From natural innovation to professional problem solving
How design adds value to the community sector.
We — Good Things Foundation — are in a unique position. We manage the Online Centres Network. The network started life as a grassroots movement for digital inclusion. It has grown. Digital inclusion is still the core of what we do, but the Online Centres Network is also the largest community sector network in the UK. To understand our work find a centre near you.
We are running a challenge prize because we think that most of our funding focuses too much on outputs. By funding and measuring outputs we can’t see the complexity of the support that happens in community centres. We’ve known this for a while. This is why we collect rich data to explain what happens beyond the outputs (like our longitudinal study and Theory of Change).
This helps to understand more, but only within the existing paradigm. To really understand the community sector, we needed an experiment. Our hunch: that a challenge prize would reframe our relationship with Online Centres. In doing so, it would help us to understand things that we just can’t find out through conventional projects.
For centres a Challenge Prize is different. It funds an idea for a project rather that the project itself. An idea can be an ambition. It doesn’t rely on getting a target number of people through the door. For this reason, the prize becomes an opportunity for smaller community centres and centres that are new to the Network.
Funding usually begins when the funder defines a problem. The Community Challenge Prize changes this by asking centres to both define the problem and propose a solution. We had 95 applications in which centres identified a problem for their community and thought of a way to solve it. This is natural innovation in good health.
These ideas were innovative. They were ambitious and new. But it became clear that we could help centres by helping them to professionalise the way in which they think through community projects.
As we took centres through development workshops it became clear that having a good idea is very different from building a good project. As professional innovators, we are only half concerned with something being new. Most of our work thinks through how a project or platform will actually work. In a recent workshop, one participant crystallised their problem:
We are used to jumping from the problem to a solution but we don’t usually do the bit in the middle.
The bit in the middle is where you think about the specific people you want to help and how to help them. You think about why they might come to your service. You think about the people who you need to engage in order to make your idea work. You think about the real goal of your project and hone it until you know it is likely to make the change you want to make.
We can help by giving Online Centres the space and time to think through their project ideas. We also give them the tools to think through the change they want to make. If we do it right, then everyone can benefit from an empowered and professional community sector.