What we’re learning about how the sector understands “digital”

Cassie Robinson.
9 min readApr 30, 2019


When we launched the Digital Fund in late 2018 we didn’t anticipate 1,200 applications in four weeks, but we knew we’d find out more about demand, needs and experiences. What I was most struck by was how differently people interpreted the word “digital” and it made me consider how many things we — society, funders and the sector — have unhelpfully conflated into that one word.

My hope is that by being more specific about the different things we can mean when we talk about digital, we can help the sector have greater clarity about what it needs and where to start.

Using the analogy of a cafe I’ve broken down the many different ways people had referred to digital in their applications. It’s important to say that none of these things are right or wrong, it’s more to make the point that they are different and to show why many organisations didn’t meet our specific criteria for the Digital Fund.

I also played with the famous Cedric Price quote, that goes “ if technology is the answer, what was the question”…replacing “technology” with “digital.”

If “Digital” is the answer, then…?

Imagine we are cafe owners, a small place on the edge of a small town, selling popular home-roasted coffee and simple sandwiches and cakes.

Digitising processes

In the cafe we are still using notepads to take orders on and a lot of our stock-taking is still done by us counting and recording with pen and paper.

The question is how can we become more efficient and effective as an organisation?

The answerbecome a paperless organisation, digitising all of our paper processes.

I’d call this digitising processes — from paper-based to making use of tech and digital to operate more efficiently and effectively.

A lot of our Strand 1 applications were people wanting funding to digitise the way they were operating. It was ‘business as usual’ but just done in a more digital way.

Basic Digital Infrastructure

In the cafe we do have digital tills. However, we’ve had them for nearly 15 years and they’ve never been upgraded, or very well maintained. They are slow, with lots of glitches. They also don’t link up with our back end office processes and our stock-taking.

The question is how can we become more efficient and effective as an organisation?

The answerupgrade all the old systems being used like CRM’s, HR systems, payments systems etc.

I’d call this basic digital infrastructure — making sure all of the digital systems being used are up-to-date, connected to one another and well maintained. As well as helping you to meet your organisations purpose. A lot of our Strand 1 applications were shopping lists for upgrades to this basic digital infrastructure.

Digital skills and digital inclusion

As we start to upgrade all of our systems in the cafe, we introduce a new digital payment system. Customers can use their smartphones to pay, just using a PIN or by tapping the contactless function. But it’s not always easy for some customers to figure out how to use it, and some of our customers don’t have smartphones.

The questions how can we support our staff and our customers to have access to and to use the new digital tools we’ve introduced? How can we help staff be more effective, efficient and confident? How can we ensure customers have a good and stress-free experience?

The answer — this would require a digital skills and inclusion training programme.

I’d call this digital skills and digital inclusion. A lot of our Strand 2 applications were not for digitally-enabled services, but for digital skills and inclusion programmes.

Designing a new service

Now the cafe is getting busier and busier, which is great but there are long queues at certain times of the day and people don’t expect to queue for things anymore! To meet the changing expectations of our customers, and to ensure they don’t get frustrated, we know we need to do something differently.

The question is how can we meet the increased demand for our service and improve the experience for our customers?

The answer — in this instance we’ve come up with the idea for a new service — an on-demand coffee delivery service alongside an advanced ordering service.

I’d call this designing a new service. A lot of our Strand 1 applications were this — organisations that had come up with really good ideas that would meet a new need, an existing need better, or the changing expectation of their users.

Digital Engagement

One of the reasons the cafe saw an increase in customers over recent months is because we’ve been doing all kinds of communications and marketing. And with two new services as well, we want to make sure more people know that they can purchase our coffee in new ways.

The question ishow can we let people know about our new services, share stories about the cafe more widely and find better ways for customers to give us feedback and ratings?

The answer — Social media and digital content.

I’d call this digital engagement and lots of our Strand 1 and Strand 2 applications were about this. Organisations who wanted funding to make digital content like videos, and to use social media to engage with their users in new ways.

Tech for good or digital innovation

The Cafe is based in a small town where homelessness is on the rise. There are a number of homeless shelters and they are often looking for supplies so they can support with the needs of people accessing the shelters. We are concerned by this and know we have food at the end of each working day that could go to different shelters.

The question is how can we get the food we have in the cafe at the end of the day out to the homeless shelters that most need it?

The answer — we look at building a platform that helps ensure we distribute food to the shelters that need it most that day, based on their live data about levels of demand. We do this in partnership with the homeless shelters and other small charities working in the town to end homelessness and support those that are.

I’d call this tech for good or digital innovation, where there is a social need and technology affords something in particular that can help address it. Strand 2 of the Digital Fund was looking for this kind of working idea, being used by a significant amount of people already.

Organisational redesign and transition

We’ve been running the cafe for many years now, and the local area we are situated in has been rapidly changing as other areas of the town develop. Where we are based is becoming more like an out-of-town industrial park. There isn’t a local community. Alongside that, the on-demand service has been growing exponentially. The overheads of having a building are making less and less sense.

The question is if I were to design the organisation again today, from scratch, how would I design it, based on the new needs and expectations people have, and how the wider context we are in is also changing?

The answer — in this case it’s been about redesigning the operating model and business model, moving to a mobile cafe, with different vehicles and the ability to be much more flexible and responsive. We’ve needed to change our processes and people, and we’ve stopped doing some things as well.

I’d call this organisational redesign and transition (from one model to a fundamentally different model). This is what we were looking for from Strand 1 applications — not just a new service, or upgrades to basic digital infrastructure. We learnt from our events that we could have been clearer on this point in how we described the first round of the Digital Fund.

Digital practices and good leadership

Lastly, there is something about *how* we do all of these things. It’s important to remember that digital is not something that you do, it is something that you are. Another way you might hear people talking about “digital” is as a mindset. This doesn’t mean you are the person that does the social media for your organisation or just something that the “digital team” does, this is a set of practices and behaviours that a whole organisation needs to adopt.

I’d call this digital (and design) practices and good leadership and we were looking for applications for both Stand 1 and Strand 2 to demonstrate this, probably more acutely in Strand 2 applications, where we were looking for teams that have been working in this way since their inception.

The questions are

  • How can we do all of the above in a way that meets people’s needs?
  • Are we asking the right question before going in search of solutions?
  • Are we designing based on how people behave rather than on the opinions they express?
  • Are we breaking the work down into small steps, making good use of evidence, in a way that saves money and that ultimately builds the ability of the whole organisation to be responsive and resilient to change ?
  • Are we being responsible in how we are building our digital products and services? Considering the consequences and cumulative affects, not just the opportunities?

The answer adopt good digital (and design) practices! Read up about ways to lead and navigate change in a complex world. Learn how to do good user research and the different aspects of strategic design. Use the growing range of responsible and ethical guides and design patterns being developed. This is about critical thinking as much as it’s about competencies, particularly as tech continues to evolve and change, and our lives and wider communities change too.

So that is my attempt at trying to show the multitude of ways people responded to the Digital Fund, and the different interpretations we saw of the word “digital.” Many of the applications were in the digitising processes, infrastructure, skills and inclusion, and engagement areas; when for Strand 1 applications we really were looking for those organisations that were fundamentally redesigning themselves and for Strand 2 applications, we were looking for “tech for good” applications. Tom wrote about why we were looking to fund in those specific areas in his blog post that introduced the Digital Fund.

Thank you to Laura James for the cafe analogy idea and Ellie Hale for reminding me to add in the need to be responsible about how we design and build digital products and services.

All images are from UnSplash.



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss - www.cassierobinson.work