Zoe Amar: What charities can learn from Silicon Valley

Many tech companies now have a strong sense of social mission, writes our columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Question: which organisation’s mission is to help strengthen local economies, improve access to transportation and make streets safer? Answer: it’s not a charity: it’s Uber.

Watching the BBC series Secrets of Silicon Valley recently and hearing senior leaders from Uber and other tech companies talking about their organisations’ goals, I was struck by their strong sense of social mission. This isn’t always delivered in a socially responsible way (see Uber’s recent woes), but what can we learn from organisations that intuitively use tech to scale up solutions to some of the problems that charities are also trying to solve, from health to climate change?

Dominic Preston, technology tax partner at Grant Thornton UK, thinks that more charities should build partnerships with Silicon Valley: "There has been a generational shift and those now entering the tech world are increasingly focused on solving societal issues while delivering shareholder return." He also points out that successful tech entrepreneurs will have the time and resources to devote to philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Mandy Johnson, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, who previously worked for the Silicon Valley company Change.org, thinks that charities should learn from tech companies’ data-driven approach, their "test, learn and improv"’ cultures and their ability to think big.

"Tech companies aren't scared to set themselves overly ambitious targets," she says. "The digital era that we are living in allows us to scale in a way that we have never been able to before. I think the charity sector should believe that the insurmountable visions that they once created might now be possible if we take a digital-first approach."

Yet just as charities could learn from Silicon Valley, couldn’t they also gain something from the deep expertise we have in our sector? Jon Speirs, chief executive of the autism research charity Autistica agrees.

"That’s why at Autistica we’re working with a number of big tech firms to develop new tools to change autistic people’s lives, based on the latest science," he says. "As a small charity with big ambitions, we’re able to do things we’ve only dreamed of by collaborating with experts in areas like artificial intelligence
and big data."

Is it realistic to expect charities to innovate in the way that Silicon Valley can? Money is one of the obvious barriers, but so is organisational structure and culture. Embracing failure, as many tech companies do, is not an easy sell to donors.

However, John Coventry, head of UK communications at the crowdfunding company GoFundMe, thinks that if more charities had agile, cross-functional teams this could improve "the pace and scale of problem-solving in the voluntary sector," as could a "laser focus on outcomes and delivery rather than process and procedure".

Tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna feels that charities must balance their governance responsibilities with streamlining their decision-making and accountability in order to innovate. She says: "If charities don't better embrace tech to address the societal challenges they are trying to solve, then sooner or later the private sector will move into their space and effectively eat their lunch."

This sums up the challenge and opportunity facing charities in tech at the moment, and the fact that we have a finite window to take it. Silicon Valley might not be a direct threat to charities right now, but we should learn from its approach, and vice versa.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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