Tech For Good: The Rise of a Movement
One of the things I’ve been struggling with as a freelancer lately is focussing in on a sector that matches my own values and who the clients I work with give me work that I enjoy doing. Often when your values and your clients’ are aligned, your work will be better as a result. This has the added benefit of making your client happier too.
This is easier said than done.
I’ve been struggling because some of the clients I’ve been working with recently haven’t matched my values and so poor work, somewhat beneath my usual standard, has crept through. This hasn’t been anything to do with my clients, who are fantastic to work with and appreciate my work, but is more to do with me and the opportunities I take on.
I often chat to my better half about what kind of clients I want to work with. She says I need to focus on a particular group of clients I enjoy working with and match my values. I agree and resolve to do something about it, only to take on a non-value-matching client the next week, under the guise of a nice client and good money. C’est la vie.
That has changed though, as I’ve found the area I want to focus on: Tech For Good.
Looking back at the clients I’ve worked with through Montfort over the past few years that have brought me the most professional satisfaction and the ones that I feel I’ve done the best work for and there’s a Tech For Good pattern: FutureGov, JustGiving, The Wildlife Trusts, Media Trust, Practical Action, Innovation Labs. All great clients, all great campaigns, all getting good work by me, all can be described as Tech For Good in a broad sense.
Tech and Good are the intersection of my skills, values and interests. Good is the reason I have regularly volunteered for causes, including setting up Bright One. Tech is the reason I learned to code, built several prototypes using Ruby on Rails and am comfortable fiddling with the back end of content management systems like WordPress and Squarespace.
One clear example. I’ve been doing some work for the past few months with the brilliant people at Tech For Good TV. What started as a video production project to help spread the social good aspects of technology to a wider audience has evolved into a much wider encompassing look at Tech For Good in general, spurred by the addition to the video content of a podcast, regular blog posts and an email newsletter. I encourage you to check it out.
Tech For Good TV’s expansion into more than just video shows a hunger for more conversation and insight into what “Tech For Good” is and means, how technology affects us lives for better and worse, and what discussions need to take place in order to make sure technology continues to benefit our lives.
This is especially important in the light of recent changes being brought through UK Parliament, such as the UK government quietly rewriting the hacking laws to give GCHQ immunity and Theresa May’s resurrection of the Snoopers’ Charter. I’m not saying either of these developments are good or bad (for the purposes of this post anyway), but a discussion needs to happen around issues like these when technology has the potential to be used by the powerful against the powerless.
You could argue that Tech for Good has been around as a concept for a while. But I feel this has previously been a predominantly fundraising and marketing led drive. Charities and other non-profits are often driven by the need to sustain themselves through donations, so every time a new digital or tech angle offers itself to help them gather more donations, they are quick to seize on the opportunity. This is more than social media for social good.
This doesn’t mean that this is tech for good in the broader sense. It’s more tech-for-donations-for-good, where money generated by tech means is used for social good.
What I’m talking about is a core change in the face of social good, where tech is the means and ends to delivering social change – often with no other motive.
For example, there are a few long running events that show the interest from charities and nonprofits in all things digital. NFP Tweetup organised by Rachel Beer (the next one’s on Thursday night) and NFP Barcamp organised by Laila Takeh (you just missed the last one) are the ones that spring to mind in London.
This realisation of Tech For Good being the area I want to concentrate on as a freelancer has happily coincided with the rise of the Tech For Good movement itself. Everywhere I look, a mention of the phrase Tech For Good (or the hashtag on twitter) pops up. Perhaps that’s just because I’ve had this epiphany and notice it more?
Either way, Tech For Good is on the rise. It’s a movement that we’ll hear more of over the coming years and one that I hope thrives through the community-led efforts that have driven it so far.
Here’s why I think Tech For Good is on the rise:
1. A self-indentifying community is forming
If you look at the #TechForGood hashtag on Twitter, there has been a marked increase in its usage, along with similar longer-running hashtags like #CivicTech and #DigiSI. Then there’s the Tech For Good meetups, co-ordinated by the folks at Bethnal Green Ventures and Nominet Trust and taking place in London every few months, that brings together hackers, coders, developers and designers with people who really understand a social problem and want to build tech answers to social challenges.
2. Case studies of success are increasing
The more we see tech products and apps that are truly using Tech For Good, the better. One of the best things about the Innovation Labs was that they were constantly sharing what had been learnt along the way. Their blog is well worth checking out for insights and case studies about what worked and what didn’t. They even produced an ebook that pulls together all of their lessons learned into one place. Take a look at Nesta’s 10 Tech Heroes For Good for other case studies of Tech For Good.
3. Tech skills are having a trickle down effect
Previously, I don’t think many charities have had the necessary skills and experience among their staff to build digital products. Yes, they have experience in building fundraising campaigns that use digital elements, but there was little innovation in building tech products. Now, that’s changed and charities and other social good organisations are starting to build more of their own digital products.
I believe that this is due to the rise of the startup culture, methodologies such as Lean and Agile, and the proliferation of tools that make it cheaper to build digital products than ever before. Now everyone can build a prototype for next to nothing and charities are starting to learn how they can build digital products too.
There’s still a long way to go though. Have a read of Mary Mckenna’s post on why charities are struggling to build digital products.
4. Knowledge sharing is becoming the norm
There’s something about the charity sector that means being open and sharing knowledge doesn’t always come naturally to the sector. Whether that’s because charities are competing for donations or see similar charities as competitors rather than allies, I’m not sure. But with tech, that changes.
By sharing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to digital products, charities have a better chance of making those digital products work. And they’re often not competing with each other – the digital products that are being built tend to be unique to that cause or organisation. It’s also often the case that they’re not competing for donations, but for people’s attention to use their product.
5. Tech for good is being baked into business models
TOMS Shoes’ one-for-one model is probably the clearest idea here, but JustGiving probably got this right 15 years ago when they baked social good into the heart of their business. In tech, there are now an increasing number of revenue models and more being created all the time. Build social good into your business model and you’ve got a better chance of outlasting the competition. Even Google started out with the mission statement of “Don’t Be Evil”.
6. Investment in tech for good is on the rise
Y Combinator recently opened up their non-profit track and there has been some fantastic startups that have benefited from the accelerator programme and its network. Starting with Watsi, Y Combinator has expanded to offer even more place to non-profits onto its accelerator. I even got to pitch to them about Sunday Assembly’s online platform. Other good news is that Comic Relief have launched a Tech For Good funding programme as a follow on to the Innovation Labs. Then there’s the rise of the Impact Investors, funders looking for social good returns as well as financial ones.
It will be interesting to look back in a few years to see if my views has been confirmed. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to pursue clients in the Tech For Good area and see where that leads me. I suspect it will be a good move, but even if it isn’t then I’m sure exploring the area will deepen my interest and passion around mixing technology and social good.
If you want me to be involved in your Tech For Good project, you should contact me here.