There’s nothing like the turn of a decade to prompt you to step back and look at longer-term changes. The pace of digital change is notoriously fast, and getting faster. What does this mean over the longer term? And why is 2020 particularly important? 

Looking at the last 20 years, it’s easy to see that digital technology has profoundly altered the way we live our lives. Smartphones were rare and unrecognisable in 2000, but now it’s almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t have one, or to imagine getting through a day without using a smartphone. 

And what did charity use of digital look like 20 years ago? A friend of mine was a website manager at a large London-based charity in the early 2000s. They had a basic website, but this organisation with a team of 100 only had one internet connection. So the web manager had to book one hour each week so he could update the website. Things have changed a lot since then…

What might the next 20 years look like for the voluntary sector in Scotland? 

I’ll play it safe by talking about approaches and technologies that are proven to work today, and available to organisations of any size. 

  • Making good use of service design would enable us to design and deliver truly person-centred services that meet the needs of everyone we’re trying to help – and would help us keep refining these services in response to people’s needs.
  • Strategic use of data would enable the voluntary sector to spot gaps in provision, overlaps and duplication and understand which approaches are making a real difference – in real time.
  • Fully embracing flexible tech would help teams collaborate and deliver effectively within and beyond organisations, with more time available to focus on our social mission.

So a voluntary sector getting ahead of the curve with digital could become more capable, more responsive and better co-ordinated, even as social needs increase and budgets shrank. A voluntary sector that didn’t keep up with these changes would rapidly become out of touch and inefficient.

Prediction is a mug’s game. But the easiest way to predict the future is to make it yourself 

As the old proverb says, ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ That’s where The Catalyst comes in. Launching in Scotland at The Gathering on 19 February, this represents a ground-breaking opportunity for charities to accelerate their digital capability.   

The Catalyst– incubated by the Centre of Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) – is a partnership between major foundations, digital design agencies, civil society bodies and the UK Government. It aims to revolutionise the way we tackle social and environmental issues in the UK by enabling voluntary organisations to adapt to our digital world and make better use of technology. 

Working together to accelerate innovation 

The Catalyst sets out to support 40,000 UK charities to seize digital’s opportunities for innovation and efficiency, and enable them to provide services for customers going online in increasing numbers to seek digital solutions and support for everything from housing and mental health to education and isolation. 

It aims to: 

  • Galvanise an effective, sustainable and collaborative cross-sector network to drive sector change. 
  • Increase the quality, range and uptake of tools and support to build the sector’s knowledge, skills and services. 
  • Scale up the delivery of digital training, leadership and service design programmes known to improve nonprofits services and organisational resilience. 

We hope lots of charities in Scotland share this ambition, and we look forward to working with them as part of The Catalyst