Charities currently play no part in digital revolution, says Nesta chief

Geoff Mulgan tells the NPC annual conference that the sector is 'a bystander, not a shaper' and should find a way to have a bigger say

Geoff Mulgan
Geoff Mulgan

Charities are "playing no part whatsoever" in the digital revolution and must consider how they can have more of a say in this area, according to Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta.

Speaking at New Philanthropy Capital’s annual conference in London yesterday, Mulgan said the world was experiencing huge changes to society because of the introduction of new technology, but warned that "our sector is a bystander, not a shaper" in this new environment.

"Civil society, pretty much everywhere, is playing no part whatsoever in this revolution," he said.

"It is scarcely using the technologies. It is not influencing them, it is not having a say on the policies around them, with a few small exceptions, and I think that is a big problem.

"I think one of the biggest strategic questions for our whole sector in the next five to 10 years is how we move to have some say on this."

He said that charities needed to work harder to engage with the whole population, to understand people’s concerns and to harness their anger about modern society.

"Much of high-level civil society is in its own Guardian-ish bubble, which is not dissimilar a mirror to the Trumpish or Brexitish bubbles on the other side," he said.

"I think it is important for all of us to cultivate empathy and cultivate people who don’t agree with you, so you have a feel of how the world looks to people like them, not just for the people like you."

Mulgan warned that, despite the positive recent Civil Society Strategy from the government, the era of relatively easy access to ministers would probably end with Theresa May’s government.

He said that politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson had a much less favourable tone towards the charity sector than the current government and the previous four or five Prime Ministers.

This meant that charities "need to go back to their roots as a challenger to power" rather than focusing on collaborating with government, he said.

Speaking in a panel session after Mulgan’s speech, Fran Perrin, founder and director of the Indigo Trust, said that charity funders needed to help charities adapt to digital technology, with many charities focused on day-to-day survival rather than leading the fourth industrial revolution.

"What we need, and it is slowly happening, is funders understanding the role they have to play in understanding digital, funding digital and changing the nature of their work," Perrin said.

"We cannot keep asking charities to up their game on this without donors changing their behaviour first."

But she called for more digital expertise on charity boards and for charities to stop thinking of digital as "an optional extra", because most of the social justice and domestic issues charities wanted to solve had some connection to new technology.

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