Digital Fund Weeknotes 12 (28th — 1st Feb)

Firstly, we’ve changed our name (if you haven’t heard) and are now the The National Lottery Community Fund. I like that this says more about what we do on the tin — if you think of “community” as meaning the social fabric of the UK and that being what we are invested in (and investing in).

I’m asking this again this week, to try and get more respondents — if you were someone that did apply to the Digital Fund, please can you take part in this mini feedback survey? It’s only 4 questions and will help us think about how to improve what we do next time.

Lastly, next week we will announce a set of half-day events in Belfast, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and London for early Spring, that all 1200 applicants to the Digital Fund will be invited to attend. This will be a space where we will answer questions, talk more about what “good” looks like, sign post to support and other funds, as well as a programme of mini practical workshops.

What we are doing

It’s been a tough week this week as we’ve been 2.5 people down, but the work load hasn’t eased. I’ve really appreciated the wider UK Portfolio team stepping in and offering support ( thank you Yvonne and Derek!). We’ve been continuing with doing calls (we got through about another 60 this week), writing up call logs, holding Sift sessions (every other day as we have so many to do) and continuing with uploading and tagging data in to Hub Spot.

We’ve also started the process of taking people through to full applications — with 19 organisations so far. Next week I’ll write more about this, but I love how this process has been designed as iterative and conversational between us and the applicants. It’s our team who have to write a short supporting statement to take to the UK panel and committee, rather than the applicant having to fill out an application form. So this stage is really about us gathering all the information and evidence we need from them to make their case.

Alongside this, Billy and Livia have been reaching out to some of the applicants where we see opportunity to design a more collective response. These are either the same type of organisation (like hospices), the same “brand” e.g federated organisations, or organisations in close geographic proximity — where there is a clear set of common needs. We want to explore how a collective response could not only use money more wisely but also build relationships across organisations or within place.

I also got to visit the Scotland office for the first time, and meet with some of the team there to talk about how we work with them on applications we haven’t taken forward in the Digital Fund, as well as how we help spread the understanding of what good digital practice looks like across their funding programmes. Thank you for having me Allison and Evelyn.

Lastly, I had a call with a long-time Twitter connection, Jayne Engel, who works at the McConnell Foundation in Canada. We barely got started — there was so much to talk about and lots for me to learn (she’s worked in the philanthropic world a long time and is very accomplished and wise!) and I’m looking forward to some more regular calls. In the meantime, I’d suggest looking at some of the work they are doing as a Foundation and I especially love this blog on Ecosystem Strengthening.

What we are learning

My learning this week has a more external focus – a reminder of why language and coherence is important. It’s been a big week for “digital” in terms of the announcement from DCMS at Doteveryone’s Responsible Tech Summit on Thursday. Jeremy Wright gave his first ministerial speech there, announcing a stream of new ‘tech for good’ initiatives. It was brilliant to see Doteveryone’s work being given that kind of platform, and the TechTransformed responsible tech practices they launched at the event will be useful and are much needed. Rachel’s blog explains more about them.

It also feels necessary to try and make sure that another term doesn’t bring more fragmentation and confusion to the landscape. As someone who’s just read 1200 applications from the social sector I can tell you there is already plenty of misunderstanding about terminology and applications of these various things — social tech, responsible tech, tech for good, digital social innovation, digital transformation, gov tech, public interest tech, civic tech — the list could go on….and on….and on.

Martha herself, did a good call out for ‘tech for good’ which has always been about addressing the big problems of the day with tech (and what Strand 2 of the Digital Fund is about) —

“Why we invest in tech for good — At the heart of what we do is the belief that technology has the potential to transform the way we approach solving the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.” —

A quote from Bethnal Green Ventures, who pioneered “tech for good” and it was good to see Good Gym in the Secretary of State’s speech on Thursday, who were given their first funding by Social Innovation Camp (the first iteration of BGV) back in 2009!

But ‘tech for good’ is not what Doteveryone means by ‘responsible tech’ which some of the attendees recognised at the conference.

Doteveryone are much more interested in the everyday of tech and the “straightforward profit-making businesses” that provide these services — the digital infrastructure in our cities and the everyday digital products and services we use to organise our time, connect with friends and plan our daily commute with. They want it to become normal for any tech to be responsible in how it is designed, developed and deployed (and considered in what that deployment means over time too).

Tech for good has always been about technology with a clear social intent and purpose — designing ways for technologies to be part of improving healthcare, or access to employment, encouraging more democratic participation, supporting people during migration and long-term integration, and addressing challenges around food, environment and climate change.

“Digital social innovation brings together people and digital technologies to tackle social and environmental challenges.”

There are more examples in the D-Cent programme and Digital Social Innovation, initiated by Francesca Bria when she was at Nesta, and who appeared to be a star of the event on Thursday. Alongside projects that were funded by what was Nominet Trust (now Social Tech Trust) and the many initiatives showcased here in their Social Tech guide — which included another lightning talk organisation from Thursday’s event, Big White Wall, funded by Nominet Trust back in 2014.

In addition to ‘tech for good’ (and the many other definitions used for this) and ‘responsible tech’ (and other definitions used for this like ‘trusted tech’ or ‘ethical tech’) there is another category, which is what Strand 1 of the Digital Fund is all about —and which neither of these terms quite encompass — the role of digital in strengthening the social sector to be fit for purpose in a digital society. This should be done responsibly of course, but it’s the every day work of making sure organisations serving or connecting our communities can survive, thrive and meet the changing expectations and collective needs of people and communities.

The need for coherence and consistency

I write all this because I believe in a quote by the father of complexity science, Ilya Prigogine, who said that “in an unstable complex system, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.” To act responsibly, and in society’s interests, we all need to do better at finding the coherence between things, rather than simply furthering our own agenda.

We need more than just ‘responsible tech’ because we face so many social challenges, that need more intent from tech — we need to put tech to work on them (like ‘tech for good’ is trying to do)…and yet ‘tech for good’ isn’t enough either, we need tech to also be responsible.

We need a Martha-like figure (inside and outside government) championing tech for good beyond initiatives like Zinc, Bethnal Green Ventures and Social Tech Trust ( as great as they are), because they are all set up to support ‘tech for good’ ventures and we shouldn’t assume that everything can be solved by or left to the market, or that everyone is a consumer. Whilst I believe that business can choose to play a part in building a stronger society (and think we are at an interesting crossroads for this) we also need people to champion tech that is in the public interest — beyond the market.

This shouldn’t be left to any one organisation, and no one organisation should be the only “go to” for any of these things. A resilient ecosystem has plural options of people to seek advice, information and services from.

And whilst we make tech better, and use it better (beyond private gain and for public interest) the social sector in particular needs to understand tech better — how to use it and also how to anticipate and design for the ways it is fundamentally changing our society — as I wrote here in our Civil Society Tech Future.

And we should be clear and honest about the limitations of tech too. As my friend Rashida Richardson said “Why do we think technology is the best solution? Tech can’t always solve the problems, sometimes they are societal or government problems.”

Isn’t it after all, all about values? I wrote about that here. Rachel also talks about that in her blog. Ultimately we should all care about the applications as well as the implications of technology on our lives.

Deputy Director at National Lottery Community Fund, Co-founder of the Point People, Policy Fellow IIPP, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.