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.

Weeknotes #207

Some things I did this week:

Platform thinking for safeguarding 

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

Variety pack

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

Becoming a cyborg

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

And some things I learned:

Simplifying the complex

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

Fewest moving parts

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

Learning about learning

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

6G is coming

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

Some things I thought about:

All the problems

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

Changing charity boards 

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

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

Process models for knowledge management

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some tweets I liked:


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

Streaming apps

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

Who to follow?

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

Those who do not blog

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

Week notes #204

Some things I did this week:

Digital Safeguarding

I’ve been working on digital safeguarding, which like so many digital things, is a little about the technology and a lot about the attitudes, assumptions, behaviours and expectations of people. A big part of the shift in mindset is to understand that people behave differently online than they do in real life due to the online disinhibition effect and moving from ‘assumed safety’ which comes naturally to us when we’re in groups in real-life, to ‘assumed risk’ which helps put us on our guard when in digital spaces. Digital safeguarding needs technology, training, policy and practice as part of the solution but the mindset stuff underpins all of that, and can’t be successful without it. Wider than safeguarding, the digital mindset seems like the big gap in the digital transformation. Living in an online world but using the thinking we learned in the real world causes such a lack of awareness and understanding about how that online world operates.

And then The Catalyst launched DigiSafe, which has some really helpful guidance (and is cool because it’s in Gitbook). I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing it because I think it’s a really good resource for charities but I feel like it falls into the ‘digital is just another channel’ trap and implies that safeguarding on the web can be approached in the same way as safeguarding in real life without taking account of the behaviour change that happens online and the scale and complexity of it. I worry it would be easy for charities to become complacent because they have a policy in place and have had some training.  

Teams support

I’ve been doing some work to support teams and users new to Teams. It’s been really useful to see the challenges people have with using a new product so I hope I get to do more of it, and it was interesting to see where other organisations are in rolling out Teams. I think I’m starting to understand how Teams and all the infrastructure behind it is such a different product to the likes of Word and Excel, and is on a whole other level of complexity.

Defining product experience 

I’ve been working on a way to quickly and iteratively develop and capture the understanding of people from different teams with different skills and perspectives as we define new products. One of the problems I see is that people produce good work which if we could all absorb would help us understand the product better, but that work is scattered across different documents and folders and formats, which means we’re likely to look at it once and not fully absorb it.

Five levels of understanding of product experience

So, this process, and the single shared document that we work in, structures and records our understanding. It uses five layers with progressively finer fidelity of understanding. The first layer helps to paint the big picture about ‘why’ we should be building this new product. The second layer is ‘who’ we are building it for. That breaks down into ‘what’ those users want. The even more detailed level describes ‘how’ we are going to do it. And ‘when’ introduces an element of time and knits all the parts together to create the entire product experience.

We’ve had people from different teams working together in a single shared document, using calls to discuss things quickly, chat to discuss things together, and comments in the document to raise questions that we should answer later. People join in when they are available and drop out when they have other things to do but the work flows on. 

It’s an interesting way of working synchronously and asynchronously, and it provides an undercurrent of shifting the focus away from hierarchical decision-making structures towards collaborative decision-evolving. Where there is uncertainty we have lots of activity as people work through questions, and as certainty emerges the activity reduces to the point where no more changes are being made because everyone feels settled on their understanding and how it is expressed. This is what I mean by decision-evolving, rather than someone working in isolation to create a document that is reviewed and approved by a single decision-maker.

I’m going to blog about it at some point.

Joined YourStack

I’m on the waitlist for YourStack, where people post about what products they use. I’m not quite sure why it exists yet but I’m keen to see if it can be part of my thinking about opening my workflows so I guess I’ll see once the 17,193 people who are ahead of me on the waitlist have been given access.

This week I studied:

Revising previous lectures

No lecture this week, exams in a couple of weeks, and then I’ll have finished the first year of my masters. I’ve really enjoyed learning so much but I’m also looking forward to not having the added pressure of lectures, reading, assignments, etc. for a few months.

I thought about this week:

A platform business model for a charity

I realised where I’ve been going wrong in my thinking about platform business models for charities for the past couple of years. I’ve been trying to see it at the level of how products and services, or various functions like fundraising and volunteering, interact, but that is too close to the reality of an operating model in order to really understand how a platform business model would change how all those things work. The platform business model needed a deeper layer of abstraction.

The model describes how data, information and knowledge flow through an organisation so that value is added by turning data into information and information into knowledge, and how if any part of the system experiences an increase it drives an increase in the entire system. It utilises internet-era thinking including the law of increasing returns, network effects, and positive feedback loops. The opposite model of a pipeline drives value in one direction which makes it really difficult for a change in a later part of the pipeline to affect anything earlier (in fact there is maths to prove it).

Platform business model for charities

I started a blog post about it but I couldn’t figure how to structure the post in a way that would make sense. But I do intend to finish it some time soon and explain what I’m talking about in much more detail.

My workflow

I tried to hold daily standups with myself in order to be clear with myself what I’m focusing on but it didn’t go very well. I only remembered to do it once and even then I didn’t do the things I told myself I was going to.

I haven’t used my workflow Trello board very much this week because I haven’t had time to do very much of this kind of work.

My workflow trello board for 16th June 2020

I’m keen to keep trying to improve how I do this kind of work to achieve the right balance between inputs (reading books, listening to podcasts, etc.), processing (thinking and making notes about the inputs to improve my learning and understanding), and outputs (writing blog posts, improving my digital practice. And eventually to think more about a model for platform-ising my workflow.

Cybersecurity charity 

When bad stuff happens in the real world, things like bereavement, debt or mental health crisis there are charities to turn to for help. What about when bad stuff happens online? Stuff like identity theft, online reputation damage, fraud and financial theft, and inaccurate personal data affecting life opportunities like getting a mortgage. I wonder when we’ll see a digital–first charity that supports people affected by things that happen online?

How employers see digital skills

Perhaps now as never before it’s actually conceivable that a child could go through their entire education digitally; that is, never having sat in a classroom with other children, never having attended a lecture in person, and never having had any work experience outside of their home. But they could have still learned lots of very useful skills. I wonder how potential employers would look upon this person. Would they consider them as employable as someone who did go to school, go to university, and get experience in an actual workplace? 

Think global, act individually

I wondered what, as an individual, I could do to contribute to the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals? With things like ‘No poverty’ and ‘Clean water and sanitation’ the goals seem like such big things, which of course they need to be, but what if individuals could contribute to them? The GoodLifeGoals website and Pack of Actions include some suggestions around educating ourselves about the cause of poverty and buying from ethical companies, for example, which is a really useful start. I want to spend some time figuring out how I might align my life and the choices I make with the goals and perhaps how they can provide some kind of ‘framework’ (for want of a better word) for what a good life looks like in practice.

Some people tweeted:

The Good Service Scale

A few people tweeted about Lou Downe’s Good Service Scale, which looks like a really interesting way to assess services. I wonder if there is a way to rephrase and reframe the questions to be able to ask the service users what they think and compare to what the people from within the organisation 

Impactful books

Brianne Kimmel asked “What has been the most impactful book, blog post or podcast episode for your personal growth?” and received hundreds of answers, which one day I’ll add to my reading list.

Change is an air war and a ground war

Jason Yip tweeted about his preferred models and strategies for facilitating large-scale change. It contains a lot to think about.