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  • 17 Nov 2017

Funding Tech for Good: What’s the Secret?

Penny Yewers, Research and Policy Officer at PHF

Penny Yewers gives her insights into Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s (PHF) tech-funding journey so far.

For many trusts and foundations tech funding is shrouded in mystery, uncertainty and risk. How can we tell which ideas, approaches and teams are good? What are realistic goals for progress and measures of success? Will our usual decision-making processes keep pace? Is it more expensive? When is building an app the right thing to do and when does it miss the point, becoming tech for tech’s sake? Not to mention the bewildering jargon of MVP, agile, UX, alpha and beta, and sprints and scrums!

But despite these challenges we, and many of our peers, know that digital solutions can be really effective in alleviating the social issues we care about and that adapting to be more digitally responsive to users is crucial to the future of the organisations and sectors we fund. With that in mind, there has been renewed energy at PHF over the past year to understand how we can get better at funding digital.

Although we’ve supported tech-led projects before, and make some grants with a digital element through our UK funds, we know we have much to learn. One way we are learning is through our partnership with Comic Relief, co-funding the 2017 Tech for Good programme to support digital technology with a social purpose. As well as funding 10 great ideas to develop, we expanded our own knowledge of the tech for good landscape, becoming more familiar with some of the jargon and beginning to explore how to fund digital projects well.

Perhaps the biggest light bulb moment in that time has been that, far from the answers being about deciphering the techy jargon or understanding the technicalities of coding, good digital projects are fundamentally about how organisations listen and respond to users. So much hinges on close consultation with the people who will access the service or product and this is best done through multiple ‘agile’ build-test-learn cycles of development. We also realised that this focus on user-centred design sits very comfortably with our own values and mission as a funder.

Maximising expertise by partnering with a funder with a large tech portfolio, in the form of Comic Relief, has been crucial to us not only starting to fund more digital projects but also to facilitating our own learning about how to make informed decisions on digital applications and the sort of support that’s most useful to grantees. And so we’re really pleased to be doing it again. This year we are increasing our contribution to equally share the costs with our funding partners and extend the programme to support 12 projects overall. The programme is open to ideas at any stage of development but they should define a clear problem, be underpinned by solid user-centred research, and present a compelling digital solution.

But we’re not finished with our learning journey. Ongoing insights from the Tech for Good programme, reflections on the wider funding landscape, and our increasing involvement in the social tech community, are all feeding into how we understand and respond to digitally focused applications across our funds. We’re learning as we go.

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