A 3-step digital reset for charities and social organisations

Rachel Coldicutt
Jun 30 · 10 min read

Short-term tactics for post-Covid recovery

A red semi-circle with an arrow at one end, against a pink background
A red semi-circle with an arrow at one end, against a pink background
A reset button

1. Reset and restore: setting strategies in uncertain times

The Covid recovery period will be filled with turning points and choices; there is a lot of talk of “building better” right now, but that is by no means a certainty. Civil society’s financial vulnerability is likely to be cemented in the coming recession, and dealing with the practical difficulties caused by this will be tough; getting through it requires a shared, consistent and positive future for a post-Covid world.

From interviews and workshops with people from across civil society — activists, community groups and professionalised service delivery charities — we have heard that, if a better future with technology is to be realised, there needs to be a sector-wide commitment to a tactical reset from charities and social organisations that deliver services, so that:

2. What does a tactical reset look like?

Lockdown should be viewed as a pivotal moment, not as a time for making new blueprints. As one workshop participant said, “There’s no going back now” — but not going back doesn’t mean charities have to stay exactly where they have landed.

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The Glimmers Transformation Canvas

We recommend that:

A constantly transforming digital organisation balances innovation and efficiency all of the time. Projects and programmes of work will move from one category to another, but most organisational change takes place in the tension between being innovative and being efficient, in thinking across big, broad issues and isolating specific concerns.

The pandemic has energised efforts to innovate, reimagine organisations and create new services. It has shown that innovation can be unlocked by experts on the ground; it doesn’t need consultants and post-it notes — but it does need technology to be liberated from a narrow association with efficiency and increased reach.

3. Why is a tactical reset needed?

“There is no going back!”

Many charities moved to digital delivery at great speed during the first weeks of lockdown. The collective will to overcome traditional barriers and do things that had been thought undoable has created enormous momentum, and challenged the orthodoxy that in-person delivery is always more effective, and more valuable, than digital could be. The initial results from the Charity Digital Skills survey back this up: 66% of all charities are now delivering all work remotely.

There is widespread optimism about new ways of delivering services, more widespread flexible working, and the ability to reach people who weren’t able to take part in face-to-face programmes — but there is also a worry that workers and organisations are being stretched to the edge of their delivery capacity. Taking a moment to reset is vital so that makeshift, short-term adaptations can be turned into more sustainable and longer-term ways of operating.

Energised and excited

A lot of people we have spoken with are energised and excited about the ways technology is unlocking flexibility and helping charities to innovate:

“There are lots of things that we have done through covid that we will take with us”

“What we’re seeing is that it’s a very different product and the practitioners are stepping up to the challenge in a very different way, it’s a more enhanced experience”

“Delivery is including different people, people who wouldn’t want to engage in face-to-face sessions — or couldn’t take part because of child care or travels costs — can take part on their own terms”

“We started by thinking about the kit that was needed, but have realised it’s much more than that — these are new products and services that we’re delivering” (workshop participants)

These feelings are echoed in this update from the TNLCF Digital Fund; organisations haven’t simply been through digital transformation, but deep organisational change, in the context of a global pandemic. The after-effects of this rapid change will be considerable.

Interviewees also talked about a lack of time for training, meaning they need to learn and adapt on the fly. This has brought more focus to continual improvement and an appetite for trying new things, and it also highlights the importance of reflection and reset to understand what is working and what needs to be adapted.

“Just because it’s happening on a screen doesn’t mean it’s cheaper”

Three phones doing video calls
Three phones doing video calls
Video calling

Many of the people we spoke with said there was a temptation to think that digital delivery is always more cost effective — but the hidden costs have yet to be counted.

People we spoke to in the sector had the following to say:

“It’s important that commissioners and funders understand delivering digitally doesn’t mean doing less”

“It’s tempting to think that every hour is an opportunity for more delivery, but there is no time in-between — no travel or opportunity to chat to colleagues”

(Interviewees)

Many people we spoke to echoed the concern that digital delivery didn’t necessarily mean a shift to “more and cheaper”: the use of technology does not automatically mean that a service becomes more automated, more efficient, or reaches more people — especially not if a team is rapidly adapting and learning lessons along the way.

Counselling, for instance, is still about two or more people communicating with one another; creating the norms and intimacy for that to happen over a video call might take longer than in a face-to-face session, but it might also make that session available to someone who is not able to travel, and that person might need some training to make them feel comfortable.

Equally, the assumption that digital ways of working increase productivity is not always true. Of course, we all know about the benefits of mobile communication, but that does not infinitely increase people’s capacity to delivery — particularly in times of extreme stress:

“There are concerns about staff wellbeing and people are burnt out — there’s no downtime for travel or admin, so no time to process what’s happening”

“I’m holding onto [trauma] in my house. You’re not having the 2 hour train journey to digest it. You don’t have the structures necessarily”

“The best piece of work I find in my career happens around coffee machines and tea breaks, that’s when the best conversations happen” (Workshop participants)

The mental and physical strain of non-stop video calls has become widely accepted during lockdown, but the lack of separation between work and home life is less examined.

Skeleton teams of workers have been keeping organisations going, often while demand for their services has been increasing, and unsustainable working patterns have emerged. This is by no means unique to the charitable sector, and The Financial Times has been exploring the wider mental and physical health implications of the rapid shift to homeworking across a number of industries and sectors. This interview with Prof Neil Greenberg gets to the heart of the matter:

“people are now questioning whether they are working from home or sleeping in the office”.

“Coronavirus has brought forward two years of technological change in two weeks,” he says. “From a mental health viewpoint, what hasn’t worked is understanding how to use it properly. We’ve got used to the technology; now we have to adapt to psychologically sound ways of working.”

When the implications of frontline delivery and trauma management are folded into this, it seems possible that there will be an impending crisis of exhaustion and mental health problems in the charity sector. Remote workers may be out of sight, but they must not also be out of mind.

Digital delivery can be more inclusive

“We’ve never been more in touch with our service users” (Interview subject)

While digital exclusion has grabbed headlines during lockdown, many of the charities we spoke with talked about how digital delivery had made their service more accessible and inclusive for some users.

One counselling service, for instance, outlined how people who had caring responsibilities, or were unable to travel from one side of a county to another, were able to join remote sessions for the first time; another shared how the flexibility offered by remote working meant staff could do calls outside of normal office hours, making the service available to people who couldn’t attend between 9 and 5.

People who have held back from accessing a service because anxiety or low self-confidence have been liberated by digital access: one interviewee told us about a woman who had walked past their centre 22 times over three or four week — finally coming in on the 23rd — and reflected on how many others were missing out on getting the help they needed.

“We used to think the best service was in the room, and that there was a hierarchy that went face-to-face, video, telephone, text — but that isn’t necessarily the case” (Workshop participant)

4. Three outputs from a strategic reset

Map the tension

Using the Transformation Canvas, map the intention and outcome of technology projects that are being planned, being delivered, and are well established. Understand where the hotspots and imbalances, and which projects fall between or across different categories. How can and will this balance change over time?

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An empty Glimmers Transformation Canvas

Rethink KPIs

KPIs for digital are often tied to an increase in either staff productivity or in the reach of a service, and very often do not leave time for experimentation, adaptation or iteration.

All of the charities we spoke with are combining delivery with innovation and developing new products, and a useful measurement framework needs to:

Funding for digital projects is often tied to hard metrics for reach and/or efficiency. Funders and commissioners need to work with charities and delivery organisations to make sure measurement takes account of innovation, and that funding structures help work-in-progress to be recalibrated. In experimental and transformational ways of working, unexpected outcomes are not always a sign of failure.

Employ digital producers

Many people we spoke with touched on the importance of having the right skills and knowledge to use technology responsively: How can existing tools be repurposed on the fly in accessible and appropriate ways? How can new kinds of data be understood and analysed? How can technology be used responsively in ways that align with and uphold the charity’s mission and purpose?

Embedding digital producers — practical, skilled people who can help bring experiments and dreams to life, pass skills on to colleagues, and whose remit sits between innovating new services and delivering efficiencies — is an important transitional step that would help charities and social organisations to capitalise on existing knowledge and try more things out, without necessitating investment in massive digital projects.

This report from Watershed and the International Futures Forum explores what this role means for the cultural sector, and many lessons can be extrapolated for the charity sector more broadly; producers, it says, are “market makers” who “keep a dynamic balance of money and meaning”; maintaining and operating within this tension will be vital for charities that are expected to do more with less.

5. Looking Ahead, Building Better

There is so much goodwill and optimism across the sector for how digital technologies and ways of working can help organisations to collaborate and innovate, to strengthen communities, enable brilliant teams and individuals, and deliver improved services — but there is also an awareness that it can also be used to exploit workers and shrink ambition. A collaborative cross-sector reset, supported by new job roles and recalibrated KPIs, is needed to support charities through the coming waves of uncertainty, and ensure that digital civil society can thrive

Further reading and resources

Read more about the TNLCF Digital Fund’s cohort of grantholder organisations that have received funding to undergo digital shifts here

Early conversations with TNLCF grantees, partners and other stakeholders on rapid digital transformation

Catalysts’ service delivery resources

Collective innovation and use of data https://www.thecatalyst.org.uk/blog/why-were-calling-for-a-data-collective

Thanks and credits

Workshops and interviews were conducted with Gill Wildman; thanks to Cassie Robinson, Phoebe Tickell and Melissa Ray at TNLCF, Dan Sutch at CAST, and everyone who has contributed to the research.

Glimmers

Digital futures for civil society

Rachel Coldicutt

Written by

Feminist. Responsible technologist. Reading and writing on equality, automation and climate crisis. On sabbatical-ish. Formerly @doteveryone .

Glimmers

Glimmers

Blog posts and research notes from the Glimmers research project

Rachel Coldicutt

Written by

Feminist. Responsible technologist. Reading and writing on equality, automation and climate crisis. On sabbatical-ish. Formerly @doteveryone .

Glimmers

Glimmers

Blog posts and research notes from the Glimmers research project

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