog to a Digital Organization
SAFE Foundation
Case Study
Transforming a Non-Profit from an Analog to a Digital Organization
A Case Study of SAFE Foundation and HighFlyer Partnership
Non Profit Organisation

Adopting new technology into an organisation's culture is often a struggle. The task becomes even more daunting if the organisation has little to no history with many digital products we take for granted today. It's the challenge SAFE Foundation—a non-profit whose entire digital experience could be summed up by the spotty network coverage that plagued its offices—took on after partnering with HighFlyer.

What followed was an incredible transformation that reshaped SAFE into an organisation with digital-first thinking when solving problems of any scale.

About SAFE Foundation

Social Advancement for Family Empowerment (SAFE) Foundation is a non-profit founded in 2007 to help the poorest and most vulnerable families in society.

It runs various income-generation activities, development initiatives, and family empowerment programs to allow the marginalized to find a better economic footing. Residents of the Anuradhapura district, where SAFE offices are located, feel the biggest impact of its projects.

In the words of SAFE’s Executive Director, Harsha Jayarathna, SAFE is an organization that has been on a path of gradual improvement since its inception. This drive to constantly move forward has led SAFE to partner with an increasing number of local government institutes, fellow NGOs, and international development agencies like USAID to amplify its influence.

It’s also what motivated SAFE to carry out an internal digitalization campaign back in 2019.

The Challenge

Despite SAFE’s eagerness to go digital, making it a reality came with numerous challenges.

The root of SAFE’s many technical woes was rather simple—the unpredictable and unreliable network connection SAFE offices grappled with daily.

Beyond this level, SAFE had an even harder time adopting technology in its internal processes. It didn’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate where digitalization could make a difference and which IT services could help. Many of the popular software products businesses rely on today were still unfamiliar territory to SAFE employees at the time.

The organisation still relied on traditional offline storage methods to store and share documents. Online platforms that could provide more reliable collaboration experiences, such as Google Drive and Google Docs, weren't identified as possible solutions. Sinhala typing was a particular pain point that cost SAFE too many resources due to outdated software usage. SAFE lacked professional email addresses to show its credibility during official communication. Any attempt SAFE made to digitalise was also constrained by budget concerns. A lot of tools and software that would've been a good fit for the organisation had to be discarded due to unaffordable pricing options.

All these complications narrowed down the path available for SAFE when going digital. However, after partnering with HighFlyer, SAFE managed to carefully tread this path to create a digitalization strategy that gradually overcame these challenges.

The Solution

SAFE met HighFlyer through the Smallholder Agribusiness Partnerships Programme (SAPP) implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture. The program gave way to a partnership for a strategic management consultancy between the two organisations.

“We saw this as an opportunity for overall organisation development,” says Harsha Jayarathne on SAFE’s initial expectations regarding working with HighFlyer. The process for reaching that end goal started with a maturity assessment. It allowed HighFlyer to identify which areas of SAFE needed attention and improvement. Based on its findings, HighFlyer developed a strategy for incrementally bringing new changes to SAFE.

The strategy was not limited only to going digital in its earlier stage. It included a range of topics revolving around management practices, human resources, accounting, and IT services, targeting the progress of the entire organisation. HighFlyer conducted on-location training for SAFE employees to ensure a smooth knowledge transfer in these areas.

An Incremental Approach to Digitalization

SAFE’s digitalization started with finding a way around the poor network coverage. HighFlyer collaborated with SLT Mobitel to provide Network Extenders to SAFE as a short-term fix. Later, as its internet usage increased, SAFE could convince Mobitel to establish a cell tower at its offices, finding a permanent solution to an issue that had hindered its progress for a long time.

Next, HighFlyer took on the task of finding a more reliable and flexible document storage option for SAFE. Until then, SAFE had been using an assortment of USB drives, passed back and forth among employees, as its organization-wide storage. HighFlyer introduced Google Drive to the organisation as a much improved and affordable alternative.

HighFlyer also trained the SAFE staff to take advantage of many Google products connected to Google Drive. They started using Google Docs to write and collaborate on documents and Google Calendar to create shared schedules and plan meetings. A lot of tasks that were previously carried out via physical channels moved online after this introduction.

SAFE’s close work with the community generated a considerable number of Sinhala language documents. However, SAFE wasn’t familiar with techniques like transliteration and voice typing, which have made Sinhala typing significantly easier in recent years. HighFlyer introduced these new tools built on top of these techniques to let the organisation complete the tasks without needing special training or resources.

Unifying Operations with Microsoft 365

At this point, SAFE went through another major transition by getting access to Microsoft 365.

The move came with the need to launch an email domain for SAFE. The regular Gmail addresses it had relied on so far affected the organization’s credibility when communicating with third parties, particularly international agencies and funds. This requirement sent HighFlyer on a search for a platform to host SAFE’s emails at an affordable price.

HighFlyer had to look beyond cheaper, open-source solutions, which required considerable IT knowledge for long-term maintenance SAFE lacked internally. However, more user-friendly, high-end solutions like Google Workspaces and Microsoft 365 came with a price tag SAFE was unable to afford for the scale it needed, with over 50 accounts.

Working within these restrictions, HighFlyer applied for Microsoft 365 non-profit grant to negotiate a price within SAFE’s budget for creating the accounts. After several failed attempts to reach an agreement, HighFlyer personally reached out to Microsoft to effectively communicate how the grant would help SAFE and its larger benefits. This resulted in SAFE finally gaining access to Microsoft 365 and creating professional email addresses to boost its credibility.

The Microsoft 365 products that came with this opportunity, from One Drive to Outlook, had an even bigger impact on unifying SAFE’s operations through interconnected platforms.

SAFE acquired non-profit offerings of several other essential software like Grammarly and Canva with HighFlyer’s assistance. SAFE also began to rely on Zoom for hosting meetings with its dispersed employee base by this period. It allowed the organisation to truly apply a digital-first mentality at work.

Becoming Active Participants in Thinking Digital-First

Despite the many changes SAFE went through within a short period, they didn’t let SAFE employees feel disoriented or overwhelmed at any point. HighFlyer always chose products whose user experience aligned with SAFE's technical inexperience to answer identified problems.

Today, two years since the partnership between SAFE and HighFlyer began, SAFE has come to a point where it looks at ways to digital solutions first when met with a problem. Whether it is a hastily-arranged staff meeting or tracking employee details, SAFE employees now only consider offline or physical solutions if a digital solution is not readily available.

What's even more impressive is how this continuous digitalization has enabled SAFE to identify where and how new technology can enhance its operations, independently, without relying on HighFlyer recommendations. It is close to seeing the fruits of two such suggestions, an online grievance management system for Sri Lanka's foreign workers and its website in the near future. An ERP system that allows SAFE to manage projects, employees, and resources, all in one place, is also in the works at the moment.

SAFE has now shed its past as a technologically inexperienced organisation and embraced a future as an active participant in digitalization. This newly-adopted work culture has empowered SAFE to confidently take on multimillion-dollar projects and expand its employee base nearly threefold today.

The Conclusion

SAFE Foundation's digitalization journey has been a resounding success, thanks in large part to the vision of its young management team. With an open-minded and adaptable employee base, the organisation was able to adopt new technology without much resistance, leading to significant improvements in its operations. The partnership with HighFlyer has been instrumental in this process, providing not only expert guidance but a level of support that exceeded a mere consultation prospect.

The case serves as a testament to the transformative power of digitalization and the critical role unwavering commitment to change plays in finding success in the end.