May 2019

CIP’s Investment Manager, Jules Tompkins considers how social sector organisations can approach the use of digital technology in service design and delivery to enhance social impact   

When I was at University the internet was still in its infancy and the bulk of my undergrad research was using books and journals. I remember one occasion when the book I needed was already checked out and a fellow student suggested I try Google, not particularly memorable you might think but I remember it because I had to ask him how to spell ‘Google’. This seems almost inconceivable now when you consider there are 3.2 trillion Google searches each year. Digital interaction is increasingly a way of life, by the end of 2018 there were 12.8 million smart energy meters in homes and businesses across the UK and 100 million voice activated speakers worldwide. If digital and ‘tech’ is now so integral to our lives, is the social sector keeping pace?

Funders and social investors are increasingly seeing applications from social sector organisations to support digital-based services and models to tackle complex needs. Many have the potential to deliver effective social impact but some also come with a hefty price-tag and a host of assumptions about how people will engage with ‘digital’ in whatever form it takes. The challenge for many funders is not whether we want to support digital services but rather how can we assess whether the approach is going to work in the way organisation assumes? The risk is whether the often ‘bespoke’ digital solution could become the end in itself, especially if it requires substantial upfront investment, specialist skills and a lot of resource to maintain it. Can a website deliver social impact? Does the world need another App? On the other hand, is there a danger funders and social investors could be inadvertently stifling the use of digital to achieve social impact if we’re not confident to assess if it’s the right approach?

To try and get to grips with some of these digital dilemmas I recently attended a workshop run by the team at CAST(Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology). It was an opportunity to listen to the CAST experts with other funders to explore some of the practical challenges and opportunities when it comes to investing in digital and tech-based models. There were three things that stood out for me –

  1. Make sure you fully understand the problem you are trying to address and the behaviours associated with it – don’t jump straight to the digital solution
  2. Don’t design digital services based on assumptions of how you think people ‘should’ engage with it – the reality may be very different
  3. Digital doesn’t need to be ‘ground-breaking’ or innovative to be effective – never build from scratch unless you absolutely need to.

These might sound like common sense but they stuck in my mind because I could think of numerous examples of funding applications focussing on the ‘need’ for a new App, bespoke website or digital platform but with very little research or evidence to demonstrate why that was the most effective solution. The ‘need’ to use digital tools was starting to overshadow the impact they were trying to create.

Social sector organisations often have a good understanding of the problem they’re trying to address but getting to grips with behaviours can be more challenging. A digital solution based on how you think people shouldbehave, or shouldinteract with something on the premise it will have a positive impact, probably isn’t going to work. I recently read a blog that explained commercial tech companies design and develop their products by considering two value judgements – User Value and Financial Value. From a User Value perspective, they focus solely on how people behave and interact with a product, making no assumptions about how they think people shouldbehave or interact. This is one of the reasons why many digital products are so addictive (how many times have you looked at your mobile phone today?). When it comes to using digital for social good there are three strands to the value judgement –

  • User Value– understanding service users changing needs, behaviours and expectations
  • Financial Value– value for money and sustainability
  • Social Value– what is the problem and what is the intended social impact

It’s these three strands that will help to unlock the social impact that digital can help to create.

Understanding user needs and designing a service around them is never easy (digital or otherwise), but focusing on the technology at the beginning is more likely to set you off on the wrong path which could end up being a costly mistake. To try and help with the digital challenge, CAST have put together 10 Digital Design Principles to help charities and social enterprises to build better digital services and tools.

Based on extensive research and testing, the Design Principles have been tailored to the social sector and aim to help organisations understand what ‘good’ looks like for them and their users. The principles can be found at with detailed guidance, tools, scenarios and case studies.

These principles alone will not necessarily make the process any easier but they can help to cut through some of the potential complexity and enable organisations (and their funders / investors) to feel confident that the identified solution is the right one and will lead to effective social impact, the biggest value judgement of them all.

For further advice and guidance on designing digital services –


10 Design Principles –

CAST Blog –