A look at how place-based communities are supporting charity digital leads, and what more can be done to help this happen.
Alongside my day job helping charities with digital, I’ve been working with volunteer-led organisation Tech for Good Live for over 4 years. As an organisation, we aim to support people creating digital solutions that lead to social change. If I’m being totally honest though, we decided to start the whole thing one night in the pub talking about using tech for good. Fast forward and we find ourselves with a team of around 15 who run large events each month in Manchester and produce a weekly podcast. The feedback has been really positive – and we’re in the fortunate position to have a lot of experienced individuals on the team who can be relied on to produce a pretty high quality output.
As we approached our 4th year, we found ourselves having a bit of a small existential crisis. We knew what we did was providing value, with more than 100 people across different sectors showing up at our events each month and with worldwide listeners of our podcast. Despite this, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s more we could be doing.
Slap-bang in the middle of us having this little four-year crisis, Catalyst comes along and commissions Reply (my day job!) to run some research into place-based communities, of which Tech for Good Live was one. They had a feeling that in order to help charities across the UK upskill in digital, they’d need networks to support them.
The problem statement they gave me:
When charities are ready to upskill in digital then they might face numerous barriers. This means that they may struggle to implement what they need to.
Place-based communities can play an important role in supporting civil society organisations to embed good (digital) practice.
As I said; perfect timing. So, I set off to test this hypothesis, and to explore how we might best support networks to do this efficiently and effectively.
The charity perspective
We began by interviewing a number of charities, particularly those that we know have been supported by a place-based network at some point or another. We took care not to lead the conversions. By keeping them open, we were able to see what naturally came out of these discussions, with some guidance around what helped their organisation progress in digital and what sort of support did they receive along the way.
We learned a lot over the course of the interviews, and it quickly became apparent to us (and seems obvious in hindsight) that we weren’twe’re interviewing ‘The Charity’. We were iInstead interviewing an individual who may have worked at numerous charities in the past, and was trying to upskill themselves for the benefit of their own knowledge in order to implement that within the charity.
It was helpful to get the perspectives of not only the individuals themselves, but also to understand the journey the charity had been on and what were the turning points for them.
These individuals and their experiences were key; driving the digital agenda within their organisations. Almost all of them felt they were somehow not the right person for this role, but they were the only option available. Over my years of training charities in digital, I hear this a lot. The role of “digital person” often falls falling on a comms team with no background in digital, and they feel as if feeling like this is just yet another thing they have to add to their neverending to-do list.
These are the same people who are seeking support from place-based communities like Tech for Good Live.
They talked me through the various things that have helped them over their years in the industry, and – more often than not – at the top of that list is creating useful and sustainable connections. People use their own network to find the right connections in order to ask questions, kick ideas around, and validate thoughts and ideas in an informal 1-to-1 setting. This approach provides specific, tailored advice.
Some people do this formally and deliberately. They find mentors. They build support structures around them using trustees and committees. They use WhatsApp or Slack groups with people in similar situations as themselves.
Others do it informally and it may even be subconscious behaviours playing out. They prefer creating their own informal mentor network, chatting at events, grabbing the odd coffee.
Sometimes people in digital roles might feel a bit lonely. They may be the only digital person in their organisation, and they may not feel confident in their digital skills. Is it any wonder they find having a friendly person to speak with can be helpful?
They need to feel confident to take ideas to management and they need management to support them to support their network (and also to support them with digital, but that’s another story).
In my role, I felt very underskilled. I’d spend some evenings at the end of each week and watch hours of video on how to make the website better. [I’d be] trying to self learn on the job without necessarily getting the resources. Would have liked a 2-day course but did not have the time. To take 2 days off to do a course was unthinkable because there was just too much going on. That was holding back our potential.
A charity employee in a sole digital role
Based on these discussions, I created some categories of support that are needed by charities to progress in digital (thinking specifically about the ones that can be delivered by place based communities, rather than funding etc).
On some occasions, digital staff someone may just need to know the answer to something simple, but specific. And they may need to know it quickly. For example, they might want a template, or a recommendation for a tool or some resources. Digital communities are used in this way regularly. They provide a transactional service.
Digital staff need upskilling at the right time for them in the context of their organisational needs. This could include
Practical ‘short term’ skills: what we usually think of when we think of digital skills. They need to improve on what they are currently doing. They might use Twitter, but not know why, or how or need to understand how to use video calling software.
Expansion of possibility: They currently use digital only within the comms team, or for a small amount of what they do. What else can digital do for them? How do they convince management of the benefits of increasing capability? They are starting to think about skills as a mindset and digital as iteration and change. Leadership might benefit from this as well as delivery staff.
Practical ‘long term’ skills: Now they’ve started to think about their trajectory into using digital to it’s full advantage, how do they practically do that? They are looking at product management and service design. What might a team look like that can deliver it?
Hands on support: Some charities do not have capacity or impetus to implement the advice they receive from training. How do they get capacity? Help finding the right volunteers, time saving tools, funding, agencies.
Digital staff will often want to kick ideas around with others, or receive validation on their hypotheses. Often, they will not have the internal processes or capacity for this within a small digital team. However, having this opportunity helps with confidence, and quality.
Case studies can remove some fear from trying something new to an organisation. Digital staff will want to gather these from peers to show it can be done. They can be used to convince management.
Digital staff benefit from a personal network of contacts that they know they can go to with a specific question and receive an honest answer, tailored to their experiences and answering their specific questions in a 1-to-1 setting.
Note to charity employees who are managing digital: Networking is important, build a support network. You aren’t alone in the challenges you face.
Note to charity leaders: Let people build and maintain a network in work time, support and encourage it. Consider who you are giving the ‘digital’ task to, do they already have too much on their plate? How do you give them more space for this extra task? What do they need to know to do it well? Can you employ someone with a digital background?
Note to community organisers: Can you improve what you do by considering some or all of this list of charity needs?
Ok, great. So, we know what is important to charities who need to upskill with digital. We know anecdotally that place-based communities can help them build this important network and get access to some of the specific skills needed too. Before I validate this, let’s have a quick look at what good practice looks like in developing a community…
The Literature Review
Question: What are the characteristics of inclusive, effective, adaptive and sustainable local support structures?
At this stage, part of the research had begun to get a little ‘foggy’. The concepts of ‘place’ and ‘community’ – the charities we chatted to used support structures from across the country, they dipped in and out and didn’t really use the word ‘community’. They would travel for training and conferences, they would use digital community-based support and would voice or video call mentors or have virtual coffees, rather than face-to-face. Note: this was before COVID-19 stuck and lockdown was imposed. So, it seems that physical ‘place’ didn’t appear to be particularly important to them.
According to literature ‘place’ does become important when thinking of these four rationales:
The Civic Rationale: neighbourhoods are sites of identification and great meaning in people’s lives (particular low income communities with strong bonding).
The Joined‐up Rationale: neighbourhoods provide sites for innovation and developing from a range of stakeholders and agencies.
The Political Rationale: the potential for improvement regarding accountability and responsiveness from political decision making.
The Economic Rationale: great potential for efficiency and effectiveness. When services are working closer this increases the likelihood for synergies and overlap – saving money along the way.
So, identity matters, and some causes and funding streams are tied to ‘place’; using it as a motivator in these instances.
Research still finds that people seek social cohesion and communities - in all forms and sizes. These may be interest-based, cultural heritage-based, language-based, place-based or others.
There are frameworks that may effectively create a community that manages and transfers knowledge. Communities of Practice framework could be one; it looks at how a group of people, united by a drive towards knowledge in a certain field or solutions to an accepted problem, develops and manages knowledge within their group, effectively creating a community that takes on a life of its own.
Engagement within communities might see the ‘Usual suspect’ (people who frequently get involved) and a lack of less engaged groups who may be harder to reach. This needs to be considered when building communities.
Have some community good practice tips we compiled for good measure:
1. Finding a shared purpose and shared values – “Why are we doing this? Why are we coming together?”
2. Simple and easily value consumption – Members (existing & potential) should be able to easily see what they’re getting from the group. Value needs to be accessible to all easily. This includes things like support, events, documentation etc.
3. Members can easily create new types of value for others in the group – This process should be clearly defined, intuitive and provide instant results or gratification.
4. Clear incentives and rewards – Quality contributions (e.g. content, support, technology, etc.) and community-centric behavior (e.g. mentoring, leadership, and growth) are acknowledged and applauded to build a sense of belonging, unity, and satisfaction.
5. Clear accountability – There is a clearly defined, objective peer review and workflow. For example, reviewing content, code, and events. This doesn’t just produce better, more diverse results, it also increases collaboration and skills development.
6. Diverse participation driven by good leadership – Being intentional about diversity, values and good conduct means that you need leaders who embody and empower these principles.
7. The governance is open and objective, and collaboratively evolving – Members can and should play an active role in reshaping the structure and operational dynamics collaboratively, as this will give them ownership and responsibility, and increase engagement.
Note to community organisers: How might you apply this good practice? How can you leverage place and community to strengthen what you do?
Although maybe we’re in a situation where current place-based communities aren’t really feeling like a ‘community’ as such, working towards building a sense of ‘community’ would provide a benefit by creating a space where people are willing to support each other, to further a shared goal.
Ok, so now we know what charities need, we know what good practice communities look like, next step is to see what the communities are actually doing and figure out how everything starts to fit together...
The community organiser perspective
Question: How do best practice characteristics and the needs of charities overlap with what current place-based support structures are offering?
So, some context here. As a part of this research we’re working with seven community groups. They’re all quite different in structure, size, geography and purpose. But despite this they have a lot in common. They all want tech and digital to be used effectively to create positive social change.
Many of them have no paid employees, they’re led by volunteers and are living hand to mouth to keep going. They’re quite open that they just can’t seem to find the time to be particularly strategic, they have to work to the strengths and capacity of their volunteer team and they don’t really measure their impact, much to their own chagrin. So you would suspect that they won’t be as efficient as they could be when creating digital support, HOWEVER, these groups are run by people who know the sector inside and out. Their day jobs are entangled in upskilling charities and increasing digital skills.
It turns out the support they are creating is generally spot on. AND they can be quite agile and reactive.
Between them they’re covering the full list of charity needs explored earlier, and they all cover more than one of them. (Quick tips, Practical ‘short term’ skills, Expansion of possibility, Practical ‘long term’ skills, Hands on support, Personal validation, Risk Mitigation, Unique Perspectives).
The typical format is case study type talks, then networking over food. Some of them are experimenting with workshops, formal training and volunteer matching.
They’re all covering similar topics exploring types of tech use, specific social sectors and skills-based topics and they’re all very well connected in their local area. This is where ‘place’ really comes into its own. They’re able to drive change, connect people and create local initiatives that really work because they are not only embedded in charity digital support, they’re also embedded in their local area. They know who to turn to, they are trusted and have relationships with key people and organisations.
Having the opportunity to interview representatives from these community groups was wonderful for my own existential crisis with Tech for Good Live. We were all in the same boat, all having similar crises of confidence and confusion around where we all fit in the bigger landscape of support. Yet all independently converging on similar formats and working over the same issues, and getting it largely right. We got this.
Well done gang.
But here are the downsides (beyond formal strategy and measurement [insert cringe face emoji]) – our communities are scraping by to survive in any spare time they have. Volunteers are hard to recruit and keep, funding is hard to come by and people are constantly chasing free venues. And the biggest risk to them? Several communities seem to be heavily reliant on one person who’s the driving force. Whilst many of the groups are now fairly established with volunteer teams or even people who are paid to work on them, more than one of the groups had a period of time when it was just that key person. At this time, if this key person couldn’t continue the community, it would have failed.
Even now they have people to support them, some are still heavily reliant on this person's knowledge, connections, time and skills.
Find all of these explored in a little diagram of the lifecycle of a community based on some of the communities of practice stuff:
Find it in detail here.
Based on this and everything we know, here’s what the perfect place-based community would look like:
Note to community leaders: Is there any of this you can implement to improve what you do?
Wow, OK. So at this point, I’ve definitely got a lot to think about for the future of Tech for Good Live and we’ve already started to make some changes to improve what we do. Now we’re moving into the next phase, looking at what is the minimum viable intervention that can help communities succeed and thrive. We’ll be doing that by working with those seven communities in a self managing sort of way to find out what we can actively achieve as a community of community leaders...