Charities must understand emerging technology, CAF policy chief tells MPs

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, tells the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering that the sector is not doing enough to embrace new tech

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

Charities are failing to sufficiently address the problems caused by new technologies or take advantage of the opportunities they create, the head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation told MPs this week.

Speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering in parliament on Tuesday, Rhodri Davies warned that charities were failing to adapt to the new technologies that were emerging and did not understand how this would affect every facet of their work.

"If we look back to any of the previous industrial revolutions we have had, civil society has played a vital role in minimising some of the harms while maximising the possible opportunities of technological development," he said.

"I think it is absolutely crucial that we do the same in this fourth industrial revolution, and my concern is that we are not currently as well placed as we should be to do that."

This included embracing new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and voice-activated virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa, to generate income, and exploring how digital currencies and assets could work for the charity sector.

Earlier this week, the British Heart Foundation became the first UK charity to allow supporters to donate through Alexa.

Davies also told the APPG that charities needed to understand mass movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, including the limitations of those movements.

"Traditionally, we have all had to centralise to make it feasible to make decisions effectively and deal with some of the challenges of logistics," he said. "But technology is increasingly making it possible to operate in a more decentralised way.

"Perhaps what we as traditional civil society can help to do is backfill some of that slightly more unglamorous infrastructure onto the energy of these new movements."

Julia Unwin, the chair of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society, told the APPG that that established and larger charities "need to pay really careful attention to some of the challenges that are coming our way", regardless of how irritating or disruptive those challenges might be.

Unwin, whose inquiry is expected to report next month, added that issues such as Brexit and the Windrush scandal had shown that charities needed to step up, help rebuild faith in democracy, repair the "tattered social fabric" and embrace their role as places where people could discuss difficult subjects.

But she warned that charities risked damaging trust in the sector further if they continued as usual and did not respond to the changes society was going through.

"Trust is our biggest currency," she said. "It is the currency that is worth more than our brand names or our balance sheets.

"Trust is what keeps us going. It is what enables people to support us and come to us when they need help. It is what enables government to be hugely dependent on civil society and listen to us.

"We squander that trust in civil society at our peril."

Kirsty McNeil, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children, said that larger charities could be "platforms for others to stand upon" and should bring their experience to bear in helping achieve social change.

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