Digital technologies, the technologies we are building together – that we have already embedded in almost all aspects of our lives – have enormous potential to change society for the greater good. But the social sector faces two big problems in realising this potential…
First, we can’t capacity-build our way to digital transformation. 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. So it might seem 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.
This makes sense 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 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.
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 asking each individual charity to embrace it than we can just ask them to shake the magic money tree.
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.
The Opportunity: Open Impact
Digital technologies and data have amazing properties that can help us to break down some of 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 and collaboration 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!
Open Impact 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 already 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.
What might this be?
- 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 to deliver their mission. But almost all organisations are doing that work in silos. What if instead we built and shared our theories of change as a collective?
- When 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 could be shared via an open knowledge system.
- This could encompass user research too – so that research can be shared for the value of all across the sector
- And we could adopt more ethical approaches to collecting and using personal and online data that respect privacy while also enabling people to make informed decisions to share their data with us.
- Funders could embrace openness in sharing not just what they fund but how run application processes and make decisions
- We could fully open and embrace open innovation too – something we’re experimenting with right here! The whole pipeline from concept through to service can be opened up. A practitioner might start by logging an idea for improving provision. 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 offer. And a group of funders might quickly invest because they’d already said they were open to collaborative ventures in this space.