When I first started Digital for Good in 2019, I struggled to understand: why aren’t charities using the tools and techniques startups rely on every day?
Having worked in a tech startup, it seemed obvious to me. We have so many great tools that we rely on daily in the tech world: from agile to design thinking. The problems those charities described seemed to have an obvious, simple solution. But as I learned more and more about the realities of running a charity, a different picture started to emerge. Most small nonprofits are always short-staffed, perpetually underfunded, with no time to experiment and learn. They are relied on by their users to deliver a service, often critical. Mistakes are costly, and lack of resources doesn't allow for them.
At the same time, I began to understand that so much of the insight and value we take for granted in the tech sector is locked in and inaccessible to charities. Locked behind gaps of different kinds - gaps of funding, knowledge, understanding, language. I kept thinking "If only they understood their problems from our perspective, they could solve them instantly!"
This problem is not unique to tech and charities of course. Virtually every domain could experience breakthroughs, if only we connected our knowledge a little bit more. But we don't know what we don't know. Isntead, we spend time, effort and money rediscovering solutions that already exist. Over and over again. Or worse - living with easily solvable problems as our reality.
But to most, innovation even as simple as adopting a free tool that saves manual work, is seen as an unknown and a risk. Additionally, the communication gap means that this difference in knowledge can’t be passed on quickly and efficiently, and attempts can often create more mythology and bias, than good.
In reality, this kind of cross-domain learning is a lengthy process of building mutual trust and then exchanging information bit by bit, as trust and comfort grow. It can take months or even years depending on size of the organisation.
Through Digital for Good, we found that work on the actual communication between charities and the tech community was most valuable to produce long-term results. Only a small number of people can move fluently across the gaps and establish communication both ways – they became our bridge builders.
At first, insights trickle in slowly, but once the bridge is trusted, a flood of value exchange comes and what was once an insurmountable gap, is a problem no more.
And the effective communication encouraged others to join in. Once a few groups have proven that the method works, the bridge becomes trusted. It was easier for us to recruit the next charity groups into the solution.
Many of worlds biggest challenges are solvable today. We have all the key components, all the building blocks and technical capability. But solutions, especially those that address global problems are often systemic and cross multiple disciplines and sectors.
And with so few of us able to move across these disciplines and sectors, the solutions remain locked behind gaps of different kinds - gaps of knowledge, understanding, funding, language, culture, privilege. Those solutions sit ready to be discovered – by the bridge builders.