Digital technology has powered some of the most significant changes over the past few decades — the huge shift in how we make and consume media; how we find and share information; the growth of global businesses, sectors and economies.
Dan Sutch, Director of CAST: Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology outlines how funders can support organisations to harness technology for social good.
A version of this article first appeared in Trusts and Foundation News in April 2017
There can be no doubt about the impact digital technologies have had on so many parts of our lives. Not least because over three-quarters of adults in the UK carry a supercomputer in their pockets, which connects them to information, resources and people across the globe.
The pace of change seems so rapid. Just think about how quickly Uber, Facebook, Amazon or Twitter have become so dominant in their sectors and industries. Consider the scale of that change too: online commerce hasn’t just seen the rise of new platforms and market leaders, but has changed the brands we recognise; the prices we expect to pay; the way in which we buy and sell things; even the look of the physical high street has changed due to digital.
So how might we as trusts and foundations help to support and enable such profound change in the work of the organisations that we support? How can we harness the potential of digital technology in a way that a decade from now, will have seen similar scale progress and change?
Creating a culture of reuse
Throughout its history, digital innovation has often come about when many people and teams work on similar problems and solutions, building on each other’s work — not just learning from each other but actually using each others’ products to speed up their own innovation. This indicates that to see similar advances within Tech for Good, we need to encourage sharing, collaboration, and particularly reuse.
It’s easy to want to provide funding for new ideas that have huge potential, and to provide support for those gaps in existing provision. In response, charities are experts in describing their work in ways that identify the novelty, often within a context of non-existent competition. This isn’t disingenuous, charities do operate in these spaces and clearly require support to continue to do so.
Yet for 99% of the digital ideas in our sector, someone, somewhere has already tried the digital bit of it. And that’s important. It means they’ve taken some of the cost of exploration, and done some of the work to create a digital thing that we can reuse to test whether our ideas might work.
The digital revolution has been powered by the ability to build on, and reuse, other people’s ideas — and if we’re to foster similar success, then we need to positively encourage proposals that build on other people’s ideas and code. As well as asking ‘how is this approach unique?’, ask ‘what digital tools already exist that allow you to test out your ideas, to gain confidence that it’s wanted and needed?’
Testing to become confident
One of the most profound benefits of harnessing digital — perhaps even more than the scale, ubiquity or new business models, is that we can very quickly/cheaply create things for people to use. This means we can take ideas and turn them into something (prototypes) for people to click/swipe/use, which allows us to test how our ideas align with people’s actual behaviour. Ensuring we create digital tools that will be used (by linking to people’s existing behaviour) is core to successful digital development.
We can then build on those tests, becoming more and more confident that we’re heading in the right direction — either because we have the evidence that we’re developing the right product/service, or because we can shift our intervention based on that new data. This is often referred to as the ‘build–measure–learn’ cycle, and it’s central to ensuring digital approaches are appropriately targeted and built.
To support this type of approach means funding in a way that requires ongoing testing and iteration — supporting grantees to follow their feedback even if it moves them away from the initial idea presented in a grant application. We can learn here from excellent Tech for Good funders like Nominet Trust and Ufi Charitable Trust who have established methods for funding in this way.
Addressing challenges not suggesting solutions
There’s a really significant difference in the sorts of financing that have powered the digital revolution, and the dominant financing model within our sector. For-profit investment occurs when an opportunity is identified (a ‘market gap’) and a team supported to fill it with their new digital offering. The investment backs the team to find the solution to that gap, refining the proposition until ‘product-market fit’ is found and the users, team and investors are all rewarded. In our sector we’re very good at funding solutions, rather than providing funding to support finding the right solution.
Really effective funding for Tech for Good supports charities to address a challenge — using established methods (like the agile method that uses the ‘build measure learn’ cycle) to find the right solution. There isn’t necessarily a change in cost or timescale, but by taking these approaches we can reduce the risk of digital development and ensure the solution is fit for purpose, in turn giving much more certainty that a grant will be effective.
The solution will change based on feedback from the audience/user group, but it’s the team that is trusted to continue to drive and ensure the approach works. A digital product designer; a developer or two, and an entrepreneur are often seen as the three key roles — though it’s rare that established charities will have all this expertise. In which case, the team must include partnerships — and being confident that these partnerships can persist is an important part of assessing a proposal.
Our Fuse accelerator builds these product teams around an established charity. While the approach means we can launch a new digital service within three months, our longer-term ambition is that the charities will start to develop these ‘product roles’ through the support that we provide. They’re crucial to developing great digital products, and the more talented people we can bring into the sector, the quicker we’ll realise the potential of digital in our collective work.
Tech builds are often perceived as necessarily large and only understood by those who can control the dark magic of computer code — though this isn’t the case. For funders new to supporting tech projects there can be a concern about judging whether costs in a proposal are appropriate. The best response is to ask someone more experienced — other funders who support this sort of work, us, or digital experts in your own network. Beyond asking a friend, we can also follow the example of funders working in partnership to share their learning and decision-making, like the partnership between Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Comic Relief on their Tech for Good fund.
Supporting senior leaders to understand the implications and possibilities of digital is vital if the challenges presented by digital are to be addressed and the potential realised. Our Digital Fellowship supports such development, but beyond new activities like that, proactive digital funders like Nominet Charitable Trust and Comic Relief add in ‘funder plus’ support linking to mentors and experts who can support leaders and teams responding to digital.
Making a start
These steps will help harness the potential of digital. They may seem too big: How can we create a culture of reuse? How can we shift to a more agile funding approach? Others are easier: How can we invest in digital leadership? To find a way of starting, we should use these methods ourselves.
The ‘build–measure–learn’ cycle isn’t just for developing great digital products. It’s a process that will help us create the best support to empower charities. So, try something small, learn from it, and improve until together we have accelerated the impact of technology for social good.