At NPC we talk a lot about the charity sector’s need to adapt to our digital age. For those charities aware of the need to modernise, building an app can seem like a great way to step into the twenty first century. But is this the right approach?

One area where there has been a little flurry of activity in terms of developing social change based apps has been the health sector. Mobile health (or mHealth, as it is known) apps can engage hard to reach patient groups. They can empower people to take charge of their own health. And they offer a route to readily available, personalised healthcare.

Think before you app

But experts have raised concerns about the effectiveness of mHealth solutions. Some have even claimed they could harm users.

And while developing an app sits, for many charities, at the more achievable end of the digital innovation spectrum, it still has potential to be wasteful. mHealth apps are often developed in silos, despite the fact that many health conditions are related. Not to mention that when charities act alone in such a fast moving market, duplicating effort is virtually inevitable.

So, if your charity is considering moving towards app development, here are two main things to consider:

1) Is an app really the right approach for your charity and its beneficiaries?

Our mantra when it comes to developing digital solutions to social problems is start with beneficiary need, not with technology’. It’s easy to be dazzled—or even panicked—by new technology. But treat an app as you would any other intervention: plan accordingly.

Ask yourself: Is this what our beneficiaries need? Will it help our organisation achieve its mission? And could the resources be better used else where? Is there a long term goal? And if not, could we focus on a longer-term approach with greater staying power?

Within this process, you should also be considering the next important question…

2) …Could your approach be improved by collaborating with others?

Duplication of effort is rife in the charity sector. But this is an issue that digital technology should be solving, not perpetuating.

With apps, collaboration helps generate ideas, relieves funding pressures, and reduces the risk of failure.

But once the app is out there, collaboration can also help you to establish whether or not your app is having the desired impact. Evaluation takes time (unlike apps, which can be designed and launched in a number of days). But joint effort can help build in credible and robust monitoring and evaluation from the start.

For example, the National Information Board is working on developing a framework that helps mHealth app users access accredited apps. Participating charities and social enterprises can—with input from their own network of experts, researchers and clinicians—set aligned requirements for evaluation. And they can share data with each other to help understand what’s working and what isn’t.

There are plenty of opportunities for charities and social enterprises to engage with the conversation around digital solutions like apps. But it’s important to think strategically. And remember, as Charlie Leadbeater remarked at our NPC Ignites 2015 conference, digital ‘is about mobilising and harnessing the resources of others—not necessarily your own’.

Join us at our annual conference NPC Ignites. We’ll have a session on imagining the charity sector’s digital future. 

Download our report Tech for common good, and let us know what you think by tweeting us at @NPCthinks using #NPCdigi.

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