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

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?

Needs

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?

Beneficiaries

Who is the service for?

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

Activities

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?

Outcomes

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

Costs

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

Funding

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?

Resources

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 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.

Are managers to blame for the systems they exist in? (Spoiler: no)

Matthew Sherrington, charity consultant, wrote an interesting article called ‘Are managers gaslighting staff over wellbeing? (Spoiler: yes)’. The article suggests that the culture in the charity sector involves managers purposely overworking their direct reports to the point of damaging their wellbeing.

I’d like to offer a different point of view. Not to criticise or in any way undermine the point Matthew makes, which I think is an important one, everyone’s health and wellbeing is essential, but instead to suggest that the issues might have larger, deeper causes that are part of systems we exist within. Firstly, I think it’s worth quoting Matthew:

“Widely and insidiously, people’s wellbeing has routinely been damaged through work overload, unrealistic expectations, and poor decisions and direction from leadership… people feel inadequate, that they’re under-performing, and push themselves to the point of burnout. And that’s down to leaders and managers failing to make the hard choices about what should be done with the time and resources available, and setting a more balanced example. It starts at the top. Self-sacrificing leaders are dangerous for staff’s wellbeing, with the drive to do ever more, expand the scope of activities. Rarely –rarely – do leaders stop stuff to make new priorities possible, usually just loading up the organisation and people with more.”

I don’t want to in any way downplay the personal effects of burnout, feeling overwhelmed and stressed, or suggest that managers shouldn’t take some responsibility for the workload of the people they work with, but I do want to look into some of the systemic causes of the situation. I’ve noted some of my biases that inform my thinking at the end.

Poor practice

Lack of good management practice affects every industry, it isn’t unique to the charity sector. The Chartered Institute of Management reported that nearly half of managers hadn’t received any training during the year of their research. And research conducted by an organisational learning company found that 98% felt they’d benefit from more training. There are countless examples of people who are good at a job and in order to progress in their career the only option is to become a manager and be in a situation where they have to learn management skills whilst in the role. 

Bad management is a problem (and one that training alone won’t fix). But the problem with the bad manager narrative is that it focuses criticism on a particular group of people that is reminiscent of the worker/management conflict that arose in the eighties and doesn’t take account of the complex systems and structures we live in. 

I’ve wondered recently if the reason we have such poor management practices is largely affected by the function of management as an interface between two inherently incompatible systems; the individual and the organisation. There is an alienness about each other. An organisation doesn’t have a mind to empathise with the individual and its decisions are often obscured by the regulations of other organisations. The individual (of which there are many and they are varied) has motivations, experiences, feelings, and other stuff going on in their lives that the organisation isn’t aware of but which can affect the individuals work. The manager is expected to represent the interests of the organisation to ensure its success at the cost of the individual if needs be, but at the same time is expected to care about the individuals they work with in order to represent them to the organisation. Management is an ethical dilemma. I can’t think of any other situation in life where a similar interface exists, so it’s hardly surprising that management practice is not achieving what we might hope for it.

I don’t believe practice problems can be fixed at the practice level, I think we have to dig deeper into the principles beneath the practices.

Competing principles

We all have principles. The things that we believe and are important to us. We hardly ever state them explicitly but we know that we value characteristics like honesty in ourselves and others. If we needed to we could probably stack our principles in order from most important to us to least important, but we’d also want to caveat that stack with some statement about the ordering being very contextual and open to change. When a group of people come together to form an organisation it’s extremely unlikely they will all have the same principles and hold them in the same order in their individual principle stacks. 

Organisational culture comes out of the continual interplay of those principles stacks, taking into account that some people are better at communicating their principles than others, and that lots of other factors influence which principles are expressed in which situations. The worst attempts at principle stacking on an organisational level result in monocultures where everyone believes the same things are important. The second worst are where an organisation attempts to state its values (usually generic and without any ethical reasoning behind them) and expects all employees to align their own principle stacks with those organisational values. The organisation considers ‘that culture piece’ as ‘done’ and fails to recognise that implicit conflicts still exist for every single person. The best cultures are where people are allowed to have different values and openly discuss them and have them accepted.

If within a charity a monoculture grows up in which everyone believes that working long hours, having lots of pressure, etc., is higher on the principle stack, so more important than, looking after our and others mental health then people express that value in their behaviour by working too much. When I say ‘believe’ it, I don’t mean that they have gone through a principle stacking exercise and all decided together and explicitly stated and accepted it. Instead, I mean that over time, bit by bit, more and more people would have reorganised their own principle stacks to place work above health, and done so without realising it.

I don’t believe principle problems can be fixed at the principle level, I think we have to dig deeper into the philosophies beneath the principles.

How can we measure a person?

Now we’re getting into more philosophical questions about why we have systems in which people are overworked. One of those questions that might help us overcome a part of the system is, how can we measure a person?

If we asked an economist about measuring a person they might tell us about how productivity equals output per-hour per-worker. That calculation rolls up into what we refer to as the GDP of a country so it’s not a small idea. It’s an idea that came out of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of time and motion studies, and probably one of the first management consultants and efficiency experts. Taylor monitored workers on production lines so that he could figure out how to optimise how they did their work. It is from his ideas that we get the ‘manager planning the work, worker doing to work’ approach and so the animosity that comes from creating an ‘us and them’. Taylor’s ideas probably contributed more to improving the quality of life of a considerable portion of the human race through improving GDP, so we should give him his due. The problem is that we’re still using ideas from over a hundred years ago to organise work today. The world of work has changed a lot in that time, mostly thanks to the internet, which makes the production-line approach to work nonsensical and damaging to the efficiency and effectiveness of modern organisations. 

Charities operate in the modern knowledge economy as workers use their knowledge to generate value for the organisation rather than their physical labour such as by shoveling coal. The value provided by workers has so much variability in inputs, length of time, skills and knowledge required to create, quality of output, and most importantly, impact. And yet we continue to measure work by distinct units. Since we no longer need to measure how many shovels full of coal we’ve moved we use the nearest proxy to value: time. We know that measuring a person by ‘hours worked’ doesn’t make much sense but we struggle with a viable alternative. Measuring a person by the hours they’ve worked leaves open the opportunity for that person to not do very much work during those hours, or create low quality work but be paid the same as someone who does high quality work, or negatively affect the effectiveness of a colleague or but a toxic influence and still be rewarded the same as if they were a positive asset. 

I don’t believe philosophy problems can be fixed at the philosophy level, I think we have to dig deeper into the paradigm beneath the philosophy.

The revolution isn’t over

A paradigm is a worldview. It lays deep in our psyche. All of our philosophies, principles and practices are built on top of this paradigm. 

The industrial revolution changed our world. It set the direction for the human race more than any other human-initiated event in the life of our species. The change from a way of life and economies that was based on agriculture and handicrafts to one based on large-scale mechanised industry had more of an effect on human beings than the change from hunter gatherers to farmers. The only comparable change is the invention of the internet, but we’ll have to wait a few hundred years more to see what affects that actually has (although if anyone thinks it isn’t going to lead to humans colonising other planets, inventing artificial life and lots other as yet unimaginable changes, let me know and I’ll convince you). When we think about the industrial revolution in this way it becomes a bit easier to understand why it forms so much of our worldview.

When we learn about the industrial revolution in school it’s usually about the technologies that were developed, the steam engines and bridges, but it’s the ideas that were the really interesting outputs. Before the industrial revolution a chair was made entirely by an individual craftsman and it was unique. Chair production during the industrial revolution became commoditised and standardised. One person made the legs, another person made the back, and another person put them all together, and all the chairs were the same. And making chairs in this way required coordination, otherwise you might have too many backs and not enough legs, which created management. Factories required large capital investments which changed the entire nature of businesses from family-owned to shareholder-backed. And those shareholders expected a return on their investment, which drove factory owners to treat their workers as a resource to be utilised. The industrial revolution resulted in mechanical thinking, the idea that people could be treated like machines when they came to work, given tasks to perform in standardised ways with predictable outputs. 

These ideas; commoditisation, standardisation, management, coordination, mechanisation, resource allocation and management, predictability, efficiency, they all still affect how we conceive of work, conduct ourselves, what we expect of others, how we organise work, and so many other things, even today centuries later.

Nothing is ever simple

So, the causes of the problems are many and complex (I’ve only discussed a few here but there are far more). Management skills and ethical dilemmas, principle stacks, measuring people in the wrong way, and hanging on to an industrial mindset all contribute to a complex problem, which in my view shouldn’t be blamed on a particular group of people. If we want to fix systemic structural issues, we need to approach them from some understanding of complex systems thinking. We need to abandon simplistic cause and effect thinking where we convince ourselves that the solution to bad management practice is better management training. 

We need to accept the interconnectedness of all parts. That includes all the things inside the organisation, even if we don’t think that what questions are asked in job interviews affects how managers behave on a day-to-day basis, and the things outside the organisation in people lives, in the economy, in politics, etc. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that our organisations are separate from the rest of the world. 

We need to open the space for emergence. Emergence is an important idea in systems thinking. It says that unplanned and unpredicted things occur in complex systems. There are always unintended consequences, especially if you take a narrow view of a situation and think that you can control it, and often those consequences are counter to what you were trying to achieve. Better then to focus on creating the right environment for the kinds of things you want to emerge.

We need to build feedback loops into our non-linear thinking. There are two types of feedback loops; positive feedback loops enhance or amplify changes and tend to move a system away from its equilibrium state towards instability whilst negative feedbacks tend to dampen changes leading a system to achieve an equilibrium state and be more stable. Positive and negative aren’t value judgements, it isn’t that positive feedback loops are good and negative are bad. They both occur in complex systems and both need to be understood in order to make system level changes.

Complex change cannot be planned or predicted, and that’s a hard thing for people and organisations to accept.

There are some modern practices that organisations could implement, not because they think that one solution solves one specific problem, although it might, but because the modern work environment should use modern practices.

Work collaboratively

The phrase ‘collaborative’ is often used without clear meaning or expectation, so let’s change that. In this context I use the word collaborative to denote a situation where a group of people are working together to solve a common problem or achieve a common goal. (For comparison, cooperative working is a group of people working together to achieve different goals).

Our usual way of working involves people working separately to achieve separate goals. It comes from industrial-era, Taylorist, production-line thinking and we try to apply it to modern knowledge work. It goes like this: Manager decides what work needs to be done, then assigns worker, then worker works in isolation to complete work, then passes it back to manager for inspection, manager either approves work or sends back for improvements. The modern knowledge work approach goes like this: manager and worker work together in the same shared document, making improvements as they go until the work is complete. The total time to complete a piece of work in the first approach is far longer than in the second. 

If there is too much work in progress and/or that work is taking too long to complete, good collaborative working can drastically reduce cycle time. It takes skill and practice but it is possible to have lots of people from different teams and functions working together in this way. It can also help people learn better as there is immediate feedback at the micro level. 

Decouple reward from work

Provide ways for people to diversify their work, contribute differently, and get paid more that don’t require climbing the career ladder. That ladder still needs to be there because some people do want to become managers and organisations need managers (well, maybe they don’t but that’s for another time), but it shouldn’t be the only way to progress. 

It is possible to completely decouple reward from work. Reward the person because they are going to contribute all the things that make them human to the organisation. Reward them for their skills and experience, their sense of humour, their attitude, their ability to form relationships and communicate with other people, all the things that actually provide value to the organisation. Don’t reward them based on units of work, which as we said above means the poor proxy of time. Working hours is an availability consideration, not a reward consideration, set them to suit the person and the organisation and don’t connect them to pay.

Embrace uncertainty

We’re led to believe that the higher up someone is the organisational hierarchy the more they know what’s going on. This usually isn’t the case. Every person has a limit to their cognitive load, and being paid more or having a more impressive job title doesn’t increase it. This means that the CEO can’t hold any more information in their head than the person who just started their career. We expect certainty from our leaders, but they just don’t have it. They never had it more stable times, but they certainly don’t have it in these uncertain times. 

Organisations that communicate certainty when there isn’t any aren’t being authentic with their people, and so when things do change as they inevitably do, the people lose faith in the messages of certainty. Better to communicate the uncertainty along with approaches for responding to it (Not plans, they imply certainty. And you don’t need a strategy, you just need a structure).

Being able to accept change, have fast feedback loops to understand the effects of the changes, and then changing direction quickly in response is an important mindset. Embracing change rather than expecting certainty gives people emotional and mental resilience and gives the organisation agility.

The end

Matthew said, “Leaders can take the first step in improving staff wellbeing by taking decisions on priorities, and on what people should STOP.” Maybe they can but it wouldn’t change the system that created the problem. Change the systems and structures in which these problems emerge and we’ll have a chance of solving the problem for everyone for good.


My biases that inform this post:

  • I write about charity, digital, innovation, etc., because it fascinates me. I’m not selling anything.
  • I differentiate between blame and responsibility, and I value people taking responsibility of their own volition over people being given blame by someone else.
  • I’m an INTJ (if you think that kind of thing is useful even without being scientific) so I tend to think more about systems and idea architectures than I do about people and how things affect them.
  • I conceive of ourselves and everything we think, feel and do as part of a single complex system that means nothing exists in isolation and so is unaffected or unaffecting of other parts of the system. And that problems cannot be truly solved using a simple cause-and-effect approach but instead require us to build the systems and structures that allow the preferred behaviours to emerge.
  • I believe that we apply outdated industrial-era concepts about work and labour to modern workplaces and cultures that are no longer fit for purpose, and I explore ideas on various levels about how to apply internet-era, digital transformation ideas to work.
  • I wholeheartedly believe in the work of charities and the charity sector as a force for good in society, although I question lots of notions about the role the sector takes in society now and in the future.

You can have a long term strategy or agile delivery but you can’t have both

An organisation cannot have a long term strategy and have agile delivery.

A strategy, by definition, is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.” It is, because of the way it is typically approached, a long-term plan to achieve the long-term goal. And often this is for good reasons within an organisation, including the amount of time doing “strategic work” takes away from the actual delivery work and because it is often seen as a means providing clear and steady guidance, to signal certainty and reliability.

Agile delivery, is characterised as “iteratively delivering incremental value by responding to change quickly”. It’s mostly associated with software development but the principles and practices apply equally well in all kinds of disciplines and functions. An agile delivery approach requires shorter time spans, in fact the shorter the better, in order to plan the work, do it, and review what that work achieved.

An organisation can have a long term strategy with fixed delivery, or agile delivery with shorter planning cycles and faster feedback mechanisms. But it can’t have a long-term strategy that is delivered in an agile way.

Both can work towards achieving the same goals.

They are just different approaches. One approach says, ‘We know where we want to get to, and we think it’s going to take us this long to get there, so we’re going to walk in that direction for that length of time and then see whether we got there’. The other approach says, ‘We know where we want to to get to, but we don’t know how long it’s going to take, and we’re not even sure which direction to go in, so we’re going to take a few steps and then check whether we’re any closer to where we want to get to’.

Same goal, different approaches. Choosing one approach instead of the other doesn’t change the goal, although it arguable changes how likely the organisation is to achieve the goal.

Both approaches are about reducing risk, they just have different perceptions of risk.

The agile approach considers not responding to change and carrying on regardless as the biggest risk to achieving the goal. Being agile is about reducing risk by taking small steps and checking to see if they were the right steps, and changing direction if they weren’t.

The long-term strategy approach perceives the biggest risk to be not having a plan to follow and the perceived insecurity and uncertainty that comes from that. So, the best way to reduce risk is to get the best people to spend lots of time doing the strategic planning so that they get it right. They are expected to use their experience and expertise to predict the future, which is a stable world with a predictable economy and very little disruptive technology, they used to be able to do.

One doesn’t deliver faster than the other, or cost less. Being an organisation with a five year strategy provides certainty. Being an organisation that agile provides flexibility. But in fact, both certainty and flexibility take a great deal to achieve and are both as illusionary as each other.

Long term strategy and agile are on a continuum

Long term strategy and agile delivery, whilst not able to co-exist, are not opposites. They are on the same continuum of approaches to achieving a goal through planning to reduce the risk of not achieving the goal.

An organisation that plans its strategy every five years is at one end of the continuum, and an organisation that chooses what work to focus on on a daily basis is at the other end.

If the strategic planning cycle changes from once every five years to annual, the organisation is now five times as agile as they used to be. If they then go to quarterly planning they are now four times as agile and twenty times as agile as they originally were. If they go to weekly planning they are 260 times as agile as they were when they started.

Can you really not have both?

Some may argue that an organisation can have a long-term strategy that is delivered in an agile way because then the users are getting some value from the organisation earlier than they might otherwise, and yes, the organisation might get lucky and accidentally deliver something of value, or the users might have no choice and have to accept it regardless. But the key aspect of the agile delivery approach, in fact the reason for working in short cycles and collecting feedback, is that being able to respond to change. So even if the work is delivered incrementally, if it turns out to be wrong but has to continue to follow the long-term strategy then all an organisation gets from trying to have a long-term long and agile delivery is some awareness that it is going the wrong way but is unable to do anything about it until the next planning cycle.

Reduced hours not reduced value

When the lockdown started lots of organisations rapidly changed their working practices, and charities were no different. Charities recognised that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crash was going to drastically affect their ability to help people and to fundraise. The need for many charity’s services increased at the same time the money needed to pay for those services decreased. Charities responded to the massively reduced income by attempting to reduce one of their largest expenditures; salary. Some people were put on furlough, and others were offered reduced working hours along with the reduced salary to match.

Those who went to reduced working hours, of which I was one, accepted working four days a week for eighty percent of the original salary. And for a while I tried to stick to that. I’m not sure why, probably because that is what I was told to do and I hadn’t yet questioned the logic. And the logic is interesting, because at face value it makes perfect logical sense. You are going to be paid 20% less so you should work 20% fewer hours. But only makes sense if you are using an industrial mindset that associates value to time spent doing something. As if human beings are machines with a hours counter that clicks on as we are busy working and stops when we stop. This carries the underlying assumption that every hour has the same value as any other hour. But humans aren’t machines, and valuing human being by the time they spend doing something isn’t the only logic that can be applied here.

Instead of rewarding someone for the hours they spend at work, we could reward them because they bring value to the organisation. Not, and this is an important point, for the individual units of value they deliver, but more generally because them being a part of the organisation makes it better in all of the hard-to-define ways that people do. People bring ideas, and personalities, and jokes, and smiles, and a listening ear, and knowledge, and experience, and something they read in a book, and their ability to form relationships with other people that make it possible to communicate and collaborate. These are the things we actually value in people so these are the things our organisations should pay for. Divorcing units of work (be that hours spent or widgets made) from reward confines the industrial mindset to a previous point in history where perhaps it made sense for a little while, and elevates new thinking about rewarding people in ways that better fits the knowledge economy that we all increasingly operating in.

The charity I work for is a knowledge organisation. It takes the knowledge that one group of people hold and gives it to another group of people for them to utilise to improve their opportunities and make their lives better. We’re not a service organisation or a product organisation, they are just the means with which we deliver that knowledge. Tesco doesn’t call itself a van company just because that’s the means with which they deliver groceries. In the reward-by-hours-spent way, its easy to see why so few people spend time learning and developing their knowledge, because why would they if they are being paid for their time rather than their knowledge. But in the reward-by-value future, the knowledge worker is going to be measured by the all the characteristics that they hold as a person that are worth something to the organisation, and being able to learn new things will be an important one. Charities understanding that they are knowledge organisations might be the first step to creating a platform business model for charities, but that’s a thought for another time. For now, we’re talking about how we should break the connection between work and reward and instead establish a connection between reward and human characteristics like knowledge, ethics, personality, etc.

Personally, separating the reward I receive from the time I spend is easy, but that’s because I’m a bit weird. I am intrinsically motivated to achieve things, hopefully good things. I am not motivated by extrinsic things like pay or peer pressure. I take the pay because I need it to live, but if I didn’t I would do the work for free. I get to spend my time thinking about how to solve complex problems for people that need help. I think that is awesome.

So, if the reward I get from the organisation I work for is no longer tied to the time I spend doing that work, either because of my particular motivations or because in some alternate-reality organisations see sense in what I’m suggesting, then working reduced hours for reduced salary makes no sense. I should continue to contribute the value I can to the organisation, which will be different each day and will change over time as I learn more, and the organisation will continue to reward me based on the overall value I bring and with the monetary amount that equals being based on the realities of the situation we find ourselves in. I’m not suggesting I should be paid the full amount of my salary just because I am contributing my full value. I want my reduced salary to be part of the greater good, following from the many examples of solidarity we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, if we all take a hit we can all get through it together.

Changing the rules of the game for charities

Reuben‘s call to change how charities approach fundraising to think more about engagement over efficiency and flourishing over formulas must strike a chord with so many people who work in charities and feel torn between wanting to do good work and wanting to do good for the cause. We might like to think that these two are one and the same but more often than not they feel like very different things.

Reuben talks about how fundraising is approached in a mechanistic way with a focus on maximising efficiency and the outputting of fundraising collateral, and suggests a better approach:

My view is that engagement, for want of a better word, isn’t just a more palatable word for acquisition, but an opportunity to prize human flourishing. It’s an opportunity for us, as agents of change, to bring more of our selves to work. To think beyond the optimised formulas of fundraising and access our empathy, our ingenuity, our humanity.

Reuben Turner

I’ve seen a similar situation in Product Management. The product-isation of production of product. What John Cutler calls the feature factory. Developing new features knowing that they will not make any difference to the success of the product, not increase the value the customer gets out of the product, and not increase the revenue the organisation gets from the product, all continued and repeated because that’s the way its always been done.

It is that way because every organisation, whether a commercial business or a charity, is built on the same paradigm. If Taylor is the grandfather of maximising efficient production, Friedman is the father of maximising profit.

Friedman said “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman’s opinion has been a guiding principle for almost every organisation, whether for-profit or not-for-profit since he expressed it more than fifty years ago. The leaders of the organisation believe that their purpose is to maximum profit for shareholders in the case of a business and for the cause in the case of charities.

It’s hard to argue with that. If you’re a charity, why wouldn’t you want to increase profits for the cause?

The answer is, that you would and should, but of course there is a bigger picture. That question does not exist in isolation. There are lots of other things to consider, lines not to be crossed, decisions to be made about how, moral choices about the right and wrong way to increase profits. These are the ‘rules of game’, as Friedman put it. And those rules affect our thinking without us even being aware of them. Standard business logic says that profit is maximised by increasing revenue and reducing costs, often through efficiency measures (back to Reuben’s point about approaching fundraising as though it was manufacturing).

The profit a charity makes; how much money is left over for the cause after costs, should be a measure of success for a charity. But following Goodhart’s law, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” we realise where we went wrong. Profit has become the target. Targets drive behaviours, and often those behaviours have unintended consequences. The Taylor & Friedman -inspired mechanistic mindset drives organisational behaviours that cause people to feel like feel like “a cog in a fundraising machine designed for optimisation”, to quote Reuben again, rather than human beings doing good work that makes them feel like they are bringing value to those who engage with the charity.

Perhaps more ‘charitable’ targets are human-centred things like ‘how many lives touched’, and ‘how deeply affected’ over financial targets like ‘cost-to-serve’ and ‘revenue-per-visitor’. Of course charities will have to have uncomfortable discussions with themselves about the value of their impact on a human life, and how many human lives affected is sufficient for them to justify their size, funding and even existence. Such is nature of changing the rules of the game.

Schmenner’s Service Process Matrix – but for charities

Introduction

Developing services for charities is no easy task, especially as the need for their services increases and the available funding reduces. What approach can charities use to help select the most appropriate type of service? Perhaps we can learn from research from the commercial services sector, with some adaption for the charity sector, to better understand how to make strategic choices about service types.

Service Process Matrix

Schmenner’s Service Process Matrix (Schmenner, 1986) classifies services by the amount of in-person support is required from employees to enable the service to function, and by the amount of customer contact and/or customisation the service requires.

Source: Verma & Boyer, 2000

We could apply the same thinking to charity services, but change the language to help us move away from the commercial mindset and towards a greater focus on the needs of the beneficiaries of the charity services.

‘Customer contact/Customization’ refers to whether the service is offered in the same way to all customers or is customised for each customer. It could be renamed ‘Service-user’s need’ in our charity adaption of the model with more complex needs in the right hand column of the diagram and less complex needs to the left. This axis tells us that there is a notional threshold point at which a charity designing a service needs to decide whether the complexity of the service-user’s needs are sufficient to suggest the service should use a model in the right hand column, or simple enough for a model in the left hand column to apply.

Schmenner talks about ‘Labor intensity’ as a ratio between people and machinery, so a low-intensive labor business uses more technology than people in delivering its services (the top row of the diagram) whilst the opposite is true for a high-intensive labor business (the bottom row of the diagram). For our charity adaption we should keep this definition of labor intensity as it gives us a sense of the balance between people and their time and the technology used, but expand it to include other available resources such as funding and skills as these greatly affect a charity’s ability to deliver services. We can rename it ‘Available resources’. This axis tells us that there is a decision to be made about whether to use a model from the top or bottom row based on an understanding of the resources the charity has to implement the service.

Service Factory

Schmenner gives the examples of airlines and hotels as Service Factory services because of the low customer contact & customization – everyone gets the same service, and low labor intensity – the ratio of effort by people in delivering the service is less than the equipment, buildings and aeroplanes in this example.

An example for a charity might be a website with information about self-examination for testicular cancer or self-service web portal that allows the booking of a counselling session. These require little human effort and utilise a greater degree of technology to deliver the service.

This type of service works well where the service-user’s needs are less complex, such as needing to source simple information, and where technology can be implemented to meet that need.

Service Shop

Services with low labor intensity / resource needs but high customer customization / service-user’s need are classified as Service Shops. Service Shops can provide various types of customized services for the service-users but rely on more technology/capital resources than human effort to deliver the service.

Charities might use a Service Shop model to deliver individualised support pathways for young people getting into training. Each young person using the service receives support, mentoring and training that meets their needs, and the majority of the service is provided through technology such as a Learning Management System for training courses and video calls for mentoring.

Mass Service

Mass Services have low customer contact/customization in combination with high labor intensity, meaning that everyone gets the same service but it requires people to provide the majority of it. Schools use this model, providing every student with the same curriculum which is predominantly delivered by lots of in-person contact with the teacher delivering the service.

Charities use the Mass Service model to deliver services that are difficult to deliver using technology but don’t require a great deal of customisation in order to meet the needs of the service-user. Charity shops fit this model (although existing to generate income rather than meet the needs of service-users) as they require employees and volunteers to sort stock, serve customers, etc., all tasks that could not easily be automated. Charity shops offer the same service to all customers – buying stuff – and don’t change that based on the customer’s needs.

The Mass Service model is often used where a service needs to grow through replication, that is, in our charity shop example, opening another charity shop that works in the same way as every other charity shop. This is because recruiting more people to run the same service in a different location.

Professional Service

These services have both high customer contact/customization and a high degree of labor intensity, and tend to be highly customized according to the particular situation/need of each customer.

Charities providing expert legal advice for people experiencing domestic abuse or facing homelessness are utilising the Professional Services model. The high degree of education, skill and time required to deliver the service explain why this is high in ‘Available Resources’, and the high complexity of the need, including dealing with landlords, benefits system, courts, etc., explain why this service requires greater customisation in order to met the specific needs of each individual.

How to use this in designing a charity service

Choosing an appropriate service model

When initially designing a service the most appropriate model should be selected from the four types. To design and attempt to deliver a service that uses the Professional Service model when a charity doesn’t have the necessary resources will result in the service only meeting the needs of a few. And to provide a service built on a Service Factory or Mass Service model when the needs of those using the service are highly complex will result in the needs of those service users not being fully met by the service.

Multiple service models to make up a service

The complete service doesn’t have of only use one type, in fact a service could be designed with different parts of the service using different models where the complexity of need differs throughout the entirety of the service and where some parts could use technology to a greater degree than others.

Trading off needs and resources

In reality, there is always a trade off. The service user needs might be highly complex, for example a family dealing with a parent with terminal cancer, and requiring a high degree of resourcing, for example many hours of one-to-one care by a specialist nurse, but the charity simply does not have enough nurses to meet the needs of patient and family members. The charity then needs to decide whether to continue to offer the Professional Service model of support, either to fewer people or for fewer hours, or to redesign the service using a different model. Or sometimes, the difficult decision to decide that they are not the right charity to be providing the service.

Shifting service type with changing needs and resources

Designing a service of one type doesn’t necessarily mean that it should continue to use that type. If there is a change in the needs of the service users (becoming more or less complex over time), or a change in the available resources (introduction of better technology, more time and funding, improved skills) then charities should be able to shift the service to a different model.

If a service is delivered using a Service Factory model because that was appropriate at the time of initially building the service, but then the needs of the service-users become more complex then the service could be moved to utilising a Service Shop model to achieve better outcomes. Similarly, if a charity was providing a service using the Professional Services model but then experienced a reduction in funding that meant they no longer had the resources available to deliver the service in that way, then they should be able to redesign the service using a Service Shop model to ensure a service can still be delivered.

Conclusion

Schmenner’s Service Process Matrix, with some adaption, offers an interesting model to conceptualise the types of services designed and delivered by charities. It provides some practical direction in choosing a service type based on the resources the charity has available and the complexity of needs of the service-users, and guidance on responding the changing needs, both within the charity and from the people who benefit from the service.

Perhaps the important realisation here is that increasing the capacity of an existing service is not the only way to respond to changing needs, and reducing the capacity of a existing service is not the only way to respond to a reduction in funding, and/or employee and volunteer availability. Charities can respond to change by shifting service model.

References

Verma, R., & Boyer, K. K. (2000). Service classification and management challenges. Journal of Business Strategies, 17(1), 5-24. Cornell University, School of Hospitality Administration site: http://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/articles/59/

Schmenner, Roger W., How Can Service Businesses Survive and Prosper?, Sloan Management Review, 27:3 (1986:Spring) p.21

Charities need better digital technology for communicating with their service users

The Catalyst article ‘The top ten digital challenges facing the charity sector‘ showed how a number of charities were struggling with identifying and using the right platforms for communicating and providing digital services with their service users (number 2). Charities are facing this struggle because the products on the market are not designed to meet their needs. They need a different kind of digital communication technology, one that is built with privacy and security in mind that allows people from within the organisation to talk to people outside.

Charities delivering their services online need different types digital products and platforms to do so. They might need to implement an email service to send information to people, or social media tools to facilitate a shift in how they advocate for change, or as many charities are doing during times of social distancing, using communication technologies to support their service-users. Often the choice of technology is informed by what they currently have available and the cost, but it’s important to understand the different types products and what impacts the choices might have.

When we talk about digital communication technologies we mean synchronous methods such as video, audio and chat, and not asynchronous like email. There are three well established ‘product spaces’ for communication technologies.

  1. Products managed by an organisation used by its staff within an organisation.
  2. Products managed by organisations to communicate (one way) with people outside the organisation.
  3. Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

We could understand how they compare to each other by placing them in a grid which shows that products can be grouped by the type of users, whether they are consumer users or business users, and by usage, that is whether they are used within an organisation or out in public internet.

Matrix of product types
Communication products matrix

So, for example, digital communication technologies like Whatsapp are designed to be used by consumers on the public internet. Companies often add ‘business’ features to their products in an attempt to increase their market share but the product is usually still fundamentally designed as a consumer product for use on the public internet.

We’re seeing a need for products in a fourth space; that of communication products that allow people within an organisation to communicate with those outside the organisation in secure and private ways, but lets understand the other three a bit better first.

Products managed by a charity and used by its staff for communication within the organisation.

These kinds of products, such as Microsoft Teams, are typically manged by internal IT teams or third party agencies. They are designed from the point of view that security is established by the (digital) walls of the organisation and that it will only be used by people who work for the charity, who will all have managed user accounts.

Why charities might use this type of product

Products like MS Teams are built for collaborative working and are great for communicating between colleagues. They can be suitable for communicating with service-users in some cases, but it’s important to understand that they are built on the assumption that everyone using the product belongs to the same organisation and so should know who each other is. Because of this, these products are not built with the privacy of users in mind, which can cause problems if how they are used to communicate with service-users is not thought through clearly and carefully. MS Teams can allow external users to join video and audio calls without having access to the other features in Teams, which could be used for supporting individual service-users. And it allows guest users to be added, giving them access to more features and might be used to allow volunteers to work collaboratively with employees.

Of course, the other scenario where products like MS Teams would be used to do video calls with service-users is where there is no alternative product. In the real world, where a charity doesn’t have sufficient funds to procure an alternative tool, it is better to do something rather than nothing, and it is better to use a product that has a high degree of security than one that doesn’t.

When not to use this type of product

Products like MS Teams aren’t suitable for working with groups of service-users where privacy and safeguarding are concerns. This is because MS Teams reveals the identity of users by default, so any situation where groups of service-users interact in a digital space provided by the charity, they all become known to each other and, depending on the product settings, can contact each other without anyone from the charity knowing. Revealing personally identifiable information about a service-user to other people is a data breach, and putting vulnerable people in situations where they can be contacted by someone they don’t know could create safeguarding concerns.

Users can be made pseudo-anonymous by creating false accounts but this creates a potential information security risk for the organisation as they are then considered part of organisation (from the system point-of-view) and so could have access to documents that contain sensitive and private information, and further adds to the potential safeguarding concern as even though no individual knows the name of any other individual they can still have un-monitored contact with them.

A charity set on using MS Teams could go a step further by creating a separate instance of Teams for service-users and implementing monitoring tools and processes, but it isn’t a quick or easy solution and requires considerable expertise and investment.

Products managed by a charity to communication one-way with people outside the organisation.

A charity’s website is a good example of this type of product. It offers one way communication from the charity to it’s website visitors. There are still security concerns with websites, but as this type of product isn’t used for digital service delivery via video calls we don’t need to discuss it any further.

Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

This type of digital communication products are available on the public internet and are used by people for social means. Products like Whatsapp and Zoom typically prioiritise adoption and ease-of-use over security and privacy, which might be fine if you’re using it to chat with your mates (still questionable) but raises concerns for charities using the products to work with service-users.

Why charities might use this type of product

Charities might choose to use products like these if the people they work with are already using these apps, and importantly, they have judged that not using them to support people would be more detrimental to those people than the security and privacy risk that the tools present. This balancing of risks of one type against risks of another type is difficult so its important to have sufficient knowledge of both to inform making the decision.

When not to use this type of product

If these products don’t meet the needs of the service-users, then charities should think very carefully about using them because they are convenient for the charity. For people with limited access to the internet (perhaps because they use a pay-as-you-go mobile) video calls will use a lot of their available internet, so perhaps a phone call (which is far more secure) might be more appropriate. For people suffering domestic violence, being able to delete the record of the video call in the app might be really important for their safety. These things aren’t considerations for the companies like Zoom and Whatsapp, but they need to be very carefully considered by charities in choosing not to adopt a particular product.

Products managed by the organisation and used to communicate with those outside the organisation

Aside from dealing with the current needs in the best way possible, charities needing to deliver services using video has revealed a need for a different type of product, one that allows for the boundaries between the organisation and it’s service-users to be more permeable. It needs to consider privacy and security in design, understand different types of users and the ways they might interact, and that they have different needs in account management and privacy. It needs to be accessible, simple, easy to use. It needs to work in a browser, including mobile browsers, not require the users to download an app. It needs to meet so many use cases that the current tools that are available are just not designed to meet.

But until that product is built…

What alternatives are there to a technology that doesn’t exist yet?

Digital isn’t always the best solution. Using the telephone (which is more secure than video and audio calls over the internet), and sending letters/care packages to people can be simple cost-effective ways of staying touch, and talking to service-users.

Whether charities are using internal products (like MS Teams) or consumer products (such as Zoom) to deliver their services, the technology needs careful consideration. Understanding the security and privacy risks, the barriers to use, and how the technology changes the service being received (it’s never the same service, just delivered digitally), are all important considerations. Aside from the system side, people need to be trained in safe and effective use and how to respond if issues arise.

Its easy to see why choosing a digital communication technology is such a challenge for many charities.