A broad strategy for digital transformation of the charity sector using six questions

Where are we now and why can’t we stay here?

Behind the curve

The charity sector’s use of digital is far behind the curve of society.

The blue line represents the diffusion of innovation (Everett, 1962) across society. To the far left are the early adopters of new technologies, with the majority of people in the middle, and the laggards to the right where the blue line meets the black zero line. This includes the adoption of all kinds of innovation, but mostly those we refer to as ‘digital’, from using Uber to watching Netflix to buying the latest iPhone. All of these innovations go through this adoption curve.

The green line represents the charity sector’s adoption of ‘digital’. It follows the same curve as the blue line and shows how some charities are early adopters and some are laggards. If we wanted an example we could look at charity sector websites using responsive design. When responsive design first became a possibility businesses with customers that were beginning to adopt multi- device behaviors would have been the first to redesign their websites so that it could be viewed on any device. Some time later the first few charity sector organisations would have redesigned their websites to be responsive, then more until the majority were responsive, and to today where the laggards are still yet to make their websites responsive to different devices.

The orange area represents the people in society that are adopting the innovation at the same time the charity sector is using it. The further behind the curve of society that the charity sector is, the fewer people there are to engage with. 

The white area within the green line represents the total lost opportunity from the charity sector using that innovation. 

A risk-averse approach of waiting for a dominant design to emerge (Utterback and Abernathy, 1975) and be adopted by the majority before using the innovation reduces the overall number of people that can be engaged with.

Given the increasing pace (McGrath, 2019) at which new innovations are introduced it’s likely that the charity sector will fall further behind over time.

Where do we want to get to and why is it the right place to go?

Keeping pace with change

The charity sector needs to get to the position where it can keep pace with the rate of innovation adoption in society.

The orange area shows the increased number of people (compared to the diagram above) available for the charity sector to engage with through newly adopted innovations if the charity sector is closer to the adoption curve of society.

The adoption curve shows that not every organisation in the charity sector has to adopt new innovations at the same time. Individual organisations can make reasoned decisions about if and when to adopt a particular digital technology or practice as long as the sector as a whole has some early adopters exploring the new innovations shortly after wider society begins to.

If we accept the assumption that the charity sector serves the needs of society through connecting people, essentially acting as a resource distribution mechanism, then the more people that can be engaged to provide resources (money, time, skills, etc.) and the more people that can be engaged to utilise those resources to improve their lives, the better our society becomes. Keeping pace with change in society enables the charity sector to better serve society.

How are we going to get there and why is this the right way to do it?

From investing in capital to investing in knowledge

Capital investment and return involves large upfront investment with diminishing returns over time. Knowledge investment requires ongoing investment with increasing returns over time.

The red line shows investment and return in capital resources such as buildings and purchased technologies which require considerable upfront spend with diminishing returns over time. The pink line shows the investment and returns for investment in knowledge, including regular formal training and informal upskilling which require more constant (and probably increasing) investment with increasing returns as the knowledge is applied. For illustrative purposes, both the investment and return are shown as single lines.

As has been demonstrated (Goldin and Katz, 1998) technology adoption (in an organisation and a sector) usually results in the distribution of ‘number of people’ and ‘level of digital skill’ shifting from more people with lower skill levels to fewer people with higher levels of skills.

Knowledge can only be held within people, hence an investment in knowledge is an investment in people. Some tacit knowledge can be codified as transmissible information to pass onto others. People with more knowledge about digital innovation are better able to respond to changes and ensure the sector keeps pace with society.

From being tied to technology to using loosely coupled products

Being constrained to enterprise technologies offered by well-established companies because of the presumed reliability they provide will shift as confidence in the security, reliability, usability, speed of deployment and interconnectivity of new consumer-focused products grows.

Charity sector organisations have often struggled to make technology choices that allow them to use new innovations in microservices architecture, jamstack principles and no-code products. As an example, the dream of having one large CRM to enable better data-driven fundraising only works if data quality is a reality. The shift away from ‘one big system’ could allow fundraising teams to adopt their own lightweight CRM products knowing that when a better product is launched next year there will be an API that can pass data between them and enable the fundraising team to quickly adopt a new product. As a new breed of products begins to appear that are designed to allow organisations to cross the boundaries into the digital spaces of people outside the organisation, charity sector organisations will expand their thinking about how they use technology products.

Charity sector organisations will become more comfortable with the low commitment ‘sign-up quickly and throwaway when a replacement comes along’ approach to using technology products just as consumers across society are.

From delivering projects, products and services to developing business models

From optimised-for-production pipelines of projects, products and services charity sector organisations will move to developing optimised-for-consumption platform business models that facilitate self-reinforcing value exchanges.

These platform business models will be part of open innovation ecosystems that share resources and make the boundaries of organisations more permeable in the pursuit of keeping pace with the innovation adoption in society.


Everett, M. R. (1962) Diffusion of Innovation. The Free Press. A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 866 Third Avenue, New York.

Goldin, C. & Katz, L. (1995) The Decline of Non-Competing Groups: Changes in the Premium to Education, 1890 to 1940. NBER, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Utterback J. M. & Abernathy W. J. (1975) A dynamic Model of Process and Product Innovation. The Journal of Management Science.

McGrath, R. G. (2013 UPDATED 2019) The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up. Harvard Business Review.

Week notes #210

This week I did:

Principles for organising 

We were doing some product demos with some volunteers and I picked up on some confusion around how content is accessed in a number of scenarios. I realised that we hadn’t yet defined the principles around how we organise content and so it wasn’t surprising that we couldn’t explain it clearly. 

I spent some time writing about my thoughts on what principles we should use figured out how to split all the variations into six boxes divided by two situations in which content would be accessed and three ways in which it would be used. This gives us clear direction for decision-making.

I gave the solution an amusing nickname. And later when talking about it realised how it makes it easy to get adoption. Having a shorthand phrase for a long explanation means that once everyone understands the explanation the nickname is all we need in order to talk about it. 

Although in total it was probably about half a days work I feel like it demonstrates some of the good practice around getting our thinking straight, having clear guiding principles, and finding ways of communicating better. 

The language we use

I read some of our user research feedback and one of the key points was about making sure the language we use is right for the young people we work with. I think Lou Downes Good Services book is really good for helping thinking about this too. The language we use with young people starts with the language we use with ourselves and our colleagues, and I’m keen to do things like make headings in documents say ‘What problem are we solving?’ rather than ‘Problem statement’.

Why charities exist 

I wrote a bit about the identity crisis of the charity sector when it focuses on the narrative that charities exist to fill the gaps caused by government policy and that instead they should focus on what charities can uniquely do for society, which I think is to bring people together around a cause

Charities in an AI world 

I’ve been working on my essay about the weaponsiation of digital, and blogging some of my ideas along the way, including a quick one about what a future with AI might mean for charities. I also mentioned my idea about solutions in increasing orders of magnitude, so we should be implementing solutions on a 1 – 2 year time scale, investigating solutions for in 10 – 20 years, and imagining solutions for in 100 – 200 years time. 

More accessible today than yesterday

I watched a webinar with Jonathan Holden and Webflow about accessibility. It was really interesting and I learned a lot more about accessibility as a vision and aspiration that just a technical checklist. One of the interesting ideas was that all concepts for websites start out being accessible and the barriers that make site become less accessible are built with every decision that doesn’t consider all of the user’s needs. I did a lighthouse audit on my site, fixed a couple of things and reached 100 on the accessibility score

Thought about:

Where strategy goes wrong

If (and there are lots of other definitions) we say that strategy is ‘where we are now’, ‘where we want to get to’, and ‘how we’re going to get there’, then that creates a conundrum for those setting the strategy. In order to have the impetus to move towards the desired state of being they have to be able to express what isn’t working about the current state, otherwise why would there need to be any movement away from it. But expressing to people that what they do and how they do it is no longer desirable is a difficult thing to say and to hear. I think most strategies and leaders shy away from that. But without it there isn’t motivation to change, why would you if the message you’re getting is that you can carry on doing what you’ve been doing. That’s where strategy goes wrong.

The intersection of introversion and confidence 

Someone I was speaking to described themselves as a ‘confident introvert’, to mean that they feel comfortable talking to people, being assertive, etc. (the kinds of behaviours you might expect of an extrovert), but they need lots of time on their own to recharge afterwards. I guess I could refer to myself in a similar way. I don’t have any anxiety about talking to large groups (perhaps because the introvert in me doesn’t care what they think) but I prefer to spend more time alone than with people. Someone else I spoke to described me as ‘calm’, and I guess that comes from self-confidence in knowing how to deal with all kinds of difficult situations, and perhaps from spending lots of time on my being calm. Anyway, perhaps our use of extrovert/introvert as shorthand for lots of human behaviors, feelings, etc., isn’t always helpful. As is often the way with so much dualistic thinking.

Everybody stalls

I was watching two brothers in a little black car. One teaching the other to drive. They were practicing reversing, getting the biting point, checking the mirrors, feeding the steering wheel through his hands, all going fine… until he stalled. Everybody stalls. I’ve been driving longer than that learner driver has been alive and I still stall. A moment of inattention, too many other things to focus on, and the important part that keeps you moving is the thing that stops you.

For this young learner driver that stop started him crying. Through tears and sobs out came all the times his dad had shouted at him for getting things wrong, telling him he was stupid, a failure. Slowly those feelings were put away again. Not dealt with, not stopped, just put away. He started the car and pulled away with perfect clutch control. 

Every stop is a start. And everybody stalls.

Change your mind

I hear lots of talk about change. I listen out for it because I’m interested in it, but I never hear anything about changing the thinking. I often come back to Pirsig’s point about if you tear down a factory but the rationality that built the factory remains it will just build another factory. I see this as the challenge with digital transformation (or whatever we call it) and changes in response to the pandemic. If organisations do new things with old thinking, the old things will appear again. If you want to change, change your mind. 

And read some tweets:

Words don’t matter, except when they do 

Sarah Drinkwater tweeted, “Are you interested or building tech that’s inclusive, accessible, fair, innovative, not extractive….? If so, what do you call it? Kind of obsessed with how language blocks us; ethics or responsibility don’t resonate with all, and they’re processes we use versus destination”

The replies are really interesting. Lots of clever thoughtful people grappling with the same questions. I think there are two questions here; one about the tech and one about how we name things and communicate about them from a shared understanding. 

For the tech and responsibility question, the aim I would hope is to just be able to call it ‘tech’ because all tech is responsible, ethical, sustainable, etc. Responsible people build responsible tech. So its a people problem (aren’t they all) and the challenge is how we move people from where we are now (a long way away from responsible people building tech) to where tech is responsible by default because that’s how people build it, which takes lots of discussion and is why we need to name things.

I wonder if by naming something we think that we give us shared understanding, but then, as Sarah says, the words get in the way, and we slowly realise that we don’t have a shared understanding so we go looking for more words to have more discussions. The perhaps- useful thing is that we don’t have to have an agreed understanding. Responsible tech can mean what it means to you and you can explore that and build from it. And responsible tech can mean something else to somebody else, and they can explore and build from their understanding. Sometimes we think we need to reach agreement when really what we need is diverse exploration.

Words are the boat that carries us to the other side of the river of understanding, and once there can be left behind as we continue our journey. Intent matters. And action definitely matters. But words don’t matter.

Co-creating the Future

Panthea Lee tweeted, “I’ve architected, negotiated, led a lot of co-creation work. True co-creation. With stakeholders from diverse backgrounds (regionally, economically, politically, culturally) + some that hate each other” and goes on to share some of what she’s learned.

It’s fascinating. I’ve said before how with everything, the more you look the more you see. Everything has deeper and deeper layers and it’s easy to assume that when we say ‘co-creation’ we mean the surface layer stuff of getting people together who wouldn’t normally be together to work on something. Panthea is really clear that that isn’t true co-creation. True co-creation challenges power imbalances, reckons with historical injustices, leans into tension and confronts controversy, and invests resources in standing up what comes out of the process.

I read this and it blows a little bit of my mind. There are so many deeper layers to go into, with co-creation and with so many other things.

Alternative Education 

Ana Lorena Fabrega tweeted about curating a list of alternative education resources around the subject of ‘micro schooling’. It’s the first time I’ve heard the term but |I’m really interested in it. Micro schools typically have fewer students in a class, often of mixed age and ability, and make use of a wider range of educational activities. 

Given the pandemic and the situation of it being potentially dangerous to put large numbers of students all together in the same place at the same time, and being economically unviable to keep all those students at home where they need parents to also be at home, perhaps some models of micro schooling an offer some solutions. It certainly seems to be where adult education is heading but educating young people in this way will have very different challenges.

Personal site stack

Indie Hackers tweeted, “What’s your tech stack for your personal website?”

There are lots of really interesting approaches and wondered what you’d learn if you mapped the approaches against what each person was trying to achieve. For some it’s an intellectual exercise in making different pieces of tech work together, for others it’s about simplicity of use, and for some its about reducing cost (although probably as another intellectual exercise rather than because of the money).

One of the sites mentioned was built using Notion and Fruition. I’m really interested in this approach to building websites, especially for wiki/knowledgebase/note-taking sites. It’s probably the opposite from the completely hand-coded approach and might be really poor for accessibility, SEO, performance and best practices, and those things are worth considering, but as an easy for a group of people to work together in the open it’s pretty hard to beat.

Artificial intelligence in the charities of the future

AI is coming. 

The experts estimate a true artificial intelligence will be created between 2040 and 2075.

We’re not talking about machine learning algorithms that can write short stories that are indistinguishable from those written by humans. We’re talking about actual artificial intelligence that will be able to reason and make decisions of its own volition without being asked to.

The military will probably get it first.They always have the coolest toys first and have the fattest wallet. They’ll be quickly followed by large corporations and very quickly followed by every other type of organisation. That’s how technology adoption and diffusion goes, and AI will be the mother of all general purpose technologies, which will ensure its adoption is fast and total. If you think electricity (the last big general purpose technology to be invented) changed the world, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And in amongst all those other organisations racing to leverage the benefits AI will bring their businesses will also be charities.

The first charities to use artificial intelligence will probably start with AI-HR and AI-Finance because those will be mass-market systems that every organisation needs and so the market will be flooded with functional AI tools that can support departments to meet the business needs.

Then marketing and content production will be taken over by AI systems that can quickly create a huge number of variations of promotional materials and learn very quickly which work for achieving the AI’s aims.

Fundraising, support services, service delivery, strategy all will be affected by AI technologies and over time replace human teams that have no chance of competing.

There’ll be the first ‘AI-first’ charities, just as we have charities talking about being ‘digital-first’ now. 

Of course those people in the charities that are making the decisions to adopt AI technologies wont be experts in AI, anymore than the people who adopt today’s IT systems know how they work. These will be people with experience in dealing with human motivations and technology that doesn’t answer back. How will they motivate artificial intelligence to make good decisions?

Until it’s the AI making the decisions about what it will do. And we have the first ‘AI-only’ charities. With the click of a button the AI will set-up an ‘AI-Org’ (and yes, there will be a legal organisational type for AI companies by then), decide what cause it wants to contribute towards to help the puny humans, develop a business model, decide it doesn’t need to hire any humans to do its work, and set about making the world a better place.

AI will be everywhere. It will be in everything.

I’m sure the few people that read this will be thinking, “I’ve got more immediate things to worry about than some possible future that won’t happen until after I’m dead.”, and that’s a completely reasonable thought. I think about solutions in increasing orders of magnitude, so we should be implementing solutions on a 1 – 2 year time scale, investigating solutions for in 10 – 20 years, and imagining solutions for in 100 – 200 years time. 

AI, and its effect on the charity sector is in the ‘imagining solutions’ time frame. Charities definitely have enough problems to be working on over the next 1 – 2 years (pandemics, economic collapse, institutional racism, etc.), and even enough problems to be investigating for the 10 – 20 year time frame (the ongoing digitalisation of society, climate change, etc.) but just as our charities of today have been shaped by the decisions of those from the 18th, 19th and 20th century, we shouldn’t under-estimate how our decisions today will affect how the charities of the future respond to artificial intelligence.

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

On The Mind Of: Stephen Hale, Chief Executive at Refugee Action


Crisis has brought us together to work together but it is an incredible test of every organisation. Find out if you have the cohesion to pivot, adapt and survive.

Opportunity and privilege comes with moral responsibility.

Put a commitment to shift power to refugees and people seeking asylum at the centre of the strategy. Its a journey to go on rather than a state to be reached. We need to centre those people, voices and perspectives because its morally right, will make a better organisation, and is important for the cause.

Debate in the charity sector about lack of diversity, equality and inclusion and how privilege has excluded people from having the opportunities.

White men are in the way, and need to own that and recognise the structural racism that exists across the sector, and more space, confidence and power to people to say things that they want to say that they haven’t been given explicit permission to say.

Recogniding that silence can be complicit. Make way for other voices that have more lived experience. Not dominating platforms that are available for other voices, spending more time listening and learning, but also wanting to contribute.

If you rush to use your voice you risk skipping the listening and reflection but it might not be amplifying voices.

Shifting power to experts by experience. The shifting of power often requires people in senior positions to give away power in order for others to take it forward.

The shifting of power should have three dimensions, 1) the make up of people on the board, 2) increasing the number of refugees employed within the organisation, 3) who makes decisions.

We have a profound moral obligation to think about our cause before we think about our organisation. That is what the people who support our organisation expect. If we are not connecting we are letting down the people who have enough confidence in the organisation.

The role of leaders to figure where their organisation fits in contributing to the cause.

Charities have an obligation to collaborate to achieve more together.

Challenge the idea that there is a conflict between the short term interests of the organisation and whether you are collaborative or not.

Influencing the state to make people’s lives better, but we should not over estimate what the state can do.

Big and complex network of charities around any given issue, their coherence and collective strategy and influence can have a huge impact on the system. What we can do within our sphere of influence?