3rd July 2015 by Jason Vincent

Technology Sharing in the Third Sector

Over the past few years we’ve ended up doing some of our most fascinating, and rewarding work, for UK charities across a number of different areas. It wasn’t a sector we’d proactively worked in previously, and it has been interesting to learn about the intricacies of operating a charity, and the challenges faced when it comes to pursuing innovation (and the fundraising process that often accompanies it).
If we consider traditional companies, most wouldn’t argue with the need to invest in technology. Whether it’s a manufacturing enterprise attempting to achieve faster and more efficient production, or an insurance company seeking to minimise claims, it’s understood that investment in technology can be crucial and failing to do so will likely prove detrimental in the medium and long term. It comes down to determining an ROI, getting the necessary buy-in (or perhaps spinning it off as an MVP in the absence of sufficient buy-in) and then you’re off to create a solution that will (hopefully) deliver the expected results.
Charities work very differently. Their ROI can often be almost impossible to quantify, and justifying expenditure on technology is increasingly difficult as it means less is being spent on their end cause. A simple example might be delivering counselling services through digital channels, rather than purely through traditional channels (such as in person). It’s difficult to identify an immediate cost saving – counsellors still need to be paid, and in some cases resource costs may even increase as a result of moderators being required. If you add the non-recurring software development costs to facilitate this, it’s a difficult business case to prove. So why would such an investment be a good idea? Several reasons – an investment in the *right* technology today can build a foundation to scale or downsize seamlessly tomorrow, as required to meet the demand from end users. Similarly, pursuing modern channels such as online counselling tailors to the current generation of users that are likely to need the service in the first place – it provides a layer of anonymity (or perhaps pseudonymity), and fundamentally makes users feel more comfortable whilst still confronting their issues. This is invaluable, but incredibly difficult to quantify.
Some charities, however, were notable exceptions and proactively pursued innovation. One such example is Beat Bullying (which collapsed spectacularly last year) that marketed themselves as a technology charity – the value they delivered their users, and consequently their value as a charity, relied upon their investment in the technology that enabled them to deliver their services. This is a spin on technology that facilitates offering a service, making it a service that is only possible as a result of the underlying technology.
So the approach tends to be to identify a project that would benefit (or in some cases require) a new set of technologies, and then find a funder who similarly believes it is a worthwhile use of limited resources.
There are two major problems that arise:

  1. Investing in technology is expensive, and takes time. Unfortunately, that means certain charities fail before they have had the opportunity to reap benefits from their investment. What this translates to is substantial funds being spent on projects that delivered no value, and projects which subsequently don’t get put to any use at all. I personally find this unacceptable. Yes, I’m advocating investing in technology within this sector, but it needs to be done in such a way that it’s benefiting the end users in some shape or form, irrespective of whether that particular charity goes on to succeed or fail.
  2. Linked closely to point 1 above, the second issue is quite simply the lack of communication, collaboration and partnering between charities. We see countless examples of the same ‘types’ of projects being developed time and time again. Projects that share the same values, and aim to deliver the same benefits. Referring back to the first point above, had multiple organisations partnered on such endeavours in the spirit of collaboration and mutual benefit, there would be no risk of these projects failing as a result of a single charity failing. They could easily live on, and provide the benefit (or at least some of the benefit) they were designed to.

Clearly in the private sector there is an incentive for nurturing a competitive culture. There’s arguably a finite set of clients and budgets, and investing in technology can not only streamline operations but provide the differentiating factor that enables one business to win clients over another. However, in the charity sector, you’d be naive to think that this was not also the case – whilst charities may not directly compete for ‘business’, they do have to compete for something equally important: funding.
So how do you solve this without burying everyone in countless layers of bureaucracy? The simplest way is for funders to approach charities the same way as some large government grant-awarding bodies – incentivising and in some cases making it a pre-requisite – for charities to partner with other organisations when engaging in such projects. This provides an incentive for charities to proactively work together, without adding a significant barrier to innovation.
Other options could involve building a national or global resource database of solutions that solve problem ‘x’ or ‘y’ that charities could use to find technology they could also benefit from or leverage. However, practically speaking, this is very unlikely to work as every organisation would have slightly different requirements, and from a technical stand point documenting, and subsequently implementing solutions built by others would be extremely challenging, and arguably very inefficient.
The solution needs to come from incentivising proactive collaboration. There should be a sense of pride in delivering seminars, panel talks or hosting events showcasing how specific technology is being used to solve problems within the sector – and inviting others to make use of this. Calling it open-source may be pushing it too far – it’s about removing physical and psychological barriers to working together. If we take steps to move in that direction, I can say for certain that the charity sector as a whole would be far better off in the years ahead.

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