Shirley Ayres and Paul Taylor: We Need a New Business Model for Doing Good in the Digital Age

Dawn Austwick CEO of Big Lottery was quoted as saying at the recent Future Good event that “No one sector has the monopoly of doing good”.

In a social sector of so many players – often competing rather than collaborating – can digital tools usher in an era where the end user has more choice over the services they require?

What is obvious is that one size no longer fits all in the health, social housing and care sectors. We currently have a complex, fragmented and fragile social sector which is spending £millions on unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. But where is the vision about the £billions which could be available if we collaborated and initiated new partnerships rather than continually “reinventing the wheel”?

Many would argue that a more unified and collaborative sector is a pipedream. However could it be that the sheer number of providers, think tanks and intermediaries are now preventing us from being able to tackle the really “wicked” problems confronting our communities?

Our society is facing both challenges and opportunities with an ageing demographic, a health service seeking £22bn in savings and a digital revolution. Without radically imagining what doing good could look like in the future we are stumbling into a world of disappearing jobs, marginalised communities with reduced or no income and less active lifestyles leading to an epidemic of health and wellbeing problems.

What we need is a fundamental shift from funding projects and pilots to collaborating on ‘whole systems’ change. And the starting point needs to be redefining the social sector.

The current funding environment is complex and competitive with few incentives to collaborate or share learning. Great ideas and community led social change initiatives are undermined by a lack of strategic collaboration between funders. What we need is a fundamental shift from funding projects and pilots to collaborating on ‘whole systems’ change. And the starting point needs to be redefining the social sector.

Sonia Sodha in her Think Piece defines the sector with respect to its function rather than any particular legal form: those organisations and associations whose primary purpose is to create social value rather than make profit, and which are independent from the state. We suggest that the boundaries between the social, private and public sectors are becoming increasingly blurred. It is questionable how many organisations are truly independent of the state as public funding comes in many different forms ranging from contracts through to grants, loans and endowments.

It seems questionable whether current funding programmes are actually building resilience within communities.  Systemic change is inhibited by funders failing to coordinate more effectively. The lack of information-sharing can lead to duplication.  Learning from failure is weakened when organisations only share “what worked”. Valuable lessons are lost with new initiatives being doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Hundreds of reports have been written about the “wicked” problems confronting our society. But what we are not tracking is whether report recommendations lead to action. How many new project proposals use an evidence base to demonstrate why their interventions will be more effective than existing services? It is unclear who “owns” the broader strategies to drive social change beyond the funder and those who have a vested interest in the delivery of a particular project.

Digital technology and social networks provide some of the most powerful tools available today for building a sense of belonging, support and sharing among groups of people who share similar interests and concerns. The breakthrough digital has given us is the opportunity to listen to organisations and our customers in real time. Never before have we had the opportunity to share ourselves and our thoughts. We’ve never been able to work out loud before.

But in reality it’s a tiny percentage of organisations who are really showing digital leadership. There are still relatively few CEOs encouraging open debate and public discourse, answering questions in real time and sharing progress.

We believe the social sector should be leading the way in openness, transparency & accountability. As an example, how easy is it for the public to access information about the outcomes and impact of projects funded by Big Lottery?

Is it that the business model itself is impeding progress? These are questions we believe must be answered if we wish to see a social sector retain confidence from the pubic and thrive in the decades to come. In the world after Kids Company, and amid a huge decline of trust in charities, it’s no longer good enough to do good. You need to BE good.

The new social sector business model needs to be based on the principles of transparency, working out loud and frugal innovation.  With so many intermediaries involved in managing large complex projects their costs need to be transparent and show how they add value to the communities they serve. The future of doing good has to see a shift away from the rhetoric of collaboration and engagement to practical models that excite, provoke and explore new and radical possibilities.

If organisations have a vested interest in the traditional charity model does this make it difficult to say anything seriously critical? Is it now time to question whether the traditional models of philanthropy and charities which could be perceived as paternalistic and disempowering are still the only way to effect social change?

Shirley Ayres  works with innovative organisations developing digital engagement strategies using technology & social media for social good. Paul Taylor is an Innovation Coach with 

Do you have a response to some of these questions? Tweet @shirleyayres@PaulBromford and  #FutureGood. Write us a blog and let us know and comment below.



One thought

  1. There’s a saying I keep playing around with in my head ‘Get the business model; save the world’. The forms in which funds are available to carry out the range of activities required to really bring into existence a social sector that we need to even face current problems never mind emerging ones doesn’t currently. If we see the role of the sector as making happen the greatest possible comfort and support for the largest number of people with the least possible detrimental effect for as long as our service or good is needed; then we have already failed.

    I don’t have any problem reinventing the wheel. In many respects, progress is actually about that. There are different kinds of wheel for different purposes. If we’d never reinvented the wheel we’d have never invented tyres or shock absorbers or gearing.

    The problem is current funding models encourage people not to reinvent the wheel but to arrive at something very like the original wheel, probably calling it ‘a minimal obstructive locomotive assistant for physical object conveyance’; as if no one had ever traveled the same path of thinking.

    The funds available for social action dictate not only the actions themselves but also the structures of both organisation and thought that deliver that action. To my mind, traditional funders have for at least a decade spoken about the necessity of sustainability to those they fund without any strong ideas for ways that might be achieved, as if a small team of a couple of people doing a project might be able to magically discover a funding model for their particular activity that has currently eluded large organisations with the stated purpose of delivering just such answers.

    As funds from all directions have dwindled during recession and austerity the challenge of Research and Development in a classic business sense has increased. This has lead, often, to one of two scenarios.

    The first is the bootstrap paradox that ideas need to have been tried before it’s possible to fund them. This leads to a lot of projects being forced into trying to roll out before they are tested, developed and iterated. In essence they are toasters that go straight from the drawing board to Argos. This is not the same as learning through doing and actively impedes the kinds of learning, thinking, trialing and tweaking required to build good things. Funders may talk a great game on this at the top table; but often further down it degrades to deliverables; targets and mutual suspicion.

    The second scenario is that funders pour large amounts of money into transformative, ‘experimental’ programmes lack seek to foster the correct conditions for innovation but which work through intermediaries for whom the goal of innovation may not be reflected in their actual understanding of what should be trialled, tested, encouraged and discouraged. This often just kicks the bootstrapping down the road.

    It is also often difficult for social sector organisations to configure teams and structures in ways that make innovation possible; relying on an abstract notion of organisational partnership and collaboration rather than the more messy, bitty but vital job of assembling the right team for the right job. Innovation isn’t just another project to deliver; it’s something more slippery than that and is sometimes more like capturing lightning in a bottle; something that comes from harnessing a very particular interaction of situation; personality; expertise; local desires, dreams and relationships.

    Learning is, like advice, information that is actionable. Learning takes asking the right questions and exploring; over time, what many things mean in context. For me the idea of ‘sharing the learning’ is a kind of kindly platitude; something we aspire to rather than something we care about. Learning can be commercially sensitive; it can be challenging in the context of partnerships between organisations and between funder and organisation. It takes a big and stable organisation to share the learning that their philanthropic donor and their expectations were the problem with a project; or that the evaluation imposed by a charitable funder was a deforming factor in the delivery of the project itself.

    It’s people that learn things and it’s people that understand and analyse those things that are learned. For me; at present, it’s only once I’ve had a chance to speak to someone who works in a field or who has worked long and hard around that field that I can in any way contextualise and understand the learning of many initiatives, funds and organisations.

    I think it’s often possible to confuse ‘learning what happened in our thing’ with ‘what our thing tells us about what our next thing should be’. To often not even the former of these happens; because there is no immediate value presented by available sources of funds for an organisation or project to actually do the work to do so.

    Mark Brown


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