Interview, Vinay Nair, Lightful – Using Technology For Good

D/SRUPTION talks to a leading light in the beyond profit sector

Business as a force for good? The 90,000 social enterprises in the UK would certainly agree that the need for ethical business goes beyond a cursory corporate mission statement. But what is the current state of the charity and ‘beyond profit’ sector in the midst of modern day disruption? How are they responding to developments in technology? Are they using disruption to their benefit, or missing out on important advantages?

D/SRUPTION spoke to Vinay Nair, co-founder and CEO of Lightful – a beyond profit company which helps charities with their use of digital – for his insights into the world of social and environmental impact, and the opportunities that technology can bring to forward thinking charities.

Supporting change for good

According to a recent report by the Charities Aid Foundation, charitable donations in the UK rose to £10.3bn in 2017. However, this figure was reached by fewer people giving more. The overall reduction in the amount of individual donors means that charities still have some work to do to in strengthening their appeal. For Nair, this is where technology has an important role to play.

“We see technology as a tool which can amplify the voice and increase the impact of the beyond profit sector,” he says. “Before I founded Lightful I was working with hundreds of amazing charities, social enterprises and non profits, and it was around that time that various parts of the economy and society were being disrupted by technology. The largest 100 or so charities were doing some amazing things, but to my frustration, small and medium sized charities – who have some of the best stories to tell – were largely being bypassed. There were no fit for purpose tools for the pain points of the sector. We wanted to do something about that.”

For Nair, there is no reason why smaller and medium sized charities shouldn’t benefit from the opportunities available to larger organisations.

“We did consulting work for medium sized charities such as ABF the soldier’s charity, London’s Air Ambulance, and Street Child, and we started to understand that Human Centred Design (HCD) wasn’t a methodology that was typically being used in smaller organisations. When we used HCD we started to uncover a lack of awareness and a lack of resources around the use of technology. But there were some great stories to tell and a desire to raise more support and funds for these causes.”

Technology as-a-service

Nair explains that one of Lightful’s aims is to provide a digital consultancy to charities, social enterprises and non profits.

“We can help organisations to build an online community portal for their members to connect more, both in the online and offline worlds,” he says. “The question is, how do you build an online community in a way that makes people want to get involved?”

“We also wanted to understand how we could help organisations to raise more funds as well. We ran large digital fundraising campaigns, and we realised that we could productise a lot of what we were learning. So we built a social media management platform. This is a software-as-a-service model to help charities engage with their supporters through social media. We made sure there was a free tool as well as tools at different price points to make it affordable to all charities.”

An increased focus by charities on social media is clearly a response to the digital climate, and the way that people now expect to interact with organisations. For a sector that is still largely reliant on analogue methods of communication, this is a necessary development. Nair agrees.

“When it comes to how charities engage with people and raise funds, a lot of the approaches are typically quite analogue still, whether it’s door to door fundraising or the big annual report landing on the doormat every year. What technology allows for is non interrupt marketing – engaging with people in diverse ways of their choice, much more personalised relationships at scale, giving feedback on the impact of a donation that’s been made… It enables people to engage with you online and it gives them control of their data, by letting them know what they have opted into and so on.”

“Technology has started to seep into everyday life, and there’s the challenge to respond to that. There’s a question around how charities deal with the fact that you might genuinely want to dig in your pocket but not have any cash. What we’re seeing now is that there are QR codes which replace the old collecting boxes you would put a coin in. Or you might say, ‘Alexa, donate £10 to Sport Relief.’ We are also seeing things like digital payments startup iZettle going to traditional events like charity auctions, allowing people to process funds at the event itself.”

“Social media has an important role to play, to tell and amplify authentic stories. It raises support and awareness and brings more joy back to giving as well. Machine learning is also a big opportunity for our sector where we see large volumes of data on engagement and interactions. It can help us with fundraising and understanding how service delivery might work better. This will see better outcomes for beneficiaries and for the people who support the charities as well.”

Transparency and traceability

In the light of several recent scandals within high profile charities, one application of technology in the non profit sector has to be in improving the transparency of organisations’ actions. The traceability of blockchain, for example, could offer donors the chance to track their money to its delivery point. Whilst Nair acknowledges the promising nature of blockchain, he thinks this kind of innovation misses the point.

“There are interesting developments that are taking place with blockchain – the platform Alice.si, for example, has done some work around it. But for me it actually comes down to more conventional forms of transparency. We need to see people engaging authentically on social media. There was a recent story about how RNLI lifeboat volunteers were taking the boats out without permission, but the RNLI responded in a really transparent, clear and proactive way. They articulated their position and responded to criticism earnestly. With some of the other scandals that have broken we have seen the opposite, where people haven’t understood the magnitude or the manner in which to respond.”

Technology, then, can’t solve the issues of attitude which have plagued charities in recent times.

“I would be wary of saying something like the blockchain can suddenly introduce a greater amount of transparency,” Nair adds. “I think the tentacles go a lot deeper than that, and that the accountability that modern society brings should hold as true in the charitable sector as a corporation.”

Improving attitudes, effecting change

As a society, Nair believes that we also need to acknowledge and understand the challenges that technology poses. This includes changing attitudes to hate speech online.

“We co-ordinated a campaign earlier this year, reclaimsocial.com, to reclaim social media for good,” he says. “This means for the social good but also that we need to do this for the long term. It was bold and really exciting stuff. There’s a real sense that people want to see positivity take place. This is something we actively need to go after, we can’t just merely respond to how people are changing and interacting with technology.”

As for the future? Nair has a bright outlook for the use of technology in the beyond profit sector.

“Technology is a decentralised, empowering set of tools,” he says. “Lots of community level organisations are using digital and social in a very powerful way. It’s no longer just the larger charities which are benefitting. I get a lot of hope from that.”

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