Where next for charity transformation? Our sector-wide digital unconference

Giulia Merlo
Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog
3 min readSep 26, 2019

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Last July, following our very successful (and fun!) first unconference, Cancer Research UK organised a second event, open to all charities in the UK.

It was my first experience facilitating a group of this kind — we had nearly 70 people attending, from over 25 charities, of all sizes and dedicated to a wide variety of causes. For someone with a passion for facilitation and a keen interest in the human dynamics of digital transformation like myself, it was a dream come true!

But I was really interested to hear from participants what worked well and what didn’t for them, so I’ve asked Kathryn Excell, Head of Digital at MQ: Transforming Mental Health, to help me write this blog post and share her experience of the event.

From the way we organised on the day, to the issues discussed and where we want to take it next — here are our key takeaways.

Democratising the agenda

The big advantage of unconferences is that they allow everyone who participates to shape the agenda in a democratic way. This energises the room and makes everyone feel they can have a voice: we found that the enthusiasm and commitment of the attendees were palpable!

During the first unconference, we’d used post-its and dot-voting to draw the agenda, but for this second event, we used the UKGovCamp ‘pitching’ style. We also stole their idea of offering ‘pitching buddies’, so that people who didn’t feel as confident pitching a session could still get their suggestions heard, as well as ‘facilitation buddies’ for those who wanted to pitch a session but didn’t feel comfortable leading the discussion.

This worked really well and we ended up with some significant and challenging topics. The openness and transparency with which groups approached the discussions was another success — it was great to see organisations guiding and learning from each other. While conferences usually follow a format that allows presenters to showcase all the great parts of their work — often without revealing the bits that didn’t go so well — during our unconference we were able to focus on the challenges, and to come up with solutions collectively.

Next time, we would like to democratise the agenda even further by ensuring an even distribution of participation from Cancer Research UK teams, who were in the majority among attendees, and other charities. We’d love to hear suggestions on how to keep participation open and non-hierarchical, whilst still ensuring an even spread of attendees.

It’s really, really not about technology

The theme of our unconference was digital transformation, and it was clear quite early on that all attendees, sector-wide, shared one main belief: digital transformation is not just about technology. It’s about culture and organisational change.

And yet, in spite of our desire to be agenda setters in our sectors, many charity boards still see digital teams as support functions.

This topic was felt very strongly by many of the attendees, with several sessions discussing the need for digital teams to demonstrate the value of our approaches, and the importance of having senior leadership’s buy-in when trying to change our organisations.

It feels like the kind of community of practice fostered by events like these, can truly help us make the case for change.

Where next?

During the unconference, we talked extensively and passionately about cross-sector collaboration. Every participant shared a strong feeling that we have a moral duty to collaborate more and compete less.

The enthusiastic participation in the unconference, the constructive and open way all attendees approached the discussions, and the energy we felt on the day, are all testament to the huge appetite that our teams have to work together more — and better — and to break down silos in the interest of our supporters and the causes we work for.

So where can we go next? We’re thinking about creating forums for these conversations to continue (whether that’s another unconference, a Slack channel, or a regular meet-up), and we want to work towards establishing communities of practice that can help us and our teams navigate organisational structures and use digital and design practices for change.

Can we make our unconference the beginning of something new?

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Giulia Merlo
Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog

Head of User Research & Design @citizensadvice | Formerly of CRUK | Co-Chair of BIMA Charities Council | Feminist, European, passionate about pizza & Beyonce