why aren’t there more charity start-ups?

Last night Nesta held an event examining this very topic. As usual there was some great content from Mary McKenna who has been working with Vinspired on Tasksquad.

Tasksquad is a rarity – one of very few charity founded startups, at least to my knowledge. Yet I feel there are so many factors that should make charities fertile ground for entrepreneurial action;

  • goodwill support,
  • often more forgiving audiences (if you fail for the right reasons)
  • and a wealth of expertise in real social issues.

Here’s a storify from the Nesta charity digital innovation event on what everyone had to say about why it’s rare.

what’s changed in digital over the years?

This is a rather belated post promised to Amy the other day. She promised me it wasn’t a sneaky way to work out my age!

What has changed?

I’ve worked in digital for my whole career and a lot has changed in that time.

In the past 12 months there have been a few moments that have left me practically punching the air with glee because they’ve signalled the non-profit sector is finally maturing its approach to digital. To name a couple; when the opening plenary of the Institute of Fundraising Convention started with a speech about embracing digital in fundraising. The other being when I heard the change of title of the digital lead at a couple of major charities from Head to Director – a much truer recognition of the roles as they’ve been for some time.


From web monkey to specialist advisor

I can remember a time when there were only web officers. Expected to mostly put pdf’s on the website with little to no notice, that’s if people remembered the website was there at all. Now digital has a seat at the strategy and planning table in many organisations – at the very least at a project level.

From custom build to on-demand tools

Updating the website was a thing that only the web monkey knew how to do. It was all a bit techy and there was this complicated hmtl or something. Now we’ve got content management systems and other tools that everyone can use and, in some cases, that dynamically personalise the content, journey and more to the user. This was the stuff of Tommorrow’s World not too long ago.

From under the carpet to KPI

You were glad if you got a few hundred hits (yes – hits!) and quietly shared this with any geeky friends. Then perhaps you started to email and post up your top line web stats probably to an almost deafening silence of no return comments or questions. Now digital stats are part of the report to board members – Marks & Spencer even had its ecommerce stats reported in press.


I could go on I’m sure – but that’s another thing that’s changed, we’ve all got shorter attention spans 🙂

the tension between brand and digital

Post it sorting at Mozilla with UNICEF UK volunteersThere’s been many debates over the impact of digital on brand and reputation. Only recently, it cropped up in a few different ways during a workshop I was involved with organising. Given this, I thought it was time to pull together some thoughts on the theme.

To give a bit of context; the workshop involved a diverse group of UNICEF UK fundraising volunteers playing around with a new Mozilla product. Appmaker helps almost anyone build a mobile web app. It’s still in an experimental phase but already quite progressed compared to the version I helped shape at mozfest last year.

Brand Vs digital

When this issue crops up its still typically presented as opposites. But like most things I’m not sure its helpful to see this as an argument with ‘sides’. This introduces a sense of competition rather than partnership or evolution.

In the workshop this sense of opposition was clear in most of the concerns raised, for example ‘what about your brand if volunteers are creating apps without your involvement?’.

Here’s a break down of the underlying tensions that crop up regularly and the real world factors as I see them.

Look and feel

What: The sense that anything not created by the brand owner is going to be poor quality or inconsistent and that this will damage the organisation.

My perspective:

Most “average joe’s” spend less time looking at your stuff than you do. Anything more than a minor problem is likely to be spotted quite quickly by today’s savvy consumer so the risks here are contained.

The democratisation of technology also means its easier to support non-designers to create reasonably consistent and good quality material if you put the right toolkit in place. If you don’t proactively put a toolkit out there you have to expect more variation and ‘dodgy design’ as people enthusiastically work out ways to hack it for themselves.

Sometimes a person outside the organisation can be more authentic and creative, and therefore more effective. Rather than spending hours trying to include authentic voices, empowering others means you’ve already done that legwork and created a sustainable model.

Open to abuse or untruths

What: The sense that people will use their new power to create an authentic looking app or other digital material to say or do something that’s not right, either on purpose or accidentally. Common concerns are that users will say something on behalf of a brand that isn’t true or funnel money or data into the wrong place.

My perspective:

This is definitely a risk, but its a risk that has always existed. Anyone could knock on a door and claim to be from a particular organisation by brandishing a printed leaflet. Educating consumers has always been a need. Today’s technology may have magnified the problem in some ways but it can also be a part of the solution.

Digital tools can provide ways to ‘lock-down’ elements of the setup so they can’t be tinkered with. Additionally there might be some sort of notification that gets sent to an organisation when certain actions take place meaning there’s a transparent audit trail.  An example with Appmaker is that UNICEF UK could possibly create a default ‘donate’ component that links directly to UNICEF’s secure payments and database.

There are also ways that digital can help to authenticate individual users are who they say they are. For example with Appmaker we could possibly create an electronic badge system where the unique badge can only be earned by genuine fundraising volunteers who have been in touch.

Finally, if there’s anything suspicious the thing about digital is that the genuine website and contact points for the brand are just a click away. As I said earlier, consumers are savvy, it’s fairly frequent that we get emails and tweets @unicef_uk checking if something is really authentic.

Aligning priorities and messages

What: The sense that you can’t keep control over key messages and timings if you’ve empowered others to act on your behalf and tailor their material/s for their own community.

My perspective:

If any of these concerns gets me the most riled up it’s this one. By consciously losing a little bit of control you gain the ultimate benefit that marketing seeks; you become a more integrated part of people’s lives. By being malleable to the interests of users you become more relevant and interesting to them personally.

Not forgetting that you continue to control the primary digital channels for your brand and can communicate the priorities to anyone who you’ve empowered. You might also reserve a place in your digital toolkit that will automatically update from central messages.

There’s not many (any?) moral ways you can control conversations or minds so this risk has always been an aspect of marketing.

Do you need designers and brand managers?

Don’t get me wrong, all of this doesn’t mean you can do away with designers or brand specialists. They can create the toolkit, focus on the big picture and keep pushing forward with more cutting edge work. They have a powerful role in making an ecosystem of digital empowerment real.

Digital can magnify the impact of designers and brand managers which is why it befuddles me that this topic still comes up in the language of arguments.

barcampnfp 2014



Mixed media



What’s this all about?

Barcampnfp is an ‘unconference’ where people from Tech & Digital come together with people from Non-profits (charity, academic, gov, arts & culture etc) to exchange ideas and learning. I’ve been the London lead for a number of years now.

This year’s full day event it took place at The Bakery on Thursday 20 March 2014 and we usually have a half day event during Social Media Week in September.


what is digital first?

I quite often ask Marketing Academy mentors for their perspective on my transformation work and many zoned in on the phrase ‘digital first’. It’s also cropped up during the recent progress review at work, and in other contexts like talking to people with Gov career histories.
There are a few interpretations and uses:
  • Digital first is a mantra that has helped focus organisations on early change journeys.
  • Digital first in marketing terms is about integration of channels and consumer journeys.
  • Digital first in business terms is about innovation and new business processes, models & products built on the backbone of new technology and new behaviours.
  • Digital first is not digital only. It is digital by default i.e. Digital as the first execution of an idea / process.
  • Digital first is audience first in a world where most audiences are digital by default.
What’s consistent is that the phrase can cause confusion at times, and at its worst it can scare technology sensitive individuals and can stop their change journey as suddenly as a brick wall.

any tips on managing change?

Not too long ago a couple of people asked me the same question only a week apart; Any tips on managing change? It’s just occurred to me that when I started this blog I promised to post when a topic seemed to be popular. So here we go, this is what I said…

I can tell you change management its hard, frequently unrewarding during the journey, and sometimes you lose clarity on why you started in the first place. But after the ‘event’ its hugely rewarding when you see the final outcome and see people who genuinely want to be there naturally forming a team without you having to force them to.

There will be some people who don’t ever go past the point of acceptance and the best thing you can do, once you’ve helped them knock down as many barriers as is feasible (see the human change curve as something helpful in conversations), is to help them to see if there are other roles or organisations that are a better fit for what they want.

There are lots of very useful resources out there – here’s a couple I think are useful:

What is your experience? what would you have said? 

the difference of thinking in platforms

Mozfest_10Nov_018A little while ago I was lucky enough to attend my first, but hopefully not last, Mozfest. I didn’t entirely know what to expect apart from lots of ‘open web’ information and ideas. The timetable wasn’t released until the day before and it was live updated through the entire weekend. It was a great mix of structured and unconference.

I got practical tasters of lots of topics including making your first web app, creating your own maps, and hacking a mobile html5 game.

Quite a bit of my time was spent working with a team assembled on the first day on a project to simplify mobile giving. I won’t describe the final output as there’s a great blog post about Pass the App here. What I wanted to share is the striking difference it made by considering the problem from a platform perspective.

Thinking from a platform perspective really focuses you on the purpose and key features you need. A platform isn’t (primarily) a perfectly designed end consumer product in itself – it’s a tool that others can use to build their own version of something. This gives you an objectivity that quite often gets lost in projects where you’re building the finished public facing website or app.

I found focusing on empowering others through a platform is hugely empowering in itself!


As an aside: I also spoke to SourceFabric about why I was at Mozfest from UNICEF UK. Excuse the Ummms.

social media week – barcampnfp workshop

SMW barcampnfp 2013

This week we held a barcampnfp workshop as part of Social Media Week. A group of around 50 people from across the non-profit sector and digital industry came together to work out the next big things for doing good using social media.

We came up with a ton of good, bad and ugly examples of social for good campaigns. I particularly remember this campaign by Refuge which featured a beauty blogger highlighting domestic abuse and the Trial by timeline example from Amnesty.

Moving on from the shared inspiration we started to hive mind ideas for how to achieve real world impact using social media – putting aside any silos that might currently exist. Naturally, we could have carried on for much longer… but here’s a few of the things we came up with.

Plus here’s a storify of the day.

digital transformation in action

For the last two years I’ve been leading UNICEF UK on a journey to become digital first, something the org committed to in 2010/2011 as part of the 5 year strategic plan.

I’ve spoken and written about our digital transformation journey a few times. I’ve also chatted to a few people from different charities who are considering their own journey. When I’m asked what my top tips are I typically highlight two things:

Don’t underestimate your own preciousness

You need to empower everyone to use digital channels and ways of working, letting some mistakes happen or project timings extend. Letting go can be hard if you’re used to being the direct deliverer with a level of specialism that has taken years to acquire. It can also be hard for an organisation to take a possible hit on quantity and/or quality while the learning curve takes over.

You just have to let go – letting others learn through doing is critical for change to happen.

Be prepared to sacrifice short-term wins for long-term gain

Transformation is a long journey – this is often at odds with the usual character type in digital. We’re enticed by the almost overwhelming industry speed and we tend to see new opportunities and quick wins everywhere. I’m sure I could spend my entire time bringing great results through fixing and activating new things.

You need to focus on getting the long-term infrastructure (tools, skills and behaviours) in place. This isn’t the kind of stuff that shows immediate results and with finite resources you have to make a choice.


Now we’re a couple of years into our journey we’re taking a hard look at how far we’ve gone and what the next phase is. If you have 10 mins please take our survey.

Watch this space …

technology for development – Guardian Activate 2013

Panel Guardian Activate 2013Today I was inspired once again to hear how technology is being used to change the world.

Yes – smart glasses are what many are talking about. They may still be a little bit glitchy and gimmicky but Pebble has already shown our appetite for wearable screens.

However that’s not where big change is expected next year. We still have far to go to understand and apply the full potential of mobile with cloud tech.

That’s why it’s so exciting …

My storify summary from Guardian Activate can be found here.