Collaboration between the tech and third sectors can generate transformative impact

By Kirsty McIntosh, Head of Partnerships, Scottish Tech Army

At first glance, it might be hard to think of something that the tech sector and civil society have in common. Let’s face it, ‘big tech’ has become a synonym for something bad. However, we do have something in common. A quick trawl around charity websites on the internet will tell you that big ambitions are at the heart of what they do. Vision statements speak of “eliminating poverty”, “creating a world without discrimination”, “no-one left behind” – charity aims are all about being as impactful as possible. Technology works best when it works at scale. A desire to find solutions to big problems is what we have in common.

Just like money, in and of itself technology doesn’t solve anything. But what you do with it, and how you extract the most out of every penny or kilobyte can be transformational. Whether it’s giving staff the right hardware just to get on with the day job, using chatbots on a website to free people to deal with more complex issues, or using data analysis to articulate and visualise the impact of the work being undertaken, technology has so much to offer civil society.

At our annual Tech for Good Summit last year, collaboration emerged as a key theme in conversations with both tech and third sector contributors. Celia Tennant, CEO of Inspiring Scotland, said “cross-sector collaboration is really, really important… all sectors working together to address the biggest challenges of our times. We can’t afford to have any standoffs; we’ve got to all be weighing in to help people who need help the most”.

The scalability of sector-specific solutions can provide an underpinning baseline of knowledge and skill, transferable between organisations. Scalable, reusable solutions are so much more powerful than siloed legacy technology – tools that have been built once, for the benefit of one organisation only, are inefficient, unsustainable, inherently a cyber security risk and expensive. Sustainable digital tools, built with and for the third sector can be maintained, refreshed, enhanced and supported in way that makes them affordable for all.

It’s easy to look at charities and third sector organisations and say they must improve their productivity – technology can certainly help with that but the underlying infrastructure around the sector would benefit from some digital thinking too.

When it comes to applying for funding, bidding for government work or reporting on delivery, all these require information that is already in the public domain, but applicants are forced to reproduce this information every time. There is so much potential for improving the efficiency of the infrastructure that exists – and that alone could free up so much time, resource and mental capacity within organisations.

The tech sector and its skilled workforce has much to offer here. Our Tech for Good Alliance initiative is not just about providing volunteering opportunities for companies – it’s an opportunity for organisations to bring their best thinking, strategy and tools to the third sector, delivered through their skilled volunteering programmes. There are common problems that most civil society organisations face that would benefit from some element of scalable digital solution. And it’s worth noting that skilled volunteering is good for business too, as it helps companies attract and retain talent, as well as to demonstrate social value to their stakeholders.

Charity leaders need guidance, support and confidence from boards to ‘go digital’. As a trustee, I have seen this for myself. We must find a way to bring more digital expertise into charity boardrooms as a matter of urgency – a recruitment campaign in the tech sector and a challenge to charities – because why wait to replace a trustee who is standing down? Why not add, rather than replace? Every strategic decision being taken must be looked at through a digital lens or risk missing out on the tremendous potential that technology offers, and that means getting those leaders in place at the top.

As we face challenges that are coming in waves, we have to find a way for civil society organisations to derive the greatest possible value from the resources they have. The seed has been sown, and more organisations do think more digitally. Those leaders who looked to technology to keep their doors open, if only virtually, during the pandemic, are now asking ‘what more can we do with what we have?’ and that is absolutely the right question to be asking. We must find ways to make the pain of such a tough transition worth it in the long term. Implementing the recommendations made in the Law Family Commission on Civil Society’s report will go some considerable way to making that possible.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’