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Why is there so little digital innovation in big charities?

7 January 2013

I’ve been thinking about my seven years' work with Public Zone. While I’m very proud of the products we’ve worked on, I don’t feel we’ve launched more than a handful of truly innovative projects. So what can we do to change this?

Charities must innovate as most have little money and big problems to solve. Over the past decade there have been some amazingly innovative charity projects that have demonstrated real impact at a massively reduced cost. JustGiving, Kiva and Kickstarter have shown us how to raise money, while Ushahidi has transformed information gathering. Mobile projects in South America and Africa (where mobile phones are the communication network) have shown that, through innovation, charities can have a tangible effect on reducing the spread of HIV, the prevention of rape and the promotion of teenage education.


At Public Zone we’re working on really ambitious projects with the likes of Prostate Cancer UK, Diabetes UK and Unicef, exploring how digital can have a significant impact in helping them achieve their goals. I believe these projects will result in real innovation, but the hard truth is few significant digital projects have emerged from the UK, and even fewer from established charities.

We work with ambitious people who have great ideas, but do we have the right culture to foster scalable innovation? I've noticed three key issues I feel are limiting the opportunities in the charity sector:

1. The need to know the outcome before the start

Innovation is often about not knowing what's around the corner. The product you create to solve one problem might fail to achieve that specific goal, but may instead generate a solution for a completely different problem. Innovation is a jump into the unknown and charities find this difficult for good reason, the pressure to show a return.

We can provide examples of similar innovations from other industries, set clear KPIs and base our solutions on great user insight, but the returns will not be guaranteed. Innovation is a gamble.

2. The small, 'cheap' start-up obsession

I’ve been involved in pitching for millions of pounds spent in £50,000 packages trying to solve massive challenges. With this ‘seed’ money, a charity or a social entrepreneur should build a product, launch it, market it and identify a revenue stream. Only then can they secure more money. While the total money being invested in innovation is high and increasing, the investment packages are simply too low. Invest in fewer projects, invest more and invest for longer.

In our experience success comes from a mixture of single-minded focus and the presence of secure resources to see the product through its early stages. Our recent work with The Nike Foundation, for whom we have just launched, and The Scouts, for whom we have created a new way for volunteers to sign up online, have convinced us this is true.

3. Lack of digital expertise among senior management and trustees

Lack of experience in itself is not the problem, but it can become a factor when it influences the decision-making process. While many chief executives say they want to become a more digital organisation and recognise that digital is one of the most important challenges of the next few years, the reality is quite different. They often delegate digital tasks to ‘the younger generation’ and believe online innovation is cheap. This misapprehension leads them to demand unrealistic projects with miniscule budgets, using terms such as ‘minimum viable product’, ‘agile’ and ‘hackathon’, while mentioning that ‘Facebook was started in a dorm’ – as if you really can knock up a ground-breaking app in a garage!

Forward thinking

Not all organisations deserve this moan; I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many forward-thinking people. It is more the system and culture I struggle with.

The unfortunate truth is that despite some good start-up ideas and millions of pounds invested, I'm yet to see a truly innovative, game-changing product come from an established charity player in the UK. If you don’t agree, please leave examples in the comments section below; I want to be wrong.

The charities I work with have access to millions of people with whom they have deep and trusting relationships. Bearing in mind how much seed money goes on marketing, it excites me to think about the amazing products that could, and I am sure will, be launched in the future.

Jonathan Simmons

chief experience officer, Zone

Jonathan Simmons is chief experience officer of digital agency Zone. He oversees the agency's development and offering for leading brands and charities such as Tesco, Coca-Cola GB, Prostate Cancer UK, Nike Foundation and Save the Children.