Doing good through digital transformation

For the public and non-profit sectors, how can greater collaboration help change more lives for the better?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Digital is disrupting traditional norms. Online retailers such as Amazon, Asos and Ocado are creating conditions in which conventional high street shops are finding it hard to compete. Aggregator sites, like Compare the Market, are having a huge impact on traditional insurance providers. Challenger banks, such as Monzo and Starling, are changing the landscape of retail banking.

Over the last decade, whilst the landscape of the public and non-profit sectors has certainly not changed as dramatically, change is certainly afoot.

For those of us concerned with social impact, how can digital transformation help us succeed in our missions? And how might cross-sector collaboration provide a model for doing greater good?

I have been researching this area for some time. In the Spring of 2018, I was in Sydney researching digital approaches to improving mental wellbeing.

One afternoon, I met up with Jono Nicholas who ran a non-profit called Reach Out. Founded in 1997, Reach Out has the very specific mission to harness the power of the web to support young people’s mental health. In Jono I found someone who shared my sense of frustration that traditional services were failing to keep up with fast-changing public expectations.

One thing he said has stayed with me since that meeting. “Mental health” he said “hasn’t had its Uber moment yet… yet.

Mark my words. It will. That is, if it hasn’t already.

The current way we deliver mental health services comes nowhere near giving people what they want. Unmet need is staggeringly high. Mental health has all the hallmarks of a sector which is ripe for disruption globally — as evidenced by the growing amount of venture capital funding being raised by start ups.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Jono and I were talking about mental health, but the truth is we could have been talking about any number of fields where non-profit and public sector organisations are concerned with making people’s lives better.

There are numerous examples of people successfully doing just that — often involving working collaboratively across sectors and industries.

What are some examples that can inspire us?

Let’s start with a story from Moneythink and

Going to college in America is, to most Europeans, bafflingly expensive. In 2019, outstanding student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.41 trillion. The student finance system is complicated and hard to navigate. For most of us, it’s easy to imagine the challenges a teenager from a low-income family — who could be the first in their family to go to college — will face.

Moneythink’s mission is to help low-income students make smart choices about where to apply to College, helps them through the process of applying for financial aid, and then supports them to plan their finances once they are there.

The Chicago-based non-profit worked with (a non profit design studio) to move their work outside of the classroom and into the everyday lives of young people by developing a financial literacy mobile app. Built by mobile development partner, CauseLabs, Moneythink Mobile is now in the hands of over 3,300 students and 1,000 mentors.

Our next example focuses on how predictive analytics can transform the effectiveness of programmes.

A recent episode of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Podcast told the story of how California State University are using predictive tools to increase the rate of students graduating from college. Supported by the Stupski Foundation, the same tools have have helped to narrow the attainment gap between under-represented minority students and the wider student body.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Cal State’s Assistant Vice Chancellor, Jeff Gold, argues that these sorts of tools will also bring further benefits.

With enough data over a long enough period of time, he says, “we should be able to confidently say here are the two or three things — the two or three support services — that we are going to recommend, because we know with almost absolute certainty that these three things are going to help you graduate”.

In the future, Cal State should also be able to see which interventions are having a less positive effect on outcomes — supporting them to make informed decisions about where to best target limited resources.

By the same principle, many public and non-profit organisations are making use of predictive analytics. Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool have been leading the way in making use of tools to identify those service users at most risk of crisis. Crisis Text Line, a non-profit based in New York, is another great example of an organisation using data to predict risk amongst users.

Another case study is an initiative up and running in both the UK and Australia - Casserole Club.

In their own words, “Casserole Club volunteers share extra portions of home-cooked food with people in their area who aren’t always able to cook for themselves. They share once a week, once a month, or whenever works best for them”.

It has a beautifully designed user-interface, making the experience of volunteering easy and seamless. What’s interesting about this initiative is that whilst it’s supported by third sector and local authority partners, the platform itself is run by FutureGov — a digital transformation agency based in the UK working primarily with public services. Another great example of collaboration between sectors, with each partner bringing different skills, assets and knowledge to the table.

What practical lessons can we draw from these case studies?

First, above all, focus on what’s best for the community you serve.

As we saw with Moneythink, digital transformation can be an important way for organisations to reach beneficiaries most effectively.

By using principles of human-centred design, we can truly focus on the needs of people using our services and how best to reach them. More on that in the video below, courtesy of’s Design Kit initiative (their Field Guide is also highly recommended reading).

Second, as Cal State University demonstrated in their work, think creatively about funding.

In a blog for Digital Agenda, James Plunkett from Citizens Advice discusses the challenge of the “doughnut effect”. For non-profits reliant on grant-income, this can mean struggling to fund core activities or investments in technology. James calls this the “subsidence effect” in other words, “you can raise money to build a house but not to pay for the foundations”. Similar challenges will also be keenly felt in the public sector.

That said, new funds are increasingly springing up in this space to support change and innovation. In the UK, the Big Lottery Digital Fund launched in 2018 with £15 million of funding for non-profit organisations. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Comic Relief and Social Finance are also active in this space. In the public sector, the Local Digital Fund and the NHS Global Digital Exemplars programme have also provided much needed funding. We undoubtedly need to see much more of this if we’re going to make serious headway.

Third, get the right team together.

Amazon famously structures its teams into small, nimble groups with no more than 7 to 8 people — so called two-pizza-teams, as that’s how many people who can comfortably fed with two large pizzas.

Non-profit and public sector organisations are bursting with talented and passionate workers. Where there are successful examples of digital transformation, this has often been made possible through collaborating with outside agencies — whether that’s design specialists, developers, or other organisations that bring something special to the table.

What skills do you want on your team and where can you find those people? Where you’re bringing together people from different sectors, be mindful of different expectations and ways of working. Spending time at the start of the project to understand one another is key — this useful guide from CAST may be useful in guiding those initial conversations.

Digital transformation isn’t the next big thing. All of the tools and skills we need are accessible right now.

For non-profits and public sector organisations alike, digital transformation offers us a way to deliver services in ways the public actually want.

Through genuinely user-centered design, we can reach more people, improve outcomes and make engaging with our organisations a more positive experience for everyone. What’s not to like about that?

Becky Cotton (more about me)

Founder at Lumino. MBA from Cambridge University. Fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.