Week Notes #208

This week I did;

The internet is open 24/7

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

Charity Service Model Canvas

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

The role of charities in the Democratic Society system

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

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

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

Digital Trustees

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

Got style

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

Some stuff I thought about this week:

Power in the civic domain

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

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

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

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

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

Products and services

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

And some people tweeted this week:

Creating social change

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


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

Charity sector facing financial catastrophe

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

Strategy for change

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

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.