Ben Cairns, Director of IVAR, explores what ‘tech’ means for small voluntary organisations
I need to start with a confession – I’d been hearing people talk about ‘tech’ and ‘digital’ for years without really appreciating the significance of technology for our core audience – small voluntary organisations. I had a sense that perhaps IVAR should be doing something in this space, but it wasn’t until Comic Relief asked me to help assess Tech for Good applications – as a member of their UK Grants Committee – that I realised we would have to finally try to understand what ‘tech’ could mean for our sector.
Through my involvement with this work, I was able to observe extraordinary and ingenious efforts by voluntary organisations to make their method of delivery contemporary, so that it reflects current patterns of access and consumption. This is not gratuitous innovation, nor is it superficial repackaging. It is about recognising that some familiar methods might be obsolete from the perspective of our beneficiaries – those that we are here to serve.
Take the work of STEM 4, a small mental health charity established by a group of six volunteers in 2011, based on the knowledge that early identification and intervention can make a real difference in stemming escalating teenage mental health conditions. To begin with, much of their work took place in schools across South-East England, providing support to students, as well as teachers and parents. But their primary beneficiaries are teenagers, a group for whom telephony is the first means of communication and main route of access. So, in 2017, they launched the Calm Harm app, developed to help young people manage the urge to self-harm. This was the first clinically developed app for young people at risk of self-harm. It was quickly accredited by the NHS and became one of only ten mental health apps in the NHS app library at the time.
Suitably inspired and with support from the Tech for Good team at Comic Relief, we initiated a study to explore what ‘tech’ means to small voluntary organisations, and how they are using it to make their services more relevant, accessible and efficient. We partnered with the CAST on the project – who are experienced in all things ‘tech’ and help people to use digital for social good.
So, what is ‘tech’?
The 72 small voluntary organisations we surveyed described tech in different ways:
- Basic access to hardware and infrastructure: broadband, smartphones, laptops
- Internal systems and processes to increase organisational efficiency: accounting systems, document sharing
- Flexible communication tools for service users and other stakeholders: e-newsletters, social media, video conferencing, online design tools
- Tech to support service delivery: databases, case management systems, web-based forms and surveys for data collection/analysis
- Digital-first products and services: mobile apps, virtual reality apps, medical devices
It’s a broad spectrum, but perhaps the most reassuring messages that emerged from our study were that failure is part of the process – as long as it is in pursuit of charitable aims – and that not everything has a ‘tech’ solution. For those interested in embarking on a digital journey, the advice of our study participants is:
- Start somewhere and don’t be disheartened if it goes wrong
- Focus on the problem that you’re trying to solve
- Test a new piece of tech or a new digital approach for a time-bound period (e.g. two weeks)
- Don’t reinvent the wheel – speak to other small charities about what they’ve done
- Create a culture of learning to ensure your organisation stays up to date with new developments
Funders also have a role to play – they have the power to give small voluntary organisations the time they need to develop a digital culture that is right for them, and we are calling for more trusts and foundations to offer long-term core funding and bespoke support that creates space for experimentation so that charities can work out what ‘tech’ means to them and do something about it.
You can read more from IVAR and CAST’s study ‘Start somewhere: An exploratory study into making technology imaginable and usable’ here.