Reason Digital, established 11 years ago, works with charities across the sector to leverage the power of digital to do social good and combat some of society’s biggest issues. We sat down with Ben White, Reason Digital’s Managing Director to hear his thoughts and experiences of digital in the sector.
What does digital mean to you?
When I think digital the next word that springs to my mind is calculator….which I guess shows how old I am! In some ways, I think digital is just a word that we have ended up using because the concepts behind it are so broad and no other word fits better. Some people use the word technology but to me technology represents the hardware, so digital is what the hardware enables. I suppose primarily, digital is a way to communicate and which creates so many opportunities.
Who do you think is using digital well?
A great example, which I know really well, is Age UK’s telephone befriending service, ‘Call in Time’. This service arranges regular phone calls between a volunteer and an isolated older person; Reason were involved in helping the charity scale up this service to reach more people who may be experiencing chronic loneliness. The system we built enables people to easily sign up online, vastly increasing the pool of volunteers, and then automatically calls each party. What really sticks with me about this particular use of digital is that it is simply an enabler. When you understand the impact having regular social contact makes to a person’s health, not just mental health but physical health and even life expectancy, it’s absolutely incredible; and this contact can be enabled through the use of digital.
Do you find that charities often come to you with a digital problem?
We work best when charities come to us with a human problem and want to explore how digital could address it. If you look at a lot of work coming from the tech sector, it’s basically coming out with fully formed solutions to address perceived problems, then trying to iterate. But – the basis of the work is not always a full understanding of the problem, certainly not of the social aspects of problems, or even the potential for their solution to do harm. I think that sometimes the charity sector needs to avoid falling into that trap. One of the more frustrating points for us was when native apps became popular - charities began to think that they needed an app just because the tech was there. Some apps do have a good reason to exist, but the reality is that app development is more costly, apps exist in a specific marketplace where they needs to fight for attention with thousands of others, they need to be maintained and marketed constantly. Often the better solution was to add capability of a website where charities benefited from their existing audience and organic traffic. Organisations shouldn’t feel pressured to have something because it is on trend, it needs to really work for them and should enhance their outcomes.
So, what digital opportunities do you think charities have?
Charities should be, and many already are, using digital to improve, represent and reach more of their beneficiaries and the communities they stand for. It would be great to see more investment and innovation in digital; I think a barrier to this is the fear of the (genuine) risk involved. I think that we need to move on from just thinking about how digital can facilitate current activities, looking at what a charity’s mission means in a digital world. Charities have a huge potential advantage here, because they can ensure their solutions are led by and based on their beneficiaries’ need. Charities have access to huge communities of interest and hence amazing opportunities for co-designing solutions and feedback on how well they are working. So many tech start-ups would kill for the opportunity to get such a level of engagement and feedback. By working iteratively, you can tackle a digital transformation process in small steps.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Ben!