Mission-Driven Digital: Getting Back to Your Roots

Jump to sections within this theme:

Intro  |  Back to basics  |  Self-service  |  Beyond web  |  Join the collaborative economy  |  Go local  |  Conclusion   |   Recommendations  |  6 slide summary


To date the sector's vision of digital has been blinkered by a sharp focus on digital fundraising and digital marketing. Arguably non-profits have been ignoring their peripheral vision - where the real potential of technology to deliver social good is sitting - currently just out of view. This limited viewpoint is restricting the sector's ability to rise to the challenges the New Reality represents:

To have digital be about something as singular as marketing. It limits crudely what digital can do for an organisation. It misses the point entirely.”
— Owen Pringle, Director of Therein.org

The sector’s relationship with digital is currently largely rooted in these two disciplines. To date this has been cast as a two horse race: in order to score any investment at all over the previous decade, digital had to prove its worth. Fundraising and marketing clearly offered two routes to demonstrate ROI: money and eyeballs. Even better, they have only caused limited disruption to existing business practices: legacy giving, offline donations, direct mail and print-based advertising still account for the biggest slice of the pie.

In this context it’s no wonder that the role of digital technology has been sidelined by leadership, or that digital teams are rarely based within service directorates (Breast Cancer Care is the only exception found to date - its  digital department sits within ‘Services’).

Yet it's been over twenty years since we started surfing. People of all ages and backgrounds now expect to be able to self-serve: to do their banking, shopping, booking, TV watching - and everything else besides - through digital channels. The rapid adoption of all of these online services demonstrates that, in many situations, we would rather do it for ourselves - and at our own convenience - than have it done for us.

The saturation of internet-based devices in our homes, offices and pockets has made self-service an omnipresent reality for most, changing cross generational behaviour forever - and the brands who have made that possible (including those born digital) are reaping the benefits. In this context it's astonishing that existing business practices in non-profits remain dominant and persist unabated, with only small incremental change in evidence.

The hugely successful GOV.UK relaunch provides the benchmark for reinventing service delivery through digital. It is now time for the non-profit sector to follow suit and seize the huge opportunity to do more for more beneficiaries – and to do it in new and inventive ways thanks to digital technology.

Putting aside all the challenges that the next few years might entail, this theme is all about the excitement - and the results - a renewed focus on digital service delivery can deliver.

Start with the fundamentals, not the peripherals. Be audience-led, not organisation-led.

Are we just a traditional organisation using digital to do things in a slightly different way and to communicate quicker with people? Or does it change some of the ways we hear what people are saying and respond to that? Can we decentralise? Can we devolve? Can we let go and start doing things in a different way?”
— Steve Ford, CEO, Parkinson’s UK


Despite the growing wealth of individual apps, trackers and other discreet digital services, the majority of tech-led services coming from non-profit organisations are still being actioned from an individual department level. This automatically means that the scope and reach of any new service is likely to be limited. Across the New Reality interviewees repeatedly pressed the need to start small and scale up:

Keep your horizons short. Small iterative projects – not an expensive big bang. Plan it, build it, launch it and learn from it in less than a year.”
— Ed Humphrey, Director of Digital, BFI

To be clear; this is the not the same as saying “do it in a silo”. For digital transformation to be truly game-changing it needs to address the heart of the cause, not the bits around the edges.

In practice this means cross-discipline and cross-department collaboration. This kind of root and branch review might may throw up some difficult questions, but it is equally likely to offer answers to escalating social problems – from housing to healthcare.

Jon Alexander from the New Citizenship Project offered this advice for how to begin this process:

Do a top level strategy session about your founding purpose and look at what it would really take to achieve this, and whether technology can help do some or all of it… Then look at what it would mean to involve people to achieve this for us rather than us achieving it for them.”

The second part of Jon’s quotes neatly segues into the other crucial mindset needed to make digital services truly transformative - audience-led thinking, not organisational-led thinking.

It sounds obvious, but it hasn’t been the foundation of every digital project or technology choice to date – and on a personal level, as a former audience researcher, it was heartening to hear so many of the New Reality’s interviewees stress the importance of starting with audience needs:

All digital plans must start with the user. It’s incredible how much design online loses sight of who the user is. Organisations must ask themselves: who is this for? How are they going to use it? And how are we going to keep track of how they use it?”

— Baronness Martha Lane Fox

Co-creation was cited as a productive path to creating audience-focused services. This can take many forms, from collaboration workshops to regular feedback mechanisms. Nominet Trust now insist on co-production for many of the projects they fund, and online education platform FutureLearn continually involve their users in the service development through open online feedback:

On both our alpha and then beta service we put a thing called Uservoice on every page which is asks how we could improve our product. It’s gives us a real bellwether for feedback and every time we develop something new, it starts going and reading some of the stuff that people have said about the problem you’re trying to solve”
— Matt Walton, Head of Product, FutureLearn

IDEO use an online platform to seek external input to all of their service ideas  https://openideo.com/

At it’s most simple being audience-led means getting the people who work closest to and with your beneficiaries and supporters (these might be the people who run the helpline, or your local group leaders) involved in the process.

The shift towards self service

The web has become the starting point for almost every information discovery journey – from health concerns and legal queries, to academic research – and non-profits have stepped up to this challenge (often more effectively than commercial organisations). This transition from offline publications to online information services is a significant step that we’ve already taken on the journey of digital transformation, but audiences are demanding more. 

We’re making progress but digital service delivery is falling behind. With changing audiences we’re only going to see higher expectations of being able to use digital to self-serve.”
— Sophie Walpole, Director of Blue Amber Consulting

The success of online information services provided by organisations like Macmillan offer a window into the potential scale of demand:

Of all the interactions that Macmillan Cancer Support has with people affected by cancer, 50% of interactions are online, 30% offline booklets and 20% nurses or frontline staff. So it’s more than half the people we reach.”
— Amanda Neylon, Head of digital, Macmillan Cancer Support

The wealth of information available online is amazing, but the overwhelming quantity and variable quality across the web means that, at times, it hinders rather than helps people looking for answers. It is all too easy to get lost in an endless spiral of onward links. Organisations who have recognised this are moving rapidly towards self-service-led models which offer people the ability to solve their own problems – or get someway along that journey – without the need to refer to multiple sources, or involve anyone else.

This type of service provision can be as simple as a great online calculator like the ones from Money advice serviceit can be a value-added supplement to face-to-face interactions, like the brilliant DocReady or it can provide a full replacement for a previously offline only need, like the incredibly addictive Unstuck coaching app.

A BCG survey of 12,450 people in 12 countries (including the UK) found that over 90% of people who have access to the internet have used at least one Government self-service tool in the past two years.

CASE STUDY: Gov.uk carer's allowance service redesign

One of the most frequently cited successes from the GOV.UK relaunch has been the humble Carer’s allowance claim process, where through a digital service redesign the GDS team managed to remove a whopping 170 questions from the claim form, making it possible for Carers to successfully apply for this crucial benefit in the precious spare moments they have (often at 2am because that’s the only time they have to themselves).

A short video about the GDS service redesign for the Carer's Allowance


The smartphone app market is building a whole economy around self-service - whether it be sleeping better (Sleep Cycle), learning a new language (Duolingo), getting fit (RunKeeper) or just finding some headspace (Headspace meditation app). All of these – and the hundreds of thousands of others – are engaging and useful self-service tools, designed to offer advice and opportunities-to-do on a topic you’re interested in.

There have been a handful of highly successful charity-led apps including British Heart Foundation’s PocketCPR, Diabetes UK’s DiabetesTracker, and British Red Cross’ First Aid app in healthcare. In youth services, ChildLine’s anti-sexting app Zipit, and Youthnet’s Stressheads and Motimator apps have also led the way. However  the New Reality’s contributors highlighted that there are significantly more failed apps than successful ones, so organisations should not rush to create their own without an incontrovertible user need and a clear route to market. A better option may be to seek partnerships in the burgeoning startup app market, where one of the many socially-minded SMEs may already offer a solution to your beneficiaries needs and could benefit from your brand’s credibility and reach.

Mhealth is at the vanguard of this transformative shift to self service – from sensor-based bodily function trackers like X2 Biosystem’s range of head trauma trackers, to pain relief devices like Indiegogo crowdfunding success Quell. It is one of the most exciting areas for digital transformation in services and a recent report by PWC’s Health Research Institute announced that:

“Digitally enabled care is no longer nice to have, it’s fundamental for delivering high quality care.” Daniel Garrett, Health Information Technology Practice Leader, PWC.

Many of the New Reality contributors from health and social care organisations believe that in the next 5 years it will become common place for doctors to prescribe apps and wearables in place of drugs for a wide range of health concerns ranging from obesity to depression. If you’re a healthcare organisation, you may want to be working now to make sure you’re offering – or more likely partnering – with the tools that doctors will want to prescribe.

The four models of self-service tools.   Based on Carmelon's original model

The four models of self-service tools.  Based on Carmelon's original model

One other crucial area for a digital transformation self-service upgrade is in advice and support helplines. Across the board charities that have phone and live chat services have hit crunch point. The success of these services has meant that demand frequently outstrips supply, but scaling up is not an option due to the large overheads involved. The only practical answer is to adopt a self-service model and develop or integrate digital tools that people can use to help them both understand and start to solve their problems.

Shelter have used their fantastic innovation labs programme to develop a self-service digital triage system for their telephone advice line.

In a competitive market, quality and reach of self-service tools will determine the winners and losers. In this context established non-profits already have a head start over start-ups and many commercial brands, both in terms of quality content, understanding of the issues and in large databases of ‘warm’ contacts.

However, caution should be exercised before originating - with many thousands of self-service tools and apps already available, many with a social focus, partnership working is the obvious entry point. This is borne out by the reality on the ground. Of the 10 or so 3D printing projects mentioned by the New Reality interviewees, only one was being led by an established non-profit: Oxfam - in collaboration with 3D printing company iMakr - who are working together on 3D printed water sanitation solutions. 

Think beyond web

There is still significant room for expansion in socially-motivated web-based digital offers, but there is a broader tech-enabled world of services emerging that are not constrained to the screens in our pockets and offices.

Digital is not just about websites - organisations need to stop thinking about it like that - it’s the online connected world of tablets, apps, and lots of new technologies”
— Frankie Wicks, Digital Delivery Manager, RSPB

Wearables, Internet of Things (IoT) devices and 3D printing are generating fervour, not just amongst tech-nerds, but also amongst architects, retailers, town planners and engineering firms – all of whom are getting excited about the potential for new, connected technologies to transform our (and their) world. In amongst the hype there are already some examples of genuinely transformative service delivery, and this is happening at a stage where we have only taken baby steps in seeing how these types of tech can be used to do good. And it’s clear the New Reality’s leaders are excited about the potential:

Wearables aren’t mainstream for people yet, but they are used a lot in the food supply chain: cows are now tagged with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, and they swallow thermometers that are Wi-Fi enabled. That means that the farmer can tell if a cow’s got a fever and can treat it early with antibiotics - rather than finding out much later when the cost is much higher.”
— Jon Kingsbury, Head of Digital Economy, Knowledge Transfer Network
3D printing is going to be exciting – the notion that you need to raise money for a charity to send out emergency medical supplies will be gone. Communities will print their own.”
— Nigel Kershaw, Executive Chair, Big Issue
We can use 3D printing to move away from mass produced things to those that are customised. Given how niche some charity audiences are, that could be incredible.”
— Laila Takeh, CMO, RaisingIT

The potential for 3D printing to help us tackle a broad range of social problems and issues came up particularly frequently in interviews. Here’s some of the best uses cited by interviewees:

  • 3D printed clean water projects. In the past year a slew of exciting 3D print water and sanitation projects have emerged 

  • Seattle based bio-engineering company Pembient has created a synthetic 3D printed rhino horn that looks and feels like the real thing. The company want to flood the market with synthetic horns in order to stop the number of endangered rhinos killed for theirs

  • 3D printed limbs are being created in war torn areas like Syria and Sudan to help people quite literally get back on their feet and move on with their lives. Particularly amazing are the efforts of Tony Canning who has produced a 3D printed prosthetic for significantly less than £100, in comparison with the traditional prosthetics which cost anywhere between £1,000 and £20,000  

3D printed prosthetics are now being created at a fraction of the cost of traditional ones

3D printed prosthetics are now being created at a fraction of the cost of traditional ones

This certainly feels like we’ve arrived at the future, but what does it mean for non-profit sector organisations when there are new opportunities everywhere, but also new pressures too?

Of course this doesn’t mean we all need to rush out and buy a 3D printer, start wearing an Apple Watch or become wearables experts, but we do need to be aware that, yet again, the tech is advancing apace and, yet again, we might need to accept that this is happening before we’re ready, before we’re comfortable and certainly before we’ve got a plan.

Identifying and paying close attention to the opinion former (individuals and outfits) – will be a route to seeking out productive partnerships for the future - and elsewhere in this study we talk about the necessary efforts needed to generate management buy-in, develop or change infrastructure and shift organisational culture to make our current digital services work better and do more for our beneficiaries. We must also recognise that most digital champions within our organisations have had their work cut out just to deliver effective web-based services across devices. If we now accept we need to ask them to broaden their technology view once again, and bring that to the wider organisation, we might also need a plan for how that can happen and how we can support talent so that the ideas and energy are channelled productively and given the best chance of success.

Join the Collaborative Economy

Middlemen everywhere have been removed!”
— Adam Gee, Commissioning Editor, Channel 4

We’re all now becoming familiar with the concept of the collaborative economy (sometimes called the sharing economy): based on services (usually facilitated online) where people are able to get what they want or need from each other instead of having to use organisations as middlemen. The collaborative economy might apply to products like electric drills or old baby clothes, to services like ride-sharing and to co-production and co-financing.

For a more in-depth explanation Nesta’s Making sense of the collaborative economy report is comprehensive.  

The Collaborative Economy 'honeycombe' by Crowdcompanies . Designed by Vladimir Mirkovic

The spectrum of organisations covered by the definition above is vast, and the degree to which they offer social value likewise. As with any disruptive innovation, it takes a while to shake out and see the lie of the land clearly. Currently there’s much debate about whether the giants like Airbnb and Uber are really providing a socially beneficial service, but many interviewees highlighted examples of services that clearly are: Casserole, StreetBank and Kiva to name a few.

Interview discussions around crowdfunding platforms like Kiva are captured in the funding theme and this is obviously fruitful territory for organisations seeking project-based investment. Beyond the parameters of crowd funding, there are other potential avenues for non-profit organisations to explore, including collaborative-production, time banking and asset exchange.

This new set of collaboration-based services has yet to significantly impact on the non-profit sector, but complacency carries its own risk. The travel industry thought digital disruption was over for them after Tripadvisor, Skyscanner and Expedia came along, but then Airbnb arrived and a whole new fight is underway.

Some charities have already experimented in this area. In 2012 Nesta funded some trial collaborative economy projects including a partnership between Age UK and Ecomodo to provide a StreetBank-style model for elderly care. The trial demonstrated modest success, but a worrying pattern was observed across the trials:

It seems to be hard for charities to really form partnerships. Quite rapidly the co-production appetite fell away and projects fell into a client supplier relationship.”
— Helen Goulden, Executive Director for Innovation Labs, Nesta



Macmillan Cancer Support’s TeamUp is a collaborative economy service that connects “people with a bit of spare time to local people affected by cancer who'd like a hand with everyday tasks”.

Cancer rates are rising dramatically and Macmillan - like many other charities - is looking for ways to offer support at scale. By using the collaborative economy model (the first major charity to do this) Macmillan are hoping to be able to help people affected by cancer at a local level. The initial trial is based in Brighton, Hove and Worthing, but if successful the plans are to scale up the service nation-wide. The strategy was developed in partnership with agency Zone and took early advice from some of the big startup successes in the field like TaskRabbit and Casserole Club.

What else could the sector use collaborative economy models for? Helen Goulden from Nesta has this exciting idea:

There are plenty of crowdfunding platforms, we don’t need any more of those. What we do know though is that non-profits are increasingly squeezed for resources, and would benefit from more elegant and efficient sharing with other local organisations. Is there a way we can use the collaborative economy principles to create that service. Instead of saying “we need £50k to do x, why not tell people what you actually need and see if other companies or individuals are happy to offer that”?
— Helen Goulden, Executive Director for Innovation Labs, Nesta

Useful further reading on asset based community development ideas can be found in “Give and Take: How Timebanking is Transforming Healthcare” and “People Powered Prosperity”, both by David Boyle.

The need for more collaboration, co-production and partnership is one of the themes running across The New Reality. In the context of service delivery, collaborative economy models may provide rich territory for established non-profits seeking additional ways to connect with new audiences, particularly at a local level. The directory on Collaborativeconsumption.com may have just the partner to help meet your audience’s needs.

Go local

In asking the New Reality’s interviewees about which areas of service delivery they expected to be most impacted by digital technology, many cited increased localisation as one of the chief benefits.

I think we’re going to see a trend towards tech enabling very local action. Neighbourly is a really interesting example - connecting smaller, unbranded, very local organisations where £700 means a lot, to the bigger brands and mass funders - so that they have access beyond their scale.”
— David Steadman, Executive Director of Fundraising and Marketing, Action on Hearing Loss
If we can use digital to focus on local campaigning we’ll be more successful at it. The charity’s role should be to find out what the problem is, to alert people to the problem and then give them tools to act locally. For example no-one thinks they can save the whole NHS, but you can stop apathy and disengagement by giving people campaign tools that help people focus on their local health services.”
— Gareth Ellis-Thomas, Head of digital, Prostate Cancer UK

The ability to use digital geo-location information, local communication networks and physical location sensors in combination could deliver completely different and surprising services. A fantastic recent innovation combining all these elements is a pollution badge prototype being developed by Kin design and research studio. When worn the badge uses an in-built air pollution detector and GPS tracking - so that when a wearer goes into an area with dangerous levels of pollution the badge automatically sends a tweet to the local MP for that area. It’s a quirky idea, and only in early stage development, but it clearly points in a direction that local campaigns could act upon – what if every campaigner wore a badge that actually did something rather than just saying it?

The Kin Design badge combines an air pollution sensor with GPS and Twitter

The Kin Design badge combines an air pollution sensor with GPS and Twitter

Local communication networks were also cited as increasingly important channels for digital-minded marketeers in non-profits:

Blogs on hyper-local areas are essential for charities to use to win hearts and minds in local communities and get people engaged in local campaigning and fundraising. They’re often better channels than blasting it out on Twitter or Facebook. I think the power of those networks hasn’t been fully realised yet.”

— Zoe Amar, Director of Zoe Amar Communications

In a world where digital is increasingly breaking down international boundaries - and we can buy from Amazon regardless of where we go in the world (almost) - there is also a quieter but no less important revolution that digital tech is facilitating at a local level and it's crucial that non-profits are alive to what is happening in this space.

A handful of amazing, inspiring examples

There are incredible examples of digital transformation services and products scattered across The New Reality, but here’s a few highlights to reveal the scale of impact that focusing more effort on digital service provision can reap:

DIY braille printer - a 12 year old boy who made a braille printer out of lego for his blind aunt. 

The BBC’s Ebola Whatsapp service -distributing crucial awareness-raising information to impossible-to-reach groups in Sierra Leone.

Big White Wall - the online support service for emotional health.

Jointly - an app that makes communication and coordination between those who share care responsibilities for a person as easy as a text message.


Developing technology-enabled services that really help beneficiaries is something that every non-profit CEO should aspire to make part of their legacy. Despite the number of innovative services out there, the majority are still coming from outside the sector not inside. Yes, we are still only in the early stages of realising digital service delivery’s full potential, but that’s not an excuse for watching from the sidelines.

Collaborate with your audiences to develop service ideas, and think about how they could be empowered to help themselves, rather than you doing it on their behalf. Achieving this requires a shift in mindset, but could offer a chance for both reach and engagement to truly skyrocket.

The New Reality theme about innovation models covers interviewees experiences and thoughts on how new services can be developed, but before embarking on this adventure there is a fundamental question which needs answering: is your organisation ready?

Almost unanimously the New Reality’s contributors believe that digital service delivery is vital for the continued survival of non-profits, but a note of caution was raised:

We learnt this with GDS. It’s important to want to do great stuff and to have great ideas, but without the infrastructure and culture to make these advances, there is a high risk of them falling flat. The culture change has to come first.”
— Sarah Prag, Digital transformation coach
As a funder we’re increasingly seeking to understand whether an organisation has the real ability to deliver on these digital ideas they’re coming to us with. If they’re not set up right, we can’t invest.”

— Daniel Wilson, Funding Director, Big Issue Invest

Start working out how tech-enabled services can help your organisation deliver its core purpose - but beware, unless you’re also working to digitally transform yourselves as an organisation, you may be trying to run before you can walk.


  • Consider all tech possibilities. Make sure your digital champions are able to support the organisation in using the best of all tech, not just web-based platforms (websites and social).
  • Focus on the mission: Start with your core purpose or a specific problem.

  • Don't go it alone. Find partners to help you innovate in your service delivery e.g. process partners or partners with expertise in particular kinds of tech.

  • Cross-fertilise. Create and support collaborative, cross discipline teams.

  • Start small. Don’t try to boil the ocean!
  • Don’t duplicate. If it already exists and it’s good - partner with it, white label it, curate it, do not try to recreate it!


Summary: This theme in 6 slides