Collaboration is good. At NPC we talk about it a lot but, perhaps because it is so good, going on about the need for more collaboration can seem trite. ‘Well, yes, obviously’ feels like the natural response.
However, for something we all agree on, collaboration actually happens quite rarely—even in the places where it brings the most obvious benefits. I’ve been calling for more collaborative approaches to digital technology in the charity sector since we published Tech for common good in 2015. It’s a vital area because the charity sector lacks the financial resources and skills needed to harness digital opportunity and many of the challenges that technology could solve just can’t be tackled by individual organisations.
Even working out which problems we should be trying to tackle with technology is something that’s almost impossible for any one charity to do alone.
I believe that we absolutely do need collaborative approaches to digital in the charity sector, but I think to make this call meaningful we should be clearer about what we need to collaborate on. I propose the ‘Double Diamond’, a concept from the world of design, as an immensely helpful framework for doing that.
It is a graphical representation of the need to both have many ideas, and to refine those ideas down, to solve a problem. I believe collaboration should be targeted at the two ‘middle’ stages:
- collaborative problem definition; and
- collaborative solution development.
We can collaborate to define what we want to tackle with technology. Currently many tech-for-good people are isolated in a tech paradigm, and as a result are often solving problems that have been or are being addressed in the social sector. Things could be much more efficient if we all spoke to each other from the outset.
At this stage we can also bring in users to help define the problem. If our priorities don’t align with those of the people we exist to serve, the solutions we develop won’t work and we’ll waste our scare resources.
We have applied this ‘user centric design’ process with My best life: Priorities for digital technology in the youth sector which tries to identify some of the biggest priorities for digital across the youth sector.
We worked with young people facing multiple disadvantage in Camden who put forward ideas for tech to join up services, link up organisations and youth workers, and help them navigate their own pathways through a complex world.
Collaboration here leads to better understanding of a problem, which is vital to develop better solutions. Then we can collaborate to develop tech solutions to deliver on those shared priorities.
As the social sector is made up of tens of thousands of tiny organisations, collaboration can give us the scale we need to address the problem. This can be through a formal partnership or a by paying in a small amount up-front in KickStarter style, or by purchasing off-the-shelf solutions once they’re developed a la RunAClub.
Digital development which involves the charity sector may find a different way to succeed from the venture capital-fuelled startup track of the commercial sector. Too few social tech start-ups reach anything like scale—we don’t have VCs betting billions on the next social unicorn. So instead we have thousands of promising ventures that stay tiny.
But what if the charity sector found its own answer to scale through digital technology? What if we built on the assets we do have—shared values and objectives—and developed tech solutions that were collaborative from the start, owned and funded by thousands, and implemented at scale? Maybe we could harness the potential of open source and open data too—approaches that feel like they were dreamed up specifically for the social purpose sector.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. My best life is the first part of that collaborative approach in the youth sector, and we hope to follow it with a collaborative process to build tech solutions around the priorities young people shaped with us. Let us know if you want to be a part of the next stage.