Opinion: Dawn Austwick—‘How can digital support that which is not broken, but beautiful?’

In UK civil society, small is prevalent and often beautiful, argues The National Lottery Community Fund chief executive, and we should tailor digital approaches to micro and informal organisations’ need with great care.

Annie Dare
Sep 10 · 4 min read

The National Lottery Community Fund distributes the money that’s raised by people who buy National Lottery tickets — and thanks to them we have an annual budget of £500-£600m that we use to make about 12,000 grants across the UK.

We spend a lot of time talking about leadership — and often talk about ‘generous leadership’. This has three characteristics that are highly relevant to The Catalyst programme.

Generous leaders

Firstly, generous leaders, whether they are individuals or organisations, are highly mission-driven. The money follows the mission and not vice versa.

Secondly, ecology is all important. Generous leaders recognise that they live in an ecosystem. They are interdependent with others. In so doing they recognise that they have a role to play within that ecosystem. The whole system has to flourish in order for all of us to flourish. Finally, they recognise that they need to think about where they add value, where they take away value and how they collaborate.

We are pleased to be supporting the Catalyst programme, because it starts to address what our ecosystem is and how we build the strongest, most resilient and most robust sector.

There are 168,000 charities in England and Wales. Of those, 82% have a turnover of less than £10,000. Just 3.5% have a turnover over of over £1,000,000. That group of 3.5% receives about 80% of the total income coming in to the sector.

Small is beautiful

Understanding the structure of the sector is really important, because it says that small is prevalent. I also argue that it’s beautiful in some ways.

In terms of our digital funding and our own digital journey, as well as supporting this programme, we have a Digital Fund, run by my colleague Cassie Robinson.

We have now announced with colleagues where offers of grants are going to go. The first stage of the fund looked at how to help larger organisations — those in that 3.5% group — transform themselves. That means using user-centred design and becoming digital organisations to better serve the folk they were set up to serve in the first place.

We’re also supporting in this round those who have grown up as digital organisations, to help them grow and move on to the next stage of their development.

Where we go next is to look at support for micro-organisations and small informal organisations that have a turnover of less than £10,000.

I was just recently in a field in Devon, looking at a community therapeutic project that had a 1.5-acre plot on a farm where they grow vegetables. They sow seeds, they harvest, they cook together and they eat together. They have a very small number of permanent staff, who themselves work part time. Everyone who participates in the project is on some sort of therapeutic journey, whether that’s recovery or healing.

They all work part time. The volunteers as they are called come along one or two days a week — and some of them have been coming for nine or 10 years. It’s part of their life. It helps them flourish for others. It’s part of the healing journey.

How can digital help?

I was reflecting as I came back and got into the crowds of London, where does digital fit for that organisation? How does it help?

Is this an organisation that should be scaled? Absolutely not. Does it need service design? Not really. Can it be professionalised further? Perhaps a little bit. Does it need data? Yes — and it is starting to use digital for data. Does it need help with some of the challenges of being a very small charity without much support around regulation, compliance and more? Yes.

I think it is incumbent on all of us to think about how digital can support that which is not broken, but is actually beautiful.

How can digital support those sorts of organisations, that sort of activity and how can it help to nourish and cherish that which is already beautiful?

It is important that we understand where we can add value in a digital revolution and where we need to get out of the way of the digital revolution and let that which is beautiful flourish further.

Opportunity and threat

There is a challenge in here for all of us, which goes beyond digital transformation. We are talking about digital as an opportunity. We also need to think very seriously about digital as a threat and a concern for us as a society and the role that civil society can play in addressing those issues — around fraud, exploitation, abuse, privacy and ownership.

These are complex ethical issues that we as a society need to grapple with, and come to a common consensus on what we feel is right and appropriate. Civil society can play a key role in helping to tease those out and explore and develop them.

The late film critic Roger Ebert, who lost the ability to speak and eat through cancer, once said, “because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice and I do not need to scream”. I found that very moving. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that that is what the digital revolution is — and that it doesn’t become the reverse.

This is an edited version of the talk given by Dawn at the inaugural gathering of the Catalyst programme in London on 11 July 2019

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

 by the author.

Annie Dare

Written by

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

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