Man operating a computer

Digital transformation & the social sector

This speech was originally delivered by Tris Lumley at the fourth MSF-CSC Conference in Singapore on the four of November 2019. 

We have the tools to rebuild society for the better. Now we will see if we have the courage, creativity and compassion to put them to work.

We are in the midst of a great upheaval driven by computing and connectivity. The technologies we are building – that we have already embedded in almost all aspects of our lives – have the potential to change society for the greater good. They also create and magnify risks in ways we couldn’t have imagined even twenty years ago. Today, in many countries across the globe, we are grappling with information warfare, misinformation overwhelming facts, and social media undermining the good functioning of democracies.

So I want to talk to you about tech for good – about how we harness digital technology in the social sector for maximum positive impact – but already we do that in a context of great dangers and risks.

And that’s my starting point today – that each and every technology brings both opportunity and risk. As Melvin Kranzberg said: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

Let’s see by the end whether we are optimists or pessimists. That’s a question I myself struggle with on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.

Neither good, nor bad, nor neutral

First, let me tell you very briefly about myself. I grew up with the technologies that today surround us. I owned an early home computer, played around with coding, watched computer games develop from basic character graphics to simple vector graphics to the first real 3-dimensional games. I grew up enthused by the promise of science, engineering and technology to improve our world – to build new worlds – an avid reader of science fiction and student of science.

My university degree took me into the history and philosophy of science, which revealed to me the deeply human and social context of scientific progress – a world I had previously thought of as pure and theoretical. And I emerged with two thoughts – we need philosophy, because we need to understand what it means to live a good life; what we should be striving to build together here with all our tools and technologies. And we need history, because we need to remember how we’ve succeeded and failed in the past to build societies that reflect those values and principles, and learn from them to do it better next time. In particular, the history of technological change taught me that we have a huge cognitive bias towards seeing the short-term benefits of technologies, and failing to see or ignoring the long-term negative impacts they bring.

If all of this sounds a little academic, for a talk that’s supposed to focus on the practicalities of transforming the social sector through digital technologies, let me change gears and jump into that subject. But please hold those thoughts, because the historian and the philosopher are (fairly universally) not in the room when we’re building our new technologies, or when we’re adopting them – as individuals or as organisations. And I think we need to remember that.

If you’re not convinced, ask yourself whether you can honestly say your life – your well-being – is better than it was before smartphones. Is your life better because you have constant access to email, social media, the internet (and it has access to you)? Have our lives improved? Are there things we’ve lost in the process, but didn’t notice at the time? My personal answer to those questions isn’t clear: there are things I’ve gained, but it’s taken me too long to realise what I also lost, and to question or change my use of those tools more intentionally.

So let’s shift to thinking about a social sector organisation. It could be a local charity working with young people who have been struggling in the education system in the UK. Or a nonprofit working to support people with Parkinson’s Disease and their families in the US. Or a social service agency – maybe a family service centre working with families going through difficult circumstances – here in Singapore. The question is – how can they harness digital technology for the greatest impact?

Learning from tech businesses?

Perhaps we should take our cue from the technology sector? There are more than enough well-meaning tech companies offering us their products, their services, even their time as volunteers. Maybe all the skills, expertise and goodwill in the tech sector can drive a transformation in the social sector?

It turns out that there are real problems if we just try to copy the commercial sector’s models when we think about applying digital technology to the social sector. The tech sector business model works by attracting investment to very profitable markets – markets that offer significant scale and revenue margins. That’s fine for customers that can afford to pay enough to drive those margins – the customers and market segments that are often referred to as low-hanging fruit. But the whole point about social sector organisations is that we serve the people and communities that have been left behind by markets, by market failures – because they aren’t the low-hanging fruit.

Bring a tech company into most of the spaces we operate in, and their market research would cause them to back away immediately. We have customers that cost more to serve, because their situations are more complex than the average, their requirements more significant, or because they’ve been overlooked for so long. We could have a discussion about how that relates to those in the impact investment world who are convinced you can invest to generate significant social returns without any trade-off in financial returns, but that’s for another time and place…

So for example, when one of the world’s leading tech companies partners with a Parkinson’s Disease charity to conduct user research into how voice and AI can be used to create more accessible and useful home technology, you might be excited about the potential. But if the tech company actually runs this work from its marketing team, to generate nice soundbites about how helpful voice technology is for someone with Parkinson’s Disease, rather than its design teams who might actually listen to users and improve their products, then we totally miss out. It’s heartbreaking when all the ingredients are there to improve people’s lives, but the business model means it’s a low priority. And this isn’t a fictional example – it actually happened, and I was personally involved. 

Public sector solutions?

If it’s not the commercial tech sector, maybe the social sector can take its digital transformation models straight from the public sector playbook? I’ve watched the progress of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK (as have many other governments across the world) and thought often about whether we can simply translate these approaches into the charity sector. GDS has done a fantastic job of showing what can be achieved by digitising and improving existing public sector processes – from getting a driving licence to renewing a passport. Unsurprisingly, its work has mainly had a transactional focus – where a citizen is really a customer, with a pretty clear need for a product or service, that a digitised process can help deliver in a way that’s fast, simple and much more efficient.

But again, much of the work of the kind of social sector organisations we’re thinking of doesn’t look like this. There isn’t a customer with a clear need for a product or service. There’s often someone with a whole mess of different interrelated issues, who might need a whole range of different supports and services over a period of time. And who might take much of that time to work through and identify with a social sector practitioner what those issues are, let alone what solutions might help them move forward. Our work often doesn’t look neatly transactional.

And governments often find the same thing when they’re dealing with people who have multiple and complex needs. The implementation of various welfare benefits in the UK, most notoriously Universal Credit, has run head-on into the challenges of taking a transactional approach online to people’s complex and interrelated needs. In the extreme, using digital technologies as blunt instruments, and focussing on the most common needs and transactional processes can mean that the people with the most complex needs become further excluded, and inequality deepens.

A social perspective on digital

If it’s not the commercial or public sectors, do we need to drive digital transformation from the perspective of the social sector organisation itself? The youth worker in a local community organisation, whether that’s in London, New York or Singapore, certainly has a wealth of experience of the kinds of contexts and challenges the young people they work with are facing, and the kinds of programmes, support and solutions that help those young people progress in their lives.

Here, my answer is that the practitioner has a great deal to add to our understanding of how tech can make an impact, but can’t drive the process. Individual charities, nonprofits, social sector organisations have their specialisms – they’ve had to in order to fit into a funding market that rations its resources out in a piecemeal and highly utilitarian way. They’re usually funded to deliver a particular service or product, often constrained to such a great extent that they’ve had to specify exactly how they’ll deliver it, and how much of it they’ll deliver. It’s almost as if the funders of social sector organisations don’t trust them enough not to micromanage what they do, but that’s another story…

So a youth worker can be brilliant at working with a young person to help rebuild their confidence after a traumatic experience, and get ready to go back into higher education, but unable to see where that young person’s path takes them once they walk out the doors of their youth centre, and unable to support them as they transition back into education. Or can be great at advising on their employment pathways and training, but unable to see or help with their family or housing situation. This is exactly what we found in the first phase of our research with young people in London who were experiencing multiple disadvantage – their lives looked like a complex web of interrelated challenges and opportunities, but the services they received were often blinkered and rationed only to deal with one issue at a time, in isolation.

Focus on the person

Ultimately, we arrive at the person themself. The service user of a social sector organisation. The person that charities, nonprofits and social sector organisations exist to serve. Maybe digital transformation needs to be driven from their perspective? If you look around the world at social sector innovation, you’ll see what’s sometimes called ‘lived experience’, sometimes ‘user voice’ or ‘constituent voice’ and sometimes ‘beneficiary feedback’ becoming an increasing area of excitement and focus. And from the design world and the tech sector, we see an influx of user-centred design and human-centred design approaches.

And we arrive at a very simple idea. Understand the experience of the person who we aim to serve, and we’ll see how we can use technology to help best.

It’s a very simple idea, that turns out to have very complicated consequences. But I fundamentally believe it is the right place to start. It’s the right place to start logically – the easiest place from which to see opportunities and challenges is the perspective of the person who has to tackle them. But it’s also the right place to start morally – the reason that the person needs support or help in the first place is in general that the existing systems, structures, incentives and resources have failed them, overlooked them, made them subject to inequalities.

And what about those who argue that people often aren’t in a position to know what’s best for them, and that that’s the job of the practitioner of the social sector organisation, or the expert academic or policymaker? Well, in my experience the most inspiring social organisations take on this dilemma directly in their work – they do everything they can to empower the person they’re working with, and to bring the knowledge and insight they’ve amassed as practitioners, and hand that over in the course of working with someone. They fuse their practitioner experience with the person’s lived experience.

It’s not just understanding what people do but appreciating what motivates them, what limits and enables them and how to empower them. It’s not just seeking to change things for someone else, it’s changing yourself and how you work.

There’s no single answer

This is the main point I want to make, that we actually need to fuse together multiple perspectives to enable any kind of digital transformation in the social sector. We need to put the user at the centre, accompanied by the practitioner, with the benefit of what we can bring from the public sector and the technology sector. If that sounds complicated, well it is, but I’m going to share two conceptual frameworks that I believe we can use to achieve this fusion. I call them Digital Collective Impact, and OpenImpact.

But before I get to those two approaches, first I need to do a little bit of myth-busting about the ways that aren’t going to lead to transformation. I apologise to anyone whose work is implicated  in this – some of mine is too – but I think there’s too much magical thinking in our field, and because of the power dynamics of people and organisations with money and resources giving them voluntarily to people and organisations who need them, there’s too little critique and challenge.

Capacity building is not transformation

First, we can’t capacity-build our way to digital transformation. Capacity-building is the common term used in the not-for-profit sector in many places across the globe for how you strengthen social sector organisations. Noticing that social organisations seem to lack some of the skills, or processes, or systems that could help them to thrive, well-meaning funders, consultants and governments often respond with capacity-building programmes. My organisation has been at the heart of that capacity-building movement around measuring, evaluating and managing social impact in the UK, and internationally.

So it might seem at first glance that we just need to build the skills and capacity into social sector organisations to design and build digital technologies that meet their stakeholders’ needs. Until you look at our business models.

Most social sector organisations are working on issues that aren’t a priority in today’s society, and scrabbling around for the resources just to get by. The vast majority of them are tiny, or small organisations, and they’re lucky if they can pay the bills for heating and lighting, let alone invest in digital skills, service designers or data analysts. Their business model is not quite to lose money at the end of the year, making as many budget cuts as they can as they go. 

The point is, capacity gaps aren’t an accidental flaw that we happen to find in the odd charity or two. They’re a design feature. And we can no more harness the benefits of digital technology by entreating each individual charity to embrace it than we can just ask them to shake the magic money tree and find the resources they need to make their business model not suck.

So big, well-funded organisations can invest in the talent, skills and systems they need to design and build their own tech. But that ignores the vast majority of the social sector.

And some of the smartest funders will say don’t worry – we’ll provide you with unrestricted funding so you can build the capacities you need to thrive as a social sector organisation. But unfortunately they’re still much too rare (despite many of us talking about this for twenty years) and even then they’re not suggesting funding organisations to run a surplus that they can invest in research and development. Ask yourself – when did you last see a social sector organisation with an R&D department? That had a budget of less than $10m?

Social organisations are not natural collaborators

Second, we need to collaborate to succeed, but the social sector is fundamentally competitive, and anti-collaborative. The way we are funded is (almost without exception) on the basis that we provide the one true solution to any social issue or problem. Funding competitions and processes ask applicant organisations to claim (or even prove) that they are uniquely well-placed to provide a solution. Fundraising practices compound this by wanting to tell stories about specific projects – we know that emotive stories are at the heart of effective fundraising, and that means being specific about what you did and who it helped. We’re all complicit in an elaborate fabrication about organisations and impact that common sense tells us is crazy, but becomes almost impossible to deconstruct and build anew.

This special snowflake syndrome drives a huge amount of what can and can’t be achieved in the social sector. If we want to transform anything with digital technology, we have to smash this  pretence and trample all over it.

But technology can enable collaboration

The incredibly exciting thing (because as I said earlier I am really an optimist!) is that digital technologies and data have amazing properties that can help us to break down the barriers preventing progress. They can be copied, and shared, and replicated, and rebuilt at no or minimal cost. And we can think pretty differently about ownership when it comes to software and data, compared to buildings and staff. We can be revolutionary in our thinking before we even start to build anything!

And if you accept what I’m suggesting – that capacity gaps in social sector organisations are a design feature, not an accidental flaw – then you have to come along with me in this search for a new way to design and develop digital technologies – a new tech for good. We have to have a new vision!

To recap, I believe this new vision cannot just copy the approaches of the private sector, public sector or even social organisations. It needs to combine all of them, with the ultimate service user at the heart. It can’t proceed one organisation at a time, unlike capacity-building programmes, because tech moves faster than the speed of capacity-building, and because people’s lives are complex – they’re not made up of nice neat products that meet nice simple clearly defined needs.

So our new vision will be user-centred, and combine with the best of the tech sector and its skills, business models and existing products. It will be accountable, based on the best of our public sector approaches and thinking. And it will be practical, embedded in the organisations that are trusted by service users, people and communities, and built around their experience and context. And it will smash through the competitive incentives and instincts that bedevil the social sector around the globe, by sharing and opening up our resources because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s easy to do.

Digital Collective Impact

The first framework I want to recommend to you is Digital Collective Impact. You may have heard of Collective Impact, as a framework for collaboration that was popularised by Foundation Strategy Group in the USA. Proponents of the framework would argue that it’s encouraged US foundations to invest more in effective collaboration over the last decade or more. Critics have suggested that it can be misused, and can distance social sector organisations from funders if they don’t fit into a precise plan. I think we can build on the criticism to shape a better approach, that works well for digital transformation in the social sector.

So the model I propose involves bringing together a collaboration shaped by what I’ve said about perspectives already. A collaboration that has service users at its heart, with practitioners, funders and technologists around them.

That collaboration should carve out the key elements of the Digital Collective Impact model together – a common objective and agenda, a backbone team, a shared workplan, constant communications and shared progress data. None of that should sound revolutionary – these are elements of any good project management approach, and of agile digital development, and of common sense, quite frankly.

But if we shape them with the governance I outlined – user-centred, practitioner-driven, funders and techies involved as core but supporting parties – I believe we can get radically different results. At NPC in the UK we’re piloting a first programme of work, called My Best Life, working with young people, youth practitioners, developers and funders to do exactly this. And because we’re working in the open, you can follow along with what we’re learning on the NPC Labs site. At this point, we don’t know exactly what we’ll build, because we’re not dictating the work – it’s being designed collectively. But some of our initial ideas are about the complexity of young people’s lives, like a navigator tool – a digital assistant – that young people could use to find relevant services, rate them from their experience, connect with peers, and overall to manage their own pathways through life.

And you can learn more about what we think the Digital Collective Impact model looks like, and how it differs from existing Collective Impact frameworks. At the initiation and design stage, for example, we think there’s a tricky fusion of convening different people – practitioners, funders, and the people who those organisations serve – to conduct user research and listen to their different perspectives about what’s most important. All whilst fundraising and setting enough of an agenda to get people into the same room!

Then in the development stage, there’s a process of prototyping and developing digital products while ensuring that the testing is user-centred, but keeps practitioners and funders on board. And addresses capacity-building needs in the practitioner organisations so they’re able to take on more significant roles with those digital products at the next stage. Ultimately, those products need to work for the people they’re supposed to help, account for differences between people’s contexts and behaviours, and also fit with existing organisations that are part of the service-delivery pathways. And some of those organisations may need to take on a product ownership and management role, which at the beginning of the process they’re not ready to do.

At the end of the process, I believe we can build technology that addresses opportunities and challenges that are important for the people we’re there to serve, fit with practitioners’ experience and how they work, make sense to technologists, can be owned collectively by the sector, and can be backed by funders and the public sector.

They’ll result in digital products that need business models, for sure, but those models will be different from those we have in general in the charity sector. Sometimes joint ventures between a tech company and a charity membership body, sometimes a cooperative wholly owned by charity and social enterprise members, sometimes even a unit owned and run by a foundation. New hybrid business models – which will often be investable and offer opportunities for social and financial returns.

I can only sketch the surface features of what a Digital Collective Impact approach might look like, but just as I believe it will work in the UK, I think we could develop the approach in Singapore, in the US – and am excited to explore the possibilities with those who agree. Any social issue, or group of people and organisations, could benefit from such an approach. And I’m pretty sure there’s an appetite too – most charities and funders know the challenges they face in the digital sphere are so great that they can’t tackle them alone.

Open Impact

The second framework I want to recommend to you has potentially even broader application. I call it OpenImpact. It builds on two things – the huge potential of open source technology, open data and open approaches that we’ve already seen across the digital and data sectors, and the collaborative principles that actually underpin all our social organisations. Those organisations often exist in a legal form that commits them to the greatest benefit to the group of people or stakeholders that they exist to serve. That’s the only reason they exist. And those that fund them, while often not having such formal or legal commitments, certainly claim to be there to maximise impact and benefit. While they may not always operate as though that’s the case, we can use OpenImpact to call their bluff, and enforce a commitment to maximum impact.

So let us think for a minute about the world of research, impact measurement and evaluation. At the heart of all organisations’ work is an impact strategy (sometimes called a theory of change) that outlines how their activities create outputs, that generate outcomes, that themselves or with other outcomes too, precipitate the eventual impact that organisation exists to create. There’s a huge amount of activity in the social sector devoted to articulating those theories of change, deriving measurement frameworks from them, then management information dashboards, impact reports and fundraising materials, data analysis – the list goes on.

Almost all organisations are doing that work in silos. NPC and others, meanwhile, champion something we call shared measurement – the idea that organisations might find a common framework across their different practices that can be used to derive standardised data, benchmarking, and accelerate learning. Hardly revolutionary, but it turns out to be very hard to do in our competitive funding market. But let’s call all of this stuff – all of the data structure – a data standard, and then let’s make it open. Then any organisation could plug that data standard into their own CRM software that they’re using to manage their services. And a data analyst could perform a shared data analysis and benchmarking function between all the organisations using that standard, regardless of them operating on different software platforms.

When user research is carried out by a social sector organisation, maybe as part of the design of a new service, or a new digital product, that research can be shared. Most organisations will hoard it as part of their ‘intellectual property’ even though it’s just capturing the experience of people that they legally exist to serve. OpenImpact can encompass user research too – so that research can be shared for the value of all across the sector, and so that people’s experience can be built on for the benefit of others like them, rather than hoarded for organisational benefit.

OpenImpact can incorporate, and connect, all of the fragmented work being done on research, evaluation and learning across our fragmented sector. But it doesn’t need to stop there.

When we build digital products, we can build them with open APIs so that others can plug into our data, and our services. When we do our user research and user-centred design well, and we find that our services are just one piece in a service user’s pathway or puzzle, we’ll have to build our services into supply chains or value chains. And open APIs will give us the tools to do that.

In fact, we can go fully open and embrace open innovation too. The whole pipeline from concept through to product can be opened up. Whole design processes from user research through prototyping to mature services. That would give us an entirely new foundation to shake up the world of competitive funding applications.

A practitioner might start by logging an idea for a digital product that would be useful to them. Others might spot the idea and vote for it. Someone else might come in with part of a solution that could be repurposed from their existing product. And a group of funders might quickly invest because they’d already said they were open to collaborative ventures in this space. As long as the work and products added back into the OpenImpact ecosystem.

This might all sound even more fanciful than the magical thinking I’ve argued against earlier. But the thing is that there are switches that can be flipped by those who are funding and commissioning social sector agencies and organisations that will turn on OpenImpact. And there are developers and data analysts who will jump to work in these ways if you tilt the incentives in their favour. And while there are social organisations who will refuse to share, there are many who will happily agree, and once enough of them do those who refuse will be embarrassed into action.

A real example is a pioneering digital agency in the UK doing user research through an open Google Doc. They found some of the bigger organisations refused to get involved. At first. But the younger, smaller, driven organisations jumped at it, and shared what they knew. They got the power of openness immediately. And then the older, bigger organisations came back after a while, once they heard that everyone was on board.

If you’re a funder, philanthropist or commissioner, could you enable OpenImpact simply through the conditions and support attached to your funding? If you’re a social sector organisation, could you move towards it by starting to work in the open, seek out similar organisations, or explore your projects through a community of peers? If you’re building technology, can you build OpenImpact into your roadmap – your data standards and future APIs?

Whether you believe that these two frameworks can make a meaningful impact in how we harness tech for social good, I hope you’re with me on the need for us to find our own ways towards digital transformation in the social sector. And that you share a belief that those ways can be powerful, exciting, and principled.

This stuff is urgent.

The social sector plays an important role in modern society. And it can undoubtedly use digital technology and data better to play its role.

But it can also play a broader leadership role in the world in role-modelling the purposeful and ethical development of technologies that address rather than deepen inequalities. As governments worry about what to do about social media platforms spreading misinformation, or the use of personal data for advertising, blackmail or information warfare, we should be standing up as social sector leaders and sharing our insight. We know a thing or two about being trusted by the people we exist to serve. We have something to say on how data can empower people and strengthen communities. But only if we can work out how to carve our own path through this digital and data landscape that’s aligned with our values.

Then maybe we can step into our power, and really harness digital technology and data for good.

So I hope I’ve been able to share a sense of how the social sector can find its own ways and its own voice on building tech for good. But I’d like to finish by coming full circle, to the different sectoral models that I started with. The tech sector. The public sector. The social sector. We looked at all their approaches to technology, and found them wanting if our aim was to maximise the good and minimise the harm. And we found new ways in the social sector if we can overwhelm the existing power dynamics through our collaborative approaches and our openness and sharing.

But the punchline is that these new models will exist in a new space, beyond today’s “sectors”. If we follow the frameworks I’ve suggested, we’ll be carving out a new realm for developing technologies – one in which the governance, accountability, and financial models are reshaped around people as participants, practitioners and partners, not just as beneficiaries or providers. And the same can be true for the private sector – we can build business models that we participate in, shifting from just customers, employees and shareholders to participants, practitioners and partners. It might even work for how we shape and enact our democracies too – how we know we need to reinvigorate and rebuild our politics if we’re to tackle our huge global challenges.

We have the tools to rebuild society for the better. Now we will see if we have the courage, creativity and compassion to put them to work. 

To find out more about all the issues Tris has discussed here please contact