Charities and tech: adapt or die?

Climate change tops the list of the four risks to the future of the human race as defined by The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. But technological advances bringing about seismic changes in the way NGOs and charities operate may hold a silver lining for us and the planet.


Local solutions to global problems


Current policy focusses on reducing use of fossil fuels. But such policies are time consuming and costly. In the meantime, there are cheap, practical ways to mitigate this grave risk. With proper management, tropical forests could remove significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, giving us a ‘bridge’ of 10-15 extra years to eliminate fossil fuel use. Without tackling deforestation there is no way of limiting global warming to the necessary 2ºC.


While big government has done a fairly good job at tackling large scale clear cutting and industrial deforestation, 60-80% of deforestation is now on a small scale. Often linked to illegal gangs, and impossible to police, protecting tropical forests is becoming a tricky business. Local in its drivers and local in its scale, this type of destruction needs a local, and novel, solution. Charities and NGOs working on a village scale, with the people who are have most at stake, have the most success in keeping trees standing and carbon locked in.


Technological advances rip the rule book up about the way the world operates. In a few short years Netflix has disrupted an entire industry and forced traditional media outlets to adapt or die. Banks, once trusted intermediaries, are facing their own crisis with the arrival of blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and crypto currencies. Having being around longer than television, they are finding it harder to adapt. Charities were also trusted intermediaries, doing vital work where the state can’t or won’t. With technological disruption and “ultra-transparency”, what is their future?


Are charities prepared to adapt?


The first big change will be in the way charities can operate. Massive investments in new platforms and technology has a trickle-down effect. Technology created to serve investors, advertisers and paying users will benefit those outside these circles too. Mark Zuckerberg plans to bring internet to the whole world. A cynic sees billions more dollars in advertising revenue for Facebook. A smart NGO sees a brilliant, pre-funded opportunity for stronger, easier links to beneficiaries, more transparent communications, and instant monitoring and evaluation of impacts. A connected world could mean digital tweets echoing the sounds of birds from even the deepest parts of the rainforest. 


Secondly, technology makes the world more transparent. Donors are not only able to see the problem more clearly, they are able to react immediately, picking up their phones to donate. They can and should also be increasingly demanding about having access to information about the impact of their donation.


We will start to see real time reporting, and blockchain technology used in philanthropy as well as commerce. Donors will be able to track their contribution as it moves from charity to beneficiary and precise details about the ‘bang for your buck’ will be readily available. The technology for this is already available in platforms like Rather than a certificate and a fluffy toy, donors will soon be demanding current GPS coordinates of ‘their’ polar bear and proof that their £2 a month is keeping it alive and well: something that traditional conservation charities may not be willing to provide.


Smart Donors


The third big change will be in the way people give. This is linked to transparency of impact and cost effectiveness. Charitable giving is largely based on an emotional response. A laser focus on impact means emotional choices about causes have less intellectual clout than rational ones. If you are shown hard proof that your $10 can either mitigate the most pressing risk to our species, or buy three tins of dog food for an already overfunded shelter, you might rethink which charity you give to. The logical conclusion of this is digital philanthropy, where smart machines emerge as a new kind of super-rational donor.


Whether this is a dystopian vision or a sensible response to the need to redistribute wealth fairly remains to be seen. But the ultra-transparency afforded by technological advances is already changing the way people give. The Effective Altruism movement asks people to reject emotional or personal reasoning (“my mother died of cancer”; “donkeys are cute”) when deciding who to give to. They recommend causes, and specific charities that will have the most cost-effective impact on the survival of our species, based on rigorous and objective evaluation. Climate change is one of those causes, and Cool Earth one of those charities.


Public trust in charities is at an all-time low, at a time when decentralised action and investment in critical causes is needed most urgently. Cool Earth believes the biggest benefit of the technological revolution will be that the traditional charitable model starts to dissolve. This will clear the way for new philanthropic mechanisms and new ways of spending and auditing public money. In the race to prevent deforestation and catastrophic climate change, it’s adapt or die. 


Chloe Rickard is communications manager at Cool Earth. 


Photograph: Cool Earth.

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Are cross-sector partnerships a remedy for Brexit?

The trend towards innovative, mutually beneficial partnerships could be the perfect antidote to the Brexit blues.


Regardless of the competing viewpoints on whether the long-term impact of Brexit will be positive or negative, both sides of the campaign agreed that there will be short-to-medium-term pain for the UK economy, for anywhere between five and ten years [this is assuming Brexit still goes ahead following the recent High Court ruling that parliament must vote on triggering Article 50]. This will see people losing their jobs, business investment slowing, the value of the pound reducing, and the price of goods and services increasing.  The wider impact will be a reduction in tax revenues for the government and, consequently, more public spending cuts.


All this is likely to hit the poorest in the UK the hardest.  


An increase in unemployment and living costs, combined with further public spending cuts, will also hit the charity sector as its income reduces, whilst the demand for services is likely to increase.


So, how can cross-sector partnerships help? 


If the economy is slowing, doesn’t than mean that companies will have less money available to donate to charitable causes?  Indeed, companies that view charitable giving as a purely nice-to-do, philanthropic activity may reduce or stop giving altogether.  This is why the shift away from basic transactional relationships (a one way agreement whereby a company agrees to donate or raise a set amount of money), towards more value-led, mutually beneficial partnerships is exciting and very timely. 


This shift had already started happening pre-Brexit, but, as Claudine Blamey, Head of Sustainability and Stewardship, at The Crown Estate highlights:


“economic and political anxieties [caused by Brexit] should only reinforce a need for companies to minimise future risk, cut costs and find innovative new ways of doing business.”


Some of the most interesting partnerships we have seen developing over the last few years have been around product innovation - partnerships that are centred on the creation of a new product or service to solve an identified social or environmental issue.  Three such partnerships are outlined below. 


Vodafone and Garvan Institute of Medical Research


Cancer affects one in three people.  Researchers need to crunch huge amounts of data to test hypotheses and derive insights that will help uncover new ways to diagnose and treat cancer.  However, progress is hindered by limited access to supercomputers to help perform the millions of computations required.  To combat this, Vodafone and Garvan Institute of Medical Research have partnered in Australia to develop the Dreamlab app.  The app uses the processing power of idle smartphones (e.g. overnight when people are asleep) to solve a piece of the cancer research puzzle.  If just 1,000 people used the app, cancer puzzles would be solved 30 times faster.  By demonstrating a commitment to tackling this issue, Vodafone is building a connection with the 33% of the population who are affected by cancer. 


Barclays, CARE International UK and Plan UK


Globally, 2.5 billion people are considered financially excluded, or ‘unbankable’, with no access to financial services, such as savings, bank accounts, or credit.  Since 2009, Barclays have been working with CARE International UK and Plan UK to tackle this issue by taking a savings-led approach, rather than a credit-led approach, to micro finance.  Banking on Change aims to improve the quality of life of the world’s poorest people who are living on less than US$2 a day. It combines the expertise of each partner to give people the opportunity and skills to save and manage their money by setting up informal savings groups.  Having access to these basic services can transform the lives of vulnerable individuals, especially young people.  For Barclays, it’s an opportunity to learn about a new market and introduce the individuals to formal banking services when they are ready.  It's win-win.


WWF and LiveWell


Obesity is at epidemic proportions in the UK. Additionally, our consumption of meat is unsustainable and having devastating effects on the environment.  To tackle both of these issues, Sodexo have partnered with WWF on their LiveWell programme.  LiveWell is WWF-UK's flagship programme which aims to encourage businesses and policy-makers to facilitate the adoption of diets which are both healthy and sustainable.  Sodexo serves around one million meals every day in schools, hospitals, workplaces, sports stadia, army barracks, and prisons.  Together they developed a set of 10 food principles that are healthy and good for the environment.  Using these principles, the company developed meals under the Green & Lean banner, and started serving these in schools up and down the country. 


"Green & Lean is an exciting development for us. We’re finding that consumers are more and more interested in the provenance of their food and want to make ethical, sustainable and healthy choices." - Edwina Hughes, Sodexo UK and Ireland’s corporate responsibility manager.


This is another clear example of mutual benefit.  With consumers making buying decisions based on the behaviour of companies and the origins of the products they produce, it’s vital that companies work with experts from the charity sector to legitimise the efforts they are making to have a positive social and environmental impact.


So where does this leave us?


Brexit is likely to cause widespread instability and an economic slowdown which is likely to hit the poorest hardest.  As demand for charities’ services increases, so does the need for innovative solutions that can help organisations tackle and solve the social and environmental issues we face as a society.  Cross-sector partnerships can be part of the answer.  A partnership based on product innovation allows a company to identify and develop new market opportunities, develop the skills of their employees, and further build their reputation with consumers, whilst helping solve society’s problems.  It really is a win-win scenario.


Rick Benfield is founder and CEO of thirdbridge @rick_benfield.


Photograph: thirdbridge.



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