Do We Need a New Business Model for Doing Good in the Digital Age?

“No one sector has the monopoly of doing good”. — Dawn Austwick CEO of Big Lottery

In a social sector of so many players — often competing rather than collaborating — can digital tools usher in an era where the end user has more choice over the services they require?

What is obvious is that one size no longer fits all in the health, social housing and care sectors.

Many would argue that a more unified and collaborative sector is a pipedream. However could it be that the sheer number of providers, think tanks and intermediaries are now preventing us from being able to tackle the really “wicked” problems confronting our communities?

Our society is facing both challenges and opportunities with an ageing demographic, a health service seeking £22bn in savings and a digital revolution. Without radically imagining what doing good could look like in the future we are stumbling into a world of disappearing jobs, marginalised communities with reduced or no income and less active lifestyles leading to an epidemic of health and wellbeing problems.

The current funding environment is complex and competitive with few incentives to collaborate or share learning. Great ideas and community led social change initiatives are undermined by a lack of strategic collaboration between funders.

What we need is a shift from funding projects and pilots to collaborating on ‘whole systems’ change. And the starting point needs to be redefining the social sector.

Sonia Sodha in her Think Piece defines the sector with respect to its function rather than any particular legal form: those organisations and associations whose primary purpose is to create social value rather than make profit, and which are independent from the state. We suggest that the boundaries between the social, private and public sectors are becoming increasingly blurred. It is questionable how many organisations are truly independent of the state as public funding comes in many different forms ranging from contracts through to grants, loans and endowments.

Are current funding programmes truly building resilience within communities?

Perhaps systemic change is inhibited by funders failing to coordinate more effectively? The lack of information-sharing can lead to duplication.

Learning from failure is weakened when organisations only share “what worked”. Valuable lessons are lost with new initiatives being doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

It is unclear who “owns” the broader strategies to drive social change beyond the funder and those who have a vested interest in the delivery of a particular project.

Digital technology and social networks provide some of the most powerful tools available today for building a sense of belonging, support and sharing among groups of people who share similar interests and concerns. The breakthrough digital has given us is the opportunity to listen to organisations and our customers in real time.

We believe the social sector should be leading the way in openness, transparency & accountability. As an example, how easy is it for the public to access information about the outcomes and impact of projects funded by Big Lottery?

Is it that the business model itself is impeding progress? These are questions we believe must be answered if we wish to see a social sector retain confidence from the pubic and thrive in the decades to come. In the world after Kids Company, and amid a huge decline of trust in charities, it’s no longer good enough to do good. You need to BE good.

The new social sector business model needs to be based on the principles of transparency, working out loud and frugal innovation. With so many intermediaries involved in managing large complex projects their costs need to be transparent and show how they add value to the communities they serve. The future of doing good has to see a shift away from the rhetoric of collaboration and engagement to practical models that excite, provoke and explore new and radical possibilities.

If organisations have a vested interest in the traditional charity model does this make it difficult to say anything seriously critical?

Is it now time to question whether the traditional models of philanthropy and charities which could be perceived as paternalistic and disempowering are still the only way to effect social change?

This provocation was originally posted on the Future Good forum and is co-authored by Shirley Ayres and Paul Taylor