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The challenges facing social tech and what will tackle them

As part of the Cast launch event, government, corporate and social tech representatives discussed some of the challenges facing social tech and how we can grow tech for good initiatives

There is no doubting that technology is an enabler of many things – it powers huge organisations, connects people across the world and even gives under-privileged people the opportunity to have access to endless digital resources.

Using technology for philanthropy and social movements could change the world, but there are a number of barriers for social enterprises, including silos, lack of funding, difficulty scaling and access to talent.

Cast, the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology, has launched to encourage collaboration in the social technology space to tackle the issues facing small and medium-sized initiatives aiming to use technology for good.

“We want to explore together how we can overcome the barriers that prevent us driving social change at scale,” said Cast co-founder Annika Small.

Driving collaboration

Small claimed that much like in many other industries, there are lots of small initiatives happening to drive social change, but on their own they struggle to make a huge impact.

“There are still very few example of approaches that have truly scaled,” she said.

Not only should social ventures be collaborating with each other, but organisations should collaborate across sectors, as well as with government and larger businesses, added Small.

The UK government has been looking into how to be more open with its data, and government CTO Liam Maxwell said that – where possible – the government is trying to provide access to datasets to help improve businesses.

He explained that now customer data is readily available, firms no longer need to rely on lengthy user surveys to find out how best to design services, and that tech for good organisations can take a leaf out of the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) book to share common business components.

“GDS has got a lot of experience in changing a large organisation, but you’re not a large organisation, you’re a collection of organisations,” said Maxwell.

“The one thing we don’t do as a government is compete, so we can share and we can work across borders with other people. In the charity sector, you’re not competitors. Don’t do it all yourselves, you can’t – team up with people.”

But although Maxwell advised working together to “define common problems” and create a centre for best practice that other charities can look towards and share, he warned the tech-for-good sector off of creating a central system, as this can be “problematic”.

“Creating one thing in the centre can be problematic – let’s make sure we build using a certain set of principles,” he said.

“You could have a central function that can do that, but whatever you do, don’t try and make some kind of central Charity Digital Service, because it will eat itself.”

Collaborating by sharing common problems, solutions and data could save charities money, and Founders4Schools chair Sherry Coutu claimed open government data – and other open datasets – hold a “treasure trove” as they allow not-for-profits to know how much impact they are making.

“Other countries don’t have that, but we have that and we should leverage it,” she said.

Challenges facing the third sector

Some of the challenges highlighted for the charity and social movement – or third sector – included difficulty finding talented people, a lack of funding at the right stages of the business, access to markets and other sectors, legal barriers, and limited confidence in the ability to use technology to transform services.

Coutu claimed one of the biggest barriers for social enterprises is lack of access to affordable tools, and explained that Founders4Schools uses shared infrastructures such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and crowdsourcing to save money.

“There are very few differences between running a fast growing social enterprise and a for-profit enterprise,” she said.

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Many tech-for-good social enterprises begin in the same way as startups, but find difficulty getting the funding they need to scale, often because investors do not trust that a not-for-profit will be able grow.

Coutu suggested using data to prove social enterprises are capable of scaling and making an impact, as well as work together on collaborative efforts to make funding stretch further to encourage investors.

“What we as an industry and ecosystem need to do is gather examples,” she said.

“There are some nuggets of extreme impact that we should look for and gather evidence for, and then direct the funders to what’s working”

Using the example of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – which is attached to a trading company where 100% of the profit is used to fund the not-for-profit arm of Raspberry Pi – Coutu claimed that showing role models such as this to prove social enterprises can grow and scale will encourage investors to fund the charitable sector.

But Big Society Capital CEO Cliff Prior suggested one of the reasons for lack of trust in social enterprises is because they often do not have a clear plan of where they are going.

“People are suspicious that social enterprises won’t stay social, they are suspicious of mission drift,” he said.

“There is no point having a pipeline that has a break in it, you need to know what the next step is.”

The third sector’s advantages

The third sector faces a lot of challenges in scaling and finding funding, but Small at Cast claimed the attitude of people involved in social enterprises gives the sector a huge advantage.

“Right there is the motivation, the spirit and energy, the skills and the resources, it is up to us to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

According to Small, the charity sector has on its side the millennial generation, who are now less motivated by money and are more driven by the idea of contributing to positive change.

The sector can use the current political climate as an advantage to push forward grassroots campaigns for social change, she explained, by leveraging the technology community across the UK and in London to scale and grow tech for good movements.

“We can use tech to create a more equal, a more inclusive society that is built on co-operation, on collaboration and trust,” said Small.

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