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Field Notes, MFG Archive

Tris Lumley, the Director of Development at NPC imagines a world where charities and nonprofits made better use of digital technology to transform social good in the UK.


Imagine if we used digital technology to transform social good in the UK.


I don’t just mean the adoption of new tech by charities—although much of this is brilliant. We increasingly see digital innovations bolted on to charity fundraising, communications or (less often) services: the recent attempt by the Samaritans to sift the signal from the noise on social media, for example, or the increasingly sophisticated tools for disaggregating donors and their interests.


But our new project at NPC is about something more fundamental. It’s an attempt to shift the essential architecture on which the whole sector operates. There is no reason why advances in digital technology should be limited to making charities incrementally better at the stuff they already do—why can’t it be used to upend the assumptions we make about the whole sector and how it operates?


For inspiration we can look at huge changes to the way some organisations overseas are pursuing social good. Bangalore has been dogged by a garbage problem for decades, but the I Got Garbage initiative has fused old networks with new tech to transform the way it’s handled. Garbage pickers organise themselves into franchises, divided according the region of the city in which they work, and the pickers (having been loaned cash to invest in a smartphone and training) can enter an online marketplace to identify households where garbage needs collecting.


Working in networks is nothing new, but it’s relatively small techie tweaks—connections via smartphone, moving negotiations online—which have turned both the process and the outcomes on its head. More than 2,600 tonnes of waste have been recycled through I Got Garbage since April 2013, serving nearly 7,000 households. Crucially, over 5,000 people have increased their livelihoods working in the system.


This example illustrates one of the key forms that we see digital transformation taking—integrating people and organisations to deliver joined-up services. There are others—personalising products and services through marketplaces (SENDirect—think Amazon for services to people with disabilities), reaching huge scale quickly through technology (like Headspace—a mobile mindfulness app), achieving huge efficiencies (RunAClub—a software platform for local clubs), brokering to connect resources with those who need them (SkyBadger—a directory of what’s available for families with disabled children) and evaluating impact (YouthNet—tracking the flow of users through interactions and services).


These examples are all real. Our question is—how do we help accelerate the development of similar models, and by sharing how they’ve developed can we help others to take great leaps forward?


We need to fuse the skills, resources and tech from the tech sector with the depth of knowledge and understanding in the social sector, and work together to explore what the problems are, before identifying tech solutions that can help tackle them. But this process takes some subtlety and structure—we’ve seen painful examples of matchmaking the tech and social sector that fail totally, resulting in fear or at least confusion on both sides. What’s needed is an investment of time and energy in getting both sides up to speed with each other, and a structure that allows them then to work together to identify opportunities and execute them.


Fundamentally, we want to see the tech sector and social sector brought together at the level of a whole field—young people’s mental health for example—rather than just individual organisations. If we stick with the latter organisations may get to grips with digital, but we won’t see the kind of structural shifts that can only be achieved at the collective, big picture level.


Is it crazy to imagine that we can do this—that we can help the whole social sector make a big leap forward together? Anyone who knows the competitive pressures organisations face to survive and thrive will caution against such an idealistic view. Yet at the same time, we’re the sector that is here for our beneficiaries, not for organisational growth or profit. We’re the ones with a mission, not just a business plan. The whole concept of open source was made for us—we just need to work out how to harness it.


Inevitably, our events have hosted a few scare stories about how far behind charities sometimes lag. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine any thriving private business where the Chief Exec still needs to have emails printed because he or she ‘doesn’t do tech’, or where names of event invitees are scrawled out long-hand and passed on to someone else to find the email and twitter details.


Such anecdotes are a good reminder of where we stand. Charities are seldom quite so tech-illiterate, but neither are they fully awake to the opportunities that digital innovations have made available. If our project can give a boost to that awakening process, all the better.

Many thanks to Tris Lumley for this excellent piece, be sure to follow him on Twitter at @trisml, and NPC at @NPCThinks.


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