One Catalyst member shares their challenges and ambitions in funding tech for good projects.
Comic Relief is one of UK’s most experienced charity Tech for Good funders. This means the charity is influential in revolutionising how digital is used to tackle social challenges in the UK.
Its Tech for Good fund aims to help the sector develop digital services and tools that better meet the needs of communities. Penny Yewers, Comic Relief’s Social Tech Senior Adviser, describes some of Comic Relief’s learnings from the Tech for Good fund, and their future plans.
Penny Yewers, Senior Advisor: Social Tech, Comic Relief
Here’s what Penny has to say…
Three strands to Comic Relief’s social tech programme
Most of our tech programmes are funded in partnership with others. This brings together more funds and strengthens the charity tech funding landscape, allowing us to deliver the work collaboratively. We currently support the sector through:
Tech for Good fund(with Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF). This typically awards ten £50k development grants every 12–18 months (2019 was year four). Funding is awarded via a specific funding call and funded projects start as a cohort, working over nine months to develop their digital solution to launch phase.
Tech vs Abuse fund(with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Clothworkers’ Foundation). This takes a similar approach but is focused on a specific issue area, with specific design challenges developed through research with the sector.
Capacity building initiatives like Catalyst, Digital Spark and initiatives in the North East and Northern Ireland that strengthen the fabric of local social tech sectors.
What our Tech for Good fund review revealed
In 2019, with support from Think Social Tech, Comic Relief reviewed the Tech for Good fund. We took stock of where we’ve come from, how the sector’s needs have changed, where the fund currently sits in the wider ecosystem, and where we might want to take it next. Here’s what we found:
1. It’s working well, but…
We learnt that funded projects generally have a positive experience and the support programme has worked well for them. However, the review also surfaced parts of our approach that could be strengthened. We’re really interested in these and how we can reshape our funding offer in response.
2. Funding digital transformation through projects
At its heart, the fund is about supporting change and growth in the sector. The magic ingredients in this are organisations and their people. Increasingly we appreciate how intensive it is delivering Tech for Good projects. It takes time, energy and focus.
We want to ensure the time and energy of all those involved is properly resourced to reflect the demands of running a project like this. This means helping applicants budget for and recognise the benefits of investing this time for their organisation and people. We think resourcing staff time properly puts organisations in the best position to both deliver their project and open up the potential for long term digital transformation across their organisation.
Until now the fund has focused on supporting early stage development work, with an expectation that applicants will have already carried out some discovery work. But we’re not seeing enough of that discovery work happening, with many applications overly focused on the solution without being clear on the problem they want to address, or having failed to consider the assumptions underpinning their proposed solution.
We know that when discovery work has been done well, a much stronger result is delivered. This makes it a powerful point of funding intervention. Therefore we are developing a new strand of funding that supports organisations through the scoping and groundwork prior to, and at the beginning of, their discovery stage and puts them in a better position to apply for funding further down the line.
4. What happens after funding ends?
Nine months is an ideal time for developing a digital service, but for charities it’s a short period of time to run a project, especially when future funding options may be limited. This can create a cliff-edge, where good projects struggle to get to the next level, lose momentum and lose employees (who may be leading the organisation’s digital transformation). We need to support these organisations better: to be more aware of what might come after, and be better positioned to launch into it.
5. New, beneficiary-facing digital services are not the only valuable thing to build
Until now, the fund has been largely focused on beneficiary-facing solutions that users access directly. But we know that there are equally valid ideas out there that mean human-powered services become more efficient. These efficiencies lead to direct benefit for users, even if they’re not holding the digital tool in their hand. We’re thinking about how we can continue to support both beneficiary-facing solutions as well as innovative back-end ideas that make human-powered services better for those beneficiaries.
And we know that sometimes simply re-using existing tech can solve problems just as effectively as building something new, however projects can often feel that they need to build something new to justify their grant application. We’re thinking about how we can weave this important principle into future funding rounds to make sure we’re encouraging new when it’s needed and reuse when it’s not.
6. There are unexplored ways of funding sector change
We’re interested in how we might help the sector create more collaborative responses to challenges. This could include collectively building specific software or platforms that they, and other organisations, can use. While stimulating this collaborative type of response has challenges (not least because organisations can also be in competition for funding), it has more innovation potential and more potential to change the system.
What we’re planning for Tech for Good in 2020 and beyond
You can see we’ve had plenty to reflect on, and as a result, will be making some changes to the Tech for Good fund. Some changes will happen immediately and others will be tested first. Here’s what’s in the pipeline…
Spring 2020 — we will focus on early stage support grants. This will support organisations and collaborations to explore potential for digital solutions so they have a clear idea of what they need to do next and whether digital may (or may not) provide a solution.
Autumn 2020 — we will open a ‘Build’ fund that offers larger grants and support for organisations individually and collaboratively to develop their idea over a longer period.
And throughout this fund redesign we’ll be weaving in insights and principles based on The Catalyst’s Digital Spark project work on re-use, horizon scanning and ethical tech solutions., plus their work on clusters.