Interview: Helen Goulden

The director of Nesta's Public Services Lab talks to Ian Griggs about running the Innovation in Giving fund

Helen Goulden
Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden talks enthusiastically about the idea of using Transport for London's Oyster card technology to make charitable donations, which is one of the proposals to benefit from this week's second round of awards from the government's £10m Innovation in Giving fund.

"When you go to the train station these days and see someone with a bucket collecting for charity, many of us don't have any spare change but we do have our Oyster cards," she says. "So we need to take advantage of the things we have in our hands and use them to ingrain giving into our lifestyles."

Goulden is director of the Public Services Lab, the innovation arm of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, and the filter through which all the proposals for the Innovation in Giving fund must pass.

The Oyster card idea is one of 16 proposals - out of 153 applications - that will each receive £50,000 in the second round. Other successful ideas include a scheme to match home cooks with people in their area who need a square meal and some company. "The idea is to give organisations the freedom to experiment, even though some ideas might not work in the long term," says Goulden. "But we hope that a handful of them will really make a difference.

"We take a wide view of giving. It's not just about donating money to charity, although obviously that helps. It can also take the form of exchanging, sharing stuff and making use of idle resources in a community."

The fund's attempt to foster innovators and trailblazers is part of the government's wider ambition, outlined in the Giving White Paper, to promote giving and make Britain a more generous society.

"All the available evidence shows that giving has flatlined," says Goulden. "It might be too strong to call it a crisis, but there is certainly a need to stimulate giving. If we intend to get young people into the habit of giving, it is important to reach them through the channels they use, such as technology and social media."

Goulden hopes that these will be useful in coordinating and brokering interaction between volunteers and organisations that want to recruit them, on a scale that would not have been possible in the past.

Goulden and her fund selection panel looked for innovators who had learned from what others had done before and understood their audience as well as potential competitors.

"The successful ones had a compelling idea with a connecting logic," she says. "They were articulate about a problem and how they could solve it. The quality of the applications was very high and I am in awe of people who put themselves on the line for the sake of social change."

None of the ideas will change the world of giving by itself, she says, but they might have the power collectively to create a huge change in people's ability and inclination to give.

As part of the project, Nesta has acted as a broker between charities and entrepreneurs, bringing them together so that charities can explain problems in fundraising and entrepreneurs can come up with solutions to them.

"Our existing networks are diverse, so we were aware of interesting connections we could make between organisations," says Goulden. "We also wanted to find out what role entrepreneurs could play in stimulating giving."

These brainstorming sessions were the genesis of many of the ideas submitted recently to Nesta. Sitting in the circular meeting room full of funky-coloured furniture, it is not hard to imagine Goulden chairing discussions between the young turks of the business world and their charity contemporaries.

She thinks social networking sites might hold the key to promoting the communal aspect of giving. "There are times during the year when we make our affiliation to certain charities visible - for example, wearing a red nose or growing a moustache in November," she says. "Through these, we feel affiliated with other people whom we see doing the same thing."

So she envisages a time in the future when people will create individual 'giving profiles' on social networking sites that reflect the causes they feel strongly about and influence the behaviour of their peers. "I think we need to build individual giving identities that mean something to other people in our social networks," she says.

Increased cash donations, however welcome, are not going to be enough, says Goulden. "There is a future challenge to meet the needs of an ageing population, for example, and it won't be solved simply by putting our hands in our pockets," she says. "People will need to step up in other ways."

CV:

2009: Director, Public Services Lab, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

2005: Programme manager, Department for Communities and Local Government

2003: Programme manager, Cabinet Office

2001: Programme manager, UpMyStreet.com

2001: Producer, Syzygy.

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