Why do charities exist? 

Why? Why do they exist is a different question from why should they exist. 

It’s easy to fall into the popularist political narrative of blaming the government for the inequalities in our society, and seeing charities as the solution. Nurses can’t feed their family, because the government isn’t paying them well enough, so charities exist to provide a foodbank. Cats and dogs are being abandoned, because the laws the government made aren’t strict enough, so charities exist to rehome the animals. There isn’t enough money spent on medical research, because the government chooses not to fund it, so charities exist to raise money to pay for the research.

I’m not trying to absolve the government of their role in creating a fairer society, nurses should be paid more and refugees should have a safe place to call home, and animals should be protected from cruelty. I’m simply pointing out that the rationale that follows this argument is that charities exist purely to plug the holes created by government policy. The logic goes that if the government did a better job of fixing the issues in our society then there would be no need for charities.

The thought experiment to test this hypothesis is this: “If you had the power to design the perfect world, would charities be part of it, or would your world have no need for charities?” 

If your vision of a perfect world is one where every child has loving parents and never goes to bed hungry, and animals never experience cruelty, and old people never feel lonely, then your world probably has no need for charities. Everyone gets everything they need in other ways, perhaps from family or from the state.

In an imperfect, unfair world charities are a mechanism to help people get some of what they need. Of course having enough food to eat, somewhere safe to live, and all the other things that we need are vitally important. Charities might be providing those solutions where the state doesn’t but I would argue that if those problems can be solved in other ways then charities are not offering anything unique to society. If paying nurses more solves the problem of them being able to feed their families, or if better regulation drastically reduces cruelty towards animals, then even if those solutions aren’t in place at present the fact that those solutions are conceivable leads us to conclude that the charity sector doesn’t have a unique place in society.

So, what is it that charities offer that is unique to charities?

I think charities have a place in society aside from the political entanglement of wrestling with the state policy decisions that negatively affect people in unequal ways. I think charities offer more to society and to people than providing meals or rehoming cats. This is vitally important work, and I’m not suggesting charities should stop it, far from it. I’m suggesting that when charities focus on providing value to society only on this level it reinforces the narrative of charity only existing because of failings in other institutions. I think the charity sector is better than that. I think it has more to offer the world.

This is the charity sector’s identity crisis, if it thinks its role is to make society better by filling the gaps created by the government, rather than making society better by focusing on the things that only charities can do.

‘Charity’ as well as being a type of organisation defined in regulation, is also a mode of organising people within the civic space. There are three domains in our society; the state, the market and the cvic, and just as the state has modes of organising, such as laws, and the market has its modes of organising, such as supply and demand, the civic domain also has different ways of getting people to do things in groups (and that’s essentially what a society is; people acting in groups rather than individually). 

Within the civic domain there are many modes of organising people, each with their own characteristics. Social movements, for example, are decentralised in nature. They don’t have any centralised coordinating function which means those involved are able to act as they choose under the banner of the movement. This can have benefits such as the speed at which people can get involved but it can also have negative consequences arising from people not understanding the nature of social movements and so expecting there to be so ‘someone in charge’ who is responsible for coordinating donations, etc.

Charities are another mode or way of organising people within the civic space. They are centralised and focused around a cause or issue. Charity offers people a sense of belonging, they bring people together by giving them something greater than themselves to contribute to, something that matters to them. Nothing in the state or market domains does this, it is uniquely within the realm of the civic. Churches are a different organising mode within the civic domain. They bring people together around beliefs and as those beliefs can include helping others, perhaps this is why there has historically been such a strong connection between churches and charities.

As new problems arise in society the civic domain is often quickest to respond, perhaps because it is closet to the people being affected. When the coronavirus pandemic started, and the government was focused on the crisis response of lockdown, it was charities that were noticing and responding to the issues people were facing (whilst also trying to deal with their own issues). In time, the market was able to respond by selling all kinds of different face masks, and the government response of schemes like furlough was rolled out, but it was charities that people turned to for help. 

Our society will always be unfair, that’s the nature of a democratic society system, but the charity sector, and all of the charities within it, act as check and balance mechanisms to prevent our society from swaying too far in any one direction. 

Charities provide far greater value to society  by bringing people together to contribute towards a cause. That is why they should exist

Connected systems

Connected systems aren’t just nodes in a network, they are made up of sensors collecting information, ‘brains’ interpreting the information, and apparatus acting on the interpretation and creating more data for the sensor to collect. It is these Interconnected feedback loops that create connected systems

Examples for the future might be cyborg limbs providing feedback to human brains, roads that detect when they are developing potholes, and buildings responding to the people in the room.

These connected systems of the future will require ‘sensing materials’, they’ll be built to respond to change.

Weeknotes #209

This week I did:

Operational readiness 

We spent a couple of days doing operational readiness testing ahead of going live next week with our ‘Online Learning Hub’ (don’t get me started about naming virtual properties like it’s the year 2000). We had four test teams and learned a lot about the experience young people will have when they are on our programmes. It also helped me think more about how we can focus more on mobile without some of the constraints we’re finding at the moment.

Next phase

We are about to start the discovery phase for the next level of learning experience we provide young people. I’ve been thinking about how closely tied the technology is to the mode of delivery, and that I’d like to explore within three concentric circles; what more can we do with the tech we’re already using, what can we do with tech we already have but aren’t using to support different modes of delivery, and what tech would we need to support modes of delivery that we aren’t doing. Layered under that is the notion that different young people have different needs so we need to provide different means for them to achieve their outcomes.


I’ve been adding more stiles to stiles.style, and I got a couple more followers. But the best thing has been the chats I’ve had with people whilst taking photos. They usually start off suspicious, thinking I’m doing something wrong, but when I tell them about my instagram account they relax and we talk about how stiles are an important feature of the British countryside, how each one is unique and that they are gradually being replaced by gates.

Thought about:

Weaponisation of digital

I’ve been gradually starting to put more time into my essay about how digital technologies will be weaponised to increase inequality in society and what charities need to do about it. I think of essays as very different pieces of work to blog posts. They are longer and include research and presenting other people’s opinions, whereas blog posts are just what I think. I’ve settled on a timeframe for looking at this future. It’s within the lifetime of someone born today, so roughly a hundred years. And it follows a three-part structure of what the technology will be like, what inequalities we can expect and what charities need to do to get ready for this future. There is a section about AI, so I’ve been reading about Turing, Kurzweil and Bostrom. They all recognise how seismic the creation of AI will be for our species and how inevitable it is.

Agile education 

I found AgileInEducation. They talk about how the “world is no longer predictable and learning needs to be more adaptive, connected, and interdependent” and about shifting education from Prescriptive to Iterative, Content to Culture, Evaluation to Visible Feedback & Reflection, Control to Trust and Competition to Collaboration. The website doesn’t have any more information about how this might be done, what situations and contexts it applies, etc., but it sounds interesting.

Is agility in education solving the same problem as agility in software development? Do we use the same words but mean different things? Does the shift in ways of thinking and doing education need the Agile brand or is it just ‘education’ evolving with the times.

I also read a paper called ‘Agile Methodologies in Education: A Review: Bringing Methodologies from Industry to the Classroom’, which is more explicit about the problems teachers are trying to solve by using agile ways of working, that is to ‘attract and retain the attention and the commitment by students, and ensure they achieve the required learning outcomes.’

How I spend my time

I’ve been thinking about how I spend my time and whether to break it up more so that I have blocks of time for writing, studying, walking (Stile-ing), etc. Is it better to spend more time on one big thing (like my weaponisation of digital essay) to get that done before moving on to other things, or is it better to have more things in progressing a little bit at the same time. Kanban thinking might say that I need to define my Work In Progress limits. I also did some roadmapping to help me check that what I want to work on is going to help me achieve my objectives.

People tweeted:

Platform for collaborative working

Adam Groves tweeted about some thinking he’s been doing around the dynamics that underpin effective collaboration in organisations. It shows some really interesting platform thinking for collaborative working.

Creative explorative learning space

Shreyas Doshi tweeted 

“Five concepts with incredibly high ROI: 

  1. Talent Stacking, 
  2. High Agency, 
  3. Clear Thinking, 
  4. Deep Work, 
  5. Transactional Analysis”. 

I like this framing. It isn’t “Here are THE five keys to success”, it’s “Here are some interesting ideas to dig into”, which I think helps with learning and thinking as it creates a more explorative space.


Jordan O’Connor tweeted 

“Obsessed with this idea: 

  1. Pick a niche I’m interested in. 
  2. Write/study daily about the topic. 
  3. Write 100 articles in a year. 
  4. Get SEO traffic. 
  5. Build email list.
  6. Ask them what they want and build it. 
  7. Sell products (physical or digital).
  8.  Start fresh with a new niche next year.” 

The thread of tweets goes deeper into parts of the plan such as using Reddit to identify niches, and why picking a new niche every year is important because it keeps up with trends and grows the passive income over time. It shows how the idea of an internet-business is different from a business on the internet.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Jason Yip tweeted

“I spent last week assessing every interaction I was a part of and identified 8 reflections:

  1. Advance preparation makes most interactions better;
  2. Some kind of supporting artifact to capture discussions makes most interactions better;
  3. Keeping track of time allows interactions to end better;
  4. Structured problem solving makes problem-solving interactions better;
  5. Clearer concepts and patterns for effectiveness helps progress improvement interactions faster;
  6. It’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of recurring meetings over time;
  7. It’s easy to miss that only a few people spoke in a meeting;
  8. Mumbling makes interactions worse”

I think this is excellent learning. It takes the high level manifesto item of ‘Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ and breaks it down into actionable experiments anyone can try to learn from what Jason learned.

Week Notes #208

This week I did;

The internet is open 24/7

Every website on the internet is available twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. One of the measures of success for a website is its up time. But what do you do when you want your website to have opening hours and not be available at certain times. It’s not an easy thing to achieve, especially with limited time and no budget. But we did it. Our tech guys came up with a single sign-on solution that only authenticates users between certain hours using API calls and cron jobs. I was impressed. Being able to control access at certains is part of our journey in understanding how to ensure the safety, security and privacy of young people in online environments. I guess most people think we’re just building another bit of tech to solve a particular problem but I spend a lot of time thinking about how it all fits together and what we can learn to achieve our vision.

Charity Service Model Canvas

I started experimenting with ideas for a Charity Service Model Canvas. Canvases are useful tools for seeing the big chunks of things all in one place, and done well they help ensure that balance decisions about whatever is being designed are made. So, for the Charity Service Model Canvas, the Needs connect to the Outcomes (are the outcomes of the service going to meet the needs), the Activities connect to the Resources (what resources are you going to need to provide those activities), in fact all of the boxes connect to each other. I thought about creating a Miro template for it so that people could use it when designing a service. Why haven’t I? Because I don’t know how.

The role of charities in the Democratic Society system

I wrote about some of my ideas about how the three domains of a democratic society system interplay and how the charity sector can choose to fit in to have an impact on society. I see our democratic society system as being made up of the three domains of state, market and civic, and look from a systems-thinking point-of-view at how they have mechanisms that are constantly interplaying with each other as checks and balances in the system. Each domain has particular organising modes which are used to empower and disempower members of society, and charities are one particular type in the civic domain that is useful where people want to organise around a particular issue or cause but need a means of centralising certain processes. 

How the cause-agnostic charities of the future will be innovators for the state and the vanguards of social change for good

I also wrote about an idea of a vision of charities in the future where they play a very different role in society to now. Rather than being focused around a particular issue or cause charities in this future would act as innovators-for-the-state and utilise their civic domain skills of organising people, fundraising, understanding social problems and developing solutions to solve social problems before handing over those validated solutions to the state to run, driving forward social improvements over time. 

Digital Trustees

I joined the Tech For Good Live event about Digital Trustees. I couldn’t stay for all of it but what I did hear was really interesting. I particularly liked the description of a digital trustee as someone who thinks in user-centred, data-driven ways, rather than being knowledgeable about technology. It’s almost like ‘digital’ is shorthand for modern ways of thinking, which I absolutely think it should be (that’s why I don’t always agree with the ‘don’t use the D word’ school of thought).

Got style

I started stiles.style. It’s either an ode to the nostalgia of the British countryside, a critique of the inaccessibility of the British countryside for less able people, or just something to amuse me on my walks. I can’t quite decide.

Some stuff I thought about this week:

Power in the civic domain

I think it’s right to challenge the established way of doing things. But the more established something is the harder it is to challenge without falling into the same traps as the thing you’re challenging.

In the civic domain power should flow to the people. That’s a value some hold dear, and an assumption that is hard to validate. Why should power flow to the people? Which people, all people, even those that disagree that power should flow to the people and have advantage over those suffering inequalities? Do we assume that if the people have the power society will be more equal? If so, what makes us assume that, is it based on any evidence or is it an ideal? 

The criticism that charities hoard power when they should be distributing it to the people is another opinion held by some. And the obvious conclusion that follows is that to solve this kind of problem the opposite situation should be created.

Charities are the way they are as a byproduct of the system they are in. They have whatever power others perceive them to have (because of course power is in the hands of the beholder and/or non-beholder) because of the structures of civic society. It’s not as if lots of charity CEOs got together one morning and said “let’s take the power from the people”. Charities are the way they are because that’s how the funding system works, and that’s how government regulations work, and that’s how the economy works. We can’t change charity and expect it to still work in those systems.

If we want to change how power flows in the civic space then telling communities that they should have the power because we jumped to the solution without really understanding the problem, just replicates the same power imbalance. It’s Pirsig’s rationality factory. So how deep do you go to understand power structures, and then how on earth do you approach building something different?

Products and services

What’s the difference between a product and a service? A product exists whether you use it or not. A service only exists when you are using it. A washing machine is a product, it still exists whether you are washing your clothes or not. AA breakdown cover is a service, when you aren’t using it it’s just a lot of men driving around in yellow vans. Let’s see how long that distinction lasts in my long running (actually, not that long) saga of trying to figure out the difference between products and services.

And some people tweeted this week:

Creating social change

Natasha Adams tweeted about creating a radical vision for the social change sector that is actually accountable to the communities it claims to serve. This is the tweet that started me thinking about some of the things above about power. When I see things like this I always have two thoughts; that action towards solution without understanding the problem can cause more problems than solutions, and aren’t we lucky that there are people in the world who are ‘do-something-now-ers’ to contrast those of us who are ‘think-about-it-and-probably-never-do-anything-ers’.


Lesley Pinder tweeted about charities who have set up accelerators outside of their normal structures. This is really interesting to me (I’m thinking it might be the topic of my dissertation) because more and more I think the best way to build new organisations (which is what most organisations really need when they talk about digital transformation) is to create a small splinter organisation that works to solve the same problems as the old organisation but in new ways and then transition people so that the new organisation grows as the old one shrinks and is replaced.

Charity sector facing financial catastrophe

Emily Burt tweeted about the financial catastrophe facing the charity sector. Seeing what was going on for charities at the time in a thread like that makes for shocking reading, but often, even seeing the writing on the wall doesn’t instigate action, especially if you’re not used to reacting quickly. Yes, the current financial situation almost every charity faces is going to result in a massive shock to the sector and society, but if charities don’t get better at acting faster, or can’t because of the system they are in, then that is a much greater and more far reaching catastrophe.

Strategy for change

Jason Yip tweeted “Strategy is non-iterative only if you assume a static environment and/or non-thinking adversaries”. Yes.

Charity Service Model Canvas – iteration 1

This is the first iteration of my Charity Service Model Canvas.

The good thing about a canvas is it encourages you to think about how the things on each box connect and support each other. Are the outcomes realistic given the funding and resources? Are the marketing channels going to be effective for those beneficiaries? Will the outcomes actually meet the need?


What needs will the service address?

Commissioning body

Is the service being commissioned by a local authority, for example? If so, what conditions will there be to adhere to that will shape the service?

Marketing channels

How are the right people going to know about the service, including beneficiaries, refers, supporters?


Who is the service for?

Who will benefit from access the service, just the beneficiaries, or also their family, school, local community?


What is the service going to offer?

Do the Activities require any Resources or Supporting services?

Will these activities contribute to achieving the Outcomes?

Supporting services

What else is required to run the service that the charity itself cannot provide, e.g. taxis, building hire?


What will the service achieve? How will this be measure and reported? Will the Outcomes match the Needs?


What aspects of the service will have costs, e.g, staff wages, admin time, consumables, building hire?


What sources of funding will be available?

Will the funding provide full cost recovery?

Over what time period of funding available, and how will the service be funded after that?


Staffing – Will extra staff have to be recruited?

Skills – What skills are needed to deliver the service? Do we have them, if not how are we going to get them?

Technology – What technology will the service need? Do we already have it or will we need to build/buy it?

Time – How much time will be spent delivering the service, e.g. 8 hours a day, 1 day a week? How much time will be spent administering the service? Include support functions such as finance? How long is the service expected to last?

Manifesto also have a canvas. Theirs is far more thorough and better thought out than mine.

How do we turn knowledge into wisdom?

We can define knowledge as contextualised, processed information, can only be produced by a person, cannot be replicated, but can be partially codified into information for transmission to generate further knowledge in another person. 

“Wisdom is a quality or state. It requires knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.” So, wisdom comes from using good judgement to apply good knowledge.

To become wise we need an effective knowledge management system to ensure we collect, validate, and understand the right information. This learning process builds good knowledge. 

And then we need Hogarth’s “kind learning environments” to apply our good knowledge in situations where we can acquire a match between the choices we make based on our knowledge and the expected outcome. This develops good judgement. 

Someone who has good knowledge and good judgement in a particular field we might call an ‘expert. Someone who has good knowledge in multiple fields and demonstrates good judgement across all because they are able to cross-pollinate is called… ‘wise’.

How the cause-agnostic charities of the future will be innovators for the state and the vanguards of social change for good

Imagine a future where what we understand of how charities work to make society better is radically different from today. 

Cause-agnostic charities 

Today, starting a charity starts with the cause. The charity commission has a list of charitable causes that can be selected from. And if there are already too many charities working on the same cause, the Charity Commission suggests working with an existing charity.

In the future, charities wouldn’t be tied to a particular cause (along with the implied incentive of never solving the issue to ensure their continued existence), they would be a particular type of organisation operating in the civic space (rather than state or market) not for profit and with their impact on social good being their measure of success. 

These cause-agnostic charities would be able to point their problem solving skills at any social issue and apply proven methods to understand the issue and test solutions, acting almost as a charity-as-a-service for communities.

Innovators for the state

The NHS was created by bringing together a number of charity hospices to be under the control and funding of central government. 

If I was looking at that through an innovation lens I might say that charities independently identified a need in society, responded to it, tested solutions until they found a way to meet that need, and then found a backer to scale it.

What if that served as a model for how to use charities to identify the social needs of the population, test solutions by rolling out services into the community, and once those solutions are validated, handing them over to local government services to run.

If, in running an innovative service, the charity doesn’t validate the solution sufficiently for government to take it on they can look at alternative options like handing it over to the community or other organisation to run. The charity can move on to the next community issue to be solved, whatever it might be, but as the charity is agnostic of what causes they work on, the type of issue isn’t the deciding factor.

Charity would be of different sizes and have different skills, meaning they can be matched with social problems that they have experience with and have a good chance of developing good solutions for. 

Vanguards for social change 

As the government services take over the running of the validated solutions to identified problems in the community, the whole of society becomes a better place. As problems occur communities tender for charities to solve their problems, governments tender charities to support on national and international problems and the charity sector becomes the vanguard of positive social change that it should be.

The role of charities in the Democratic Society system

How the three domains of a democratic society system interplay and how the charity sector can choose to have an impact on society.

If we want to understand where charities fit into our contemporary democratic society, now and in the near future, we need a means of seeing them in relation to other parts of the system of our society. 

The domains of our democratic society

The Democratic Society system can be thought of as having three ‘domains’, the State, the Market, and Civil society. 

The State domain is the central governing function for society. It creates operating rules through regulations and laws. It’s important not to confuse state-run services such as the NHS, or particularly political parties, or government institutions with the State.

The Market domain can be thought of as somewhat synonymous with the economy. Its operating rules are those we associate with business and the economy, such as competition, supply and demand, and wealth distribution.

The Civil domain is concerned with communities. Its operating rules include a sense of belonging, shared aims, beliefs and values. The WHO defines Civil society as “the space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors. Civil society includes charities, development NGOs, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups”. Again, we don’t want to confuse how a single organisation operates within the Civil domain with how the Civil domain operates. And we should accept that any organisation, charities included, will be subject to the operating rules from all three domains.

If it seems that ‘the individual’ is conspicuously missing from these domains of society then that is correct. Whilst society can be defined as a group of individuals with persistent social interactions, an individual isn’t capable of initiating operating rules separate from the three domains at sufficient scale to impact on the checks and balances of the wider society system. An individual can make choices about following laws, buying from businesses, and contributing to a community, but they can’t make their own rules for society to operate by. 

All three domains interact, often in achieving the same things, but there isn’t a clear boundary between the responsibilities of each domain, all are responsible for the functioning of society. The difference between them is in how they work. The state might favour regulations as a means of exercising some level of (but never absolute) control, whereas the market uses competition mechanisms. The nature of this society as a network means that all others can be affected by all other parts of the system.

It’s hard to find a meaningful way to compare the three domains. Should it be by how much they spend, how many people work in them? There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to compare them, but suffice to say that the State and the Market dwarf Civil society by any measure.

Why do we need all three domains with their three different operating modes? To create an interplay between them, to create imbalance and address imbalance created by the actions of others. Without that interplay society would stagnate and not change over time. 

How does democracy work?

Ignoring what we may think personally about contemporary Western society’s implementation of democracy, democracy, as an ideal, as a mode of organisation for a society has two big principles; 1, include everything, and 2, allow everything to be affected by a multitude of checks and balances.

So, for example Fascism isn’t outside of and separate to democracy. In a Democratic society Fascism is included, it is allowed to exist. To try to prevent it would fail the first principle. But there are checks and balances in place to give the people the means to decide whether to accept or resist Fascism, or any other idea, concept, behaviour, technology, etc. All things are included and then through balancing mechanisms adopted to a greater or lesser degree, and in some cases fade to non-existence. 

These democratic checks and balances allow the people to decide what is and isn’t included in our society. 

We tell ourselves that voting is the only democratic action available to us but that just isn’t true. Voting is one of the means provided by the state, along with other means such as laws and the choice of whether to obey them. We think that democracy is purely within the domain of the state but that isn’t the case, all three domains make up and are necessary for a democratic society.

Which businesses we choose to buy from and what products we choose to use are democratic choices that drive the competition mechanism in the market domain. And businesses can use advertising to convince the people to buy from them, which is another balancing mechanism attempting to tip things in their favour. 

When a group of people join together to achieve an objective they act as a balancing mechanism within the Civil domain and affect other mechanisms in the same and other domains. Whether they are joined as a WhatsApp group for their street or joined anonymously to each other through their support of a charity, their actions balance other actions that affect their street or the cause that the charity supports.

Every action performed within a democratic society is the result of a balance acting on it, and becomes a balance for some other action.

Of course, different mechanisms are available to different people and in different circumstances, and with different levels of effectiveness in achieving their aims. I’m not suggesting that democracy is about achieving ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ within society. Those things are value judgments of the people in the society and of course are subject to the balancing mechanisms of society, but they aren’t the objectives of the Democratic Society system. If enough people want equality, say for example for all races and colours, then the choices they make and the actions they take can tip the balances in favour of that objective, and this is how society evolves over time.

No mechanism can achieve absolute control because other mechanisms, from other domains, prevent it.

Nations that have tried ideologically to have only the state in power, and so controlling the market and civil society (if there is any), quickly find that their attempts at the single centralised control of as complex a system as a society fail.

The Civil domain in a Democratic Society system

A strong civil society is essential for the effective functioning of a democratic society.

Civil society introduces a number of different mechanisms that wouldn’t exist in the state or market domains. Coordinated collective action is one such mechanism. When a group of people want to affect a change that could not be achieved as a consumer in the market domain or as a voter in the state domain, they can turn to collective action in the civil domain. We see this in protests about climate change. Protests are a civil society mechanism for attempting to tip the balance in favour of what those people want. In a non-democratic society one group of people can get what they want regardless of what anyone else wants, but in a democratic society there are other checks and balances going on, in the example of climate change, the money introduced into the economy by the companies drilling for oil. We also see it in fundraising for charities where funds raised by coordinated individuals are used to pay for things that fall outside of what the state takes responsibility for and for which no market mechanisms exist to allow a business to undertake (no way to make a profit).

Why do we need to have some understanding of the interplay of the democratic society system in order to understand what role charities play in society? Because we need perspective and context. We need to see that charities don’t exist in isolation from other parts of society, and we need to appreciate the systems thinking that allows us to see how all the parts of the system have a complex interplay.

Where charities fit in the Civil domain in a Democratic Society system

Charities are one part of civil society. As we saw from the WHO definition civil society also includes development NGOs, community groups, faith-based organizations, social movements, and advocacy groups. If, as we said above, Civil society involves organising groups of people into communities towards achieving an aim, then all of these examples are types of organisations, different ways of organising people, and each with different characteristics.

Social movements are decentralised in nature, providing people with a context to organise within and contribute to a cause, but without a central body or organisation coordinating their actions. This type of organisational model has its strengths, including the speed at which it can grow and spread, but it has weakness too. This can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement where people wanted to support it through donating money, but there were no centralised controls to direct the funds raised in ways that help the cause.

Where more coordination than might be achieved by a decentralised approach is required, then organisations like charities have a role to play. An example might be with specialised medical research that members of the general public do not have sufficient knowledge to make decisions about where to direct funds and so a formal and structured organisation that is able to recruit experts to make those decisions about which research should be funded is more effective.

Charity, as a type of organisation, has a role to play in civil society, and the work charities do, whether it is lobbying for changes to laws or supporting individual members of society, has a role to play in providing yet further balances in the Democratic Society system. How the civil domain is made up is also affected by balancing mechanisms within the wider democratic society system, and so changes over time. An increase in grassroots social movements may seem like a threat to charities but they shouldn’t feel in competition with this or other ways of organising people, but instead should focus on their own relevance.

Participating in the civil domain isn’t a zero-sum game. People participating in a social movement because that is the most relevant way for that group to be organised doesn’t prevent the same people from also supporting a charity that organises people in a different way in support of the same or a different cause.

The interplay of balances in the Democratic Society system may result in other means of organising groups of people arising but this doesn’t prevent charities from leveraging the strengths of their way of organising people for the benefit of society at large.

The moral choice of charities

When considering how to contribute in civil society, charities have some big moral choices to make at a number of different scales. Should they do things that tip the balance in favour of their organisation? Or should they act in the best interests of the charity sector, even if that means some self-sacrifice for their organisation? Should they act in the best interests of the charity sector if that inadvertently suppresses other types of organisations within civil society? Should they do what they believe is right for the Civil domain to grow and ensure it continues to provide balances against the actions of the State and Market domains, even if that would damage the charity sector?

These are impossible questions to answer, and in a complex system predicting the outcomes is impossible, but making the best choices possible is essential for the system to balance and evolve.

Weeknotes #207

Some things I did this week:

Platform thinking for safeguarding 

I wrote a discussion paper on how to approach achieving a high degree of safeguarding on a digital platform. As a platform (rather than a pipeline) it requires some different thinking (and maths) so, if two people have one connection, then 825 people 339,900 possible connections at any one moment (n * n-1 / 2 just so you know). When planning how to approach monitoring and moderating the platform it’s important to think about the right thing (the number of connections, not the number of people).

Variety pack

I had some user research discussions about how teachers might work with our educational content in a variety of circumstances, from selecting a re-arranged package that they use repeatedly to being able to build up a number of custom packages. Achieving the right amount of variety without providing an overwhelming number of choices (there are thousands of variations) is an interesting problem.

Becoming a cyborg

I watched Maggie Appleton’s talk about “How to Become a Neo-Cartesian Cyborg” and thoughts about the ‘Building a second brain’. It helped me clarify some of my thinking about what an idea ‘is’. I think it is a distinct piece of information; codified knowledge expressed in a transmittable way. Ideas, in this framing rather than ideas as aha moments, are the building blocks of creating other things. 

And some things I learned:

Simplifying the complex

When communicating, and by that I mean providing information with the purpose of convincing someone of something (communication isn’t neutral), simplifying that communication makes it more likely they’ll agree with you. Now, we could call that simplification ‘withholding all the facts’, but it’s a question of degrees. Knowing the boundaries of acceptable presentation gets the job done and keeps you out of trouble.

Fewest moving parts

Efficiency in machines comes from having the fewest moving parts. Where one moving part touches another moving part there is always friction and so energy lost through heat. A perfectly friction-free system would achieve maximum efficiency. So, when we talk about efficiency in working processes or reducing friction in a website sign-up process, we should look at the number of moving parts in the system first rather than thinking we can achieve those things with some surface-level changes.

Learning about learning

We we’re talking about behaviour change and pedagogical models at work, which are fascinating in their own right, but even more so when applying the thinking to creating a blended online education offer that allows people to self-serve some of their learning, receive specialised support, etc., and using those models to think coherently about how the subject is taught, what from the subject is taught, and how is the learning measured.

6G is coming

I didn’t even know 6G existed but apparently we’re expecting it to be rolled out in 2028. In fact doesn’t exist yet and is still in the research phases but the experts are predicting that it will provide internet connection speeds of 1 terabyte per second (the equivalent of 142 hours of movies in one second). 6G will also have a decentralised approach meaning devices can connect to each other without going through a central provider, which opens up lots of possibilities in real time sensor processing for augmented humans and artificial intelligence.

Some things I thought about:

All the problems

I look around and see so many problems, problems facing people right now, and I sometimes feel bad that I’m not doing enough to help solve those problems. I was thinking about this on one of my late night walks and it occurred to me that if everyone was working on solving the problems of today then no one would be imagining and investigating the solutions of the future. The work I do, and want to do more of, is around contributing to an understanding of what the solutions of the future might look like. The things I think and write about like cause-agnostic charities, the digital charity, platform business models for charities, and what the charity of the future might look like, is worthwhile work to be doing. It doesn’t contribute to solving the problems we face today, but I hope it contributes to solving the problems we’ll face in the future. 

Changing charity boards 

NonprofitAF wrote an article about boards of trustees being “archaic and toxic”. Apart from being a really interesting topic, one of the things I like about the article is that it presents a balanced view of the problem; that not all boards are bad, and that there are some ways in which organisations are trying out new governance models. I like this. I’m not keen on the spate of articles that seem to be written to attack particular aspects of the charity sector without offering any solutions to the problems they raise. I think reasoned critique that generates discussion and thinking is helpful, whereas ranting about a problem isn’t.  

Anyway, models of governance is something I want to explore with future.charity but my initial thoughts are that there needs to be some clarifying as to what charities need, governance, stewardship, or something else, not assuming that one type of governance fits all types of charities, and designing governance into the business model of the charity rather than as external to it.

Process models for knowledge management

I was looking at process models and how they have certain characteristics in common. So, for example: 

  • Design sprint: map, sketch, decide, prototype, test. 
  • Design thinking: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test.
  • Double Diamond: discover, define, develop, deliver. 

They all have two characteristics in common; they are linear, and they are conceptual islands. The linear nature of them makes sense if a) you view the world and the work you do as non-complex, production-oriented work that can follow a simple step-by-step process, or b) you want to sell your model and you need to make it easily digestible by people who don’t have time to learn in-depth about how lots of process models should be used. These models are also always fixed (you can’t add another step, for example), unable to respond to change, and isolated, so not connected to other models. The more we recognise work as creative knowledge work that cannot follow the fixed process steps that these models suggest, the less useful these tools and models become. In fact, I think they become contraining of good work.

We need smart networked process models. Models that are capable of sensing and responding to change, that are interoperable, connected and able to communicate with other models, and are continuously improving. These models, built on the principles of the internet-era, need to reflect and utilise the complexity of the world and knowledge work, and be part of an ecosystem of models that support good knowledge work.

And perhaps organisations need Knowledge Managers whose job is about teaching people how to use tools and models effectively. Just as organisations have project managers who are responsible for the ‘when’, the flow of the work, knowledge managers would be responsible for ‘how’, the ways the work is done. They would be part of the shift organisations need to take away from the industrial production-oriented mindset of work and towards the modern creation-oriented knowledge work. 

I’ve seen organisations use the term ‘knowledge manager’ before when they mean ‘information manager’, and usually put that person in the IT department. Instead, I wonder if knowledge management, or to put it another way, intellectual asset management, sits better with HR/Learning and Development as it implies a different approach, that helping people know how to use the right conceptual tools is an important part of their work.

Some tweets I liked:


Zoe Amar tweeted about the Charity Digital Skills Report. Apart from the slight irony of the report being a pdf and accessed from a non-responsive website, the report has some really interesting but not surprising information about the state of digital in the charity sector. It says that “80% [of charities] are fair to poor at developing digital products”. That’s definitely a challenge with lots of causes, including the assumption that charity services should be delivered by people because this is essential to qualities of the service. I also found and started listening to the Starting At The Top podcast by Zoe and Paul Thomas.

Streaming apps

Paul Downey tweeted: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a PDF downloading on a mobile phone — forever.” I’m not sure what he meant but lots of people seemed to take it as a bad thing. ‘Dystopian nightmare’ was mentioned. I’m not sure that it is a negative vision of the future for mobile. It’s a bit too centralised for my liking, but it’s conceivable that the mobile phones of the future don’t download an app and then connect to a web service in order to make the app do stuff and instead effectively stream apps and services to the phone in the same way we watch movies.

Who to follow?

Sonja Blignaut tweeted a quote saying “We follow those that reflect our most cherished ideals, not those who reflect the most accurate picture of reality.” Does the inverse work? Can we know our most cherished ideals by looking at those we follow? Or is it more complex than that?

Those who do not blog

Stephen Gill tweeted: “Those who do not blog about their mistakes doom other people in the organisation to repeat them” Well, yes. Not much more to be said about that, is there.

Organising ideas: abstraction or embodiment

Maggie Appleton, digital anthropologist, did a lightning talk called “How to Become a Neo-Cartesian Cyborg” to discuss the question, “What does it mean to build a “second brain,” and why do we think that’s a Good and Valuable thing to do?”. 

She had completed the Building A Second Brain course and answered the question posed in her talk with, “Yes, if we rephrase building a second brain as ‘Build a Partial Cybernetic Extension of Your Empirical Collection & Reflection System to Help the Small Conscious Part of Your Brain Do A Limited Number of Writing-based Tasks’”.

I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to find ways to organise ideas in ways that helps me to connect them, either linearly because one led to another, or in an expansive divergent way. At the same time, I try to keep myself in check by reminding myself that the map is not the territory, the model is not the reality.

So, does Maggie’s definition help me be clearer about what I’m trying to do with organising ideas? A random stream of consciousness about the topic…

I tend towards the abstraction of ideas, Maggie favours the embodiment of ideas.

Are we talking about different ways to do the same thing, or are we talking about different things?

Embodiment is about reasoning, abstraction is the mental constructs. 

Data (raw, uncontextualised) can be interpreted, creating information (contextualised, formalised, organised), which can be transferred knowledge (only held within the person), which can be partially codified as information in order to be transferred.

Does there need to be a distinction between a mechanised process of a computer interpreting data to present information and the human perceptual system of the senses collecting unconsciously data about the world around us and transforming it into conscious knowledge?

A distinct piece of codified knowledge is what I would call an idea. It’s a useful building block. It is abstracted from its original context, purified almost to its simplest clearest expression. 

Where Maggie talks about second brain as practice, a process of reasoning that relies on embodiment not abstraction. 

I guess I don’t disagree with the Embodied Cognition premise, that cognition is shaped by the body which is cognising, but is it something to reduced or removed, or am I falling into a cartesian trap of thinking that an idea is purer if it just of mind?

The idea, as a piece of codified knowledge, could contain metadata about its origins (even just conceptually), almost the genetic code that controls how the idea behaves and will result from interaction with another idea.


Abstraction – the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events.

Abstraction in its main sense is a conceptual process where general rules and concepts are derived from the usage and classification of specific examples, literal (“real” or “concrete”) signifiers, first principles, or other methods.

“An abstraction” is the outcome of this process—a concept that acts as a common noun for all subordinate concepts, and connects any related concepts as a group, field, or category.[1]

Conceptual abstractions may be formed by filtering the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, selecting only the aspects which are relevant for a particular subjectively valued purpose.

Embodiment – a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.


Embodied cognition 

Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness), and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.


My biases:

  • Rationality is not neutral.