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Part 1: The power of digital to transform the sector

I have always been a technophile. I grew up on a diet of Asimov and ZX81 programming, and dreamt of the digital future. I was a geek long before it was cool. In the dotcom boom (and bust) I worked trying to anticipate how cutting-edge technologies would take off, and whether they would transform industries. The answer was always yes—and they have.

Yet, as I’ve explored the charity sector over the last ten years, technology has played only a minor role. We have websites, social media, and online fundraising—sure. But on the whole the charity sector’s technological advances have been incremental, not transformative.

I believe this is going to change over the next decade. It has to. The state is shrinking, leaving behind a trail of unmet need, as the gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider. Somewhere in this new territory is the promise of transforming what used to be public services into new citizen-powered and –empowered models.

Digital technology can be the driving force behind this transformation, giving us fundamentally new abilities. It is connective—joining together people, services, knowledge and places. It is efficient—doing some things faster, more accurately and at a cheaper rate than people. And it can be intelligent—with the ability to analyse, map, diagnose and predict.

If we harness these transformative abilities, digital technology could help the social sector achieve real leaps in its approaches and results.

Picture this: thousands of telephone helplines providing thousands of isolated pockets of online advice and support instead become seamlessly digitally integrated. Intelligent analytics working in the background of a charity’s website predict what help you need based on your browsing behaviour. Multiple charities form personalised pathways to fit each individual’s needs through coordinated value chains of services. A health charity app organises an NHS appointment when your health deteriorates, without delay, appointment letter or lost medical files. Costly evaluations and research disappear because data and analysis are just there—embedded in the fabric of our work, driving decisions made by computers as well as people.

These things are already happening, mostly by applying what already exists. For as William Gibson said, ‘the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed’.

But there’s a problem. In fact there’s a landslide of them. Save a few of the very largest charities, most are ill-equipped to exploit the opportunities presented by digital; they have tiny technology budgets, creaking hardware, and lack the expertise, mindset and the leadership required. They’re not scanning the emerging technology space for new tools—they’re scrabbling around to find enough money to update their dated legacy systems. And when they apply for funding, almost all funders lack the expertise to assess the viability of their plans, and consequently make poor or arbitrary decisions about what to support.

Things are very different in the startup world, of course, where organisations are innovating and pivoting like crazy. But until charities start acquiring these startups or setting up teams of intrapreneurs, the gap between silicon roundabout and the charity sector will continue to grow.

At NPC, we’re trying to build bridges across this gap. In a programme of research, exploration, and (we hope) experimentation, we want to map opportunities for digital transformation at the field level—across a range of sectors and functional areas like digital advice, youth services, and mental health. We then want to develop new approaches by bringing together hybrid teams that combine the vast wealth of tech expertise outside the charity sector with the rich knowledge of social issues and practical experience inside it.

We’re at the start of this journey, and we don’t know where it will take us. But right now we want to hear from anyone who wants to join us. You might be a funder, investor or entrepreneur keen to help realise the potential of digital technology in the social sector. Or a charity or social enterprise interested in exploring the digital space, or already doing it. Get in touch. Let’s build a movement!

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