Charities: time to jump on the tech band-wagon?

Tech is disrupting sectors from banking to retail, and it promises to shape the charity and social enterprise sector too. There's a lag but for first movers there are clear means of harnessing tech to do good, according to a new report from Nesta, Going Digital: Five lessons for charities developing technology based innovations.

Digital technology is one of the single most powerful tools we have ever had to bring about change in society. It has changed our everyday lives drastically over the last ten years, from the way we shop, talk to our friends, and even find love; and it has contributed to advancements in health and information that are re-shaping our world. Yet it is an underutilised tool in the social sector. 

It goes without saying that digital technology presents a huge opportunity for all types of industries and organisations, but the social sector in particular stands to gain from the increasing uptake and sophistication of technology. Being able to access more people through an app or online session, means charities and social enterprises can reach new users as well as providing additional services to those they already support.  And what’s more, these solutions can be cheap to roll out and scale up, personalised to the specific user they are targeting, and delivered through a medium that people are used to. If we coordinate our social lives online, then why not coordinate the care of a person we look after on an app too, like with Jointly from Carers UK. 
But our new report, ‘Going Digital’ reveals that social sector organisations are behind when it comes to harnessing the potential of digital technology – with charities in particular falling behind the curve. This isn’t because organisations are not interested or are simply ‘behind the times’. It’s because they face challenges in going digital.  We know from charities and social enterprises that have gone on this journey of using technology to support and scale up new services that it takes real commitment from everyone in the organisation, including the Board. 

Key challenges include: how to develop or bring on board new skills, having a clear idea of the audience the tech is aimed at and keeping an eye on strategy, getting input from partners, and knowing where to go for additional funding. 

So, for those charities and other social sector organisations taking the leap into digital delivery, here’s a few tips:

1)    Get the support of your Board as early as possible – no Board likes surprises, not least when it takes them out of their comfort zone, so get peoples buy-in from the start. You might want to consider getting someone with specialist experience involved to guide the Board as things progress.

2)    Find a developer who shares your values – it’ll save you time, money, and patience in the future if you take time to find someone you really want to work with and who understands your ultimate goal. Don’t just pick the first techy you find! 

3)    Keep your eyes on the prize – it’s easy to get distracted by developing the app itself, but don’t forget that technology is a means and not the end.  At the end of the day it’s more important that the technology really works for people than if it takes one click-through or two.
4)    Reach out for help when you need it – there’s support available in this space from advice through to incubators, so ask around and find out what’s out there that could help you.

5)    Plan the funding to avoid losing momentum – you’ll need funding for each stage of development from working up the idea, through to developing the prototype and beyond into mass scale-up. So work out how much you’ll need and where it might come from as part of the planning process.

One thing’s for sure, going digital isn’t without challenge. Not even the greatest innovations were invented overnight, and just think, even Apple don’t get it right all the time (bendy iPhone 6 anyone?). So, if you think you’ve got a great idea that has the potential to change people’s lives, be prepared for a bumpy journey, but hopefully one with a huge reward at the end.