I spend a lot of time working with and experimenting with technology and then in turn, trying to encourage, enable and equip other people – essentially in small non-profit organisations – to make better use of that technology. But sometimes you can get too close to an issue and unable to see whether you are using the right approaches or should be using a different tack.
So meeting up with others today in Birmingham for a VCSSCamp ‘unconference’ has been (again) a rewarding use of my time. The discussions allow for sharing, for learning, for peer encouragement and more.
This year I don’t feel astounded by new approaches, but there was value in all our discussions and there were a good number of points for me to take away.
There’s always a range of digital tools to hear about – today’s top tool looks like Canva as a free, graphics publishing tool. Definitely one I’ll be using and encouraging our team to play with.
There was lots of talk around Social Media (unsurprisingly), both on how to ‘listen’ and filter better on receiving social chatter, but also on creating new strategies. This is timely for me, as we are working hard at the moment on using Asana to create an effective Editorial campaign coordination tool and experimenting with Hootsuite and scheduling posts more. I’ll also look for ways to ‘follow’ our own Members social news better in the near future.
One session that fell flat was around Apps and App development in the sector. The consensus seemed to be that (with an exception of the well funded national and international charities), app development is really not happening, expensive, time-consuming, over technical and essentially not a good ‘return on investment’ technology. This ties with my experience – it’s more than hard enough to get smaller non-profits to get their websites right without trying to get an app off the ground. But at least having the discussion at VCSSCamp allows me the freedom to ‘park’ the App idea for the foreseeable future.
An interesting discussion was to be had around data, open data and linked data. It got technical and high-brow, but in essence data, when shared and combined, has a real power to transform understanding and potentially delivery in our sector. We had the sense though that we are at the point now where we were perhaps 10 years ago when proposing a move to websites for the sector. Perhaps in 10 years time at VCSSCamp 16+ we’ll be talking about the successes of open data, but for now we’re at the start of this journey.
Hats off to open data pioneers, to DataCamps, to funders such as Big Lottery via the 360giving initiative who are opening up funding data and to others. But our discussions highlighted lots of pitfalls at the moment. Technical skills, funding and resources, competition for results within the sector, ownership of data and more were discussed. Getting funders to ‘push’ a need for open data sets to be a requirement from grant funded projects down to groups was one proposal that seemed to have merit. But overall, asking non-profits to do something so hard at the moment was perhaps a step too far for now. We need to work out what motivations we can find for non-profits to make these steps in the future.
I still see lots of potential in this – using real data to find gaps in local support and provision, perhaps avoiding duplication and finding new needs. But this is the just the start of this technical transformation.
And a final area I personally spent discussion time on today was the area of governance, trustees and technology. Trustee boards seldom get technical, nor really drive or lead on things IT. So what to do?
We agreed on the proposal that every board should have someone (a Technology Trustee?) who ensures that technology is on the agenda and is led from the board. We also agreed that this is rare, unlikely and difficult! The terminology was raised as an issue – IT, ICT, technology, digital. What to call it these days.
Sharing strong messages with boards about the benefits of technology is key. Perhaps using success stories from others when these can be found. Making all trustees use email as a starting point was also strongly pointed out – to the extent that trustees that don’t use technology are doing a disservice to their charity!
We discussed that there is too much short term thinking rather than long term visioning and planning. That there is also too much emphasis on the visible, front line work rather than back office stuff – which puts technology in a bad position.
A final approach to this aligned closely to work we are now doing. Bringing younger people (under 25) onto boards. This generation are digitally native and will bring a new and different perspective into the charities and non-profits. So our Big Lottery funded Young Leaders project in Grimsby is going to be a great experiment in trying to do two things at once – increase opportunities for younger people to get onto charity boards, whilst increasing the technology understanding on boards with which they are involved. I’m looking forward to seeing how this experiment unfolds.
There were even more discussions at VCCSCamp 6 which I was not party to, but everything learned today will allow me to think afresh about how VANEL and I support our local non-profit sector. Thanks to the organisers for making today happen.