a year on have things changed and perhaps how they could change for the better
Yesterday I was looking through some old blogs, and came across this blog I wrote just over a year ago which looked at funding for digital and data work in the UK charitable sector. It seemed right to have a quick review and see if anything had changed a year later and also to explore some wider questions about how we go about building better digital and data infrastructure for the sector.
Firstly, has grant funding for digital and data changed a year on?
Well really, not a huge amount has actually changed. A year-over-year comparison reveals a sobering reality: despite a spike in funding around 2020, coinciding with the NLCF Digital Programme’s peak, the financial investment in digital and data initiatives has seen a decline. In 2022, my analysis indicates that £35m was designated for digital work and £7.8m for data-related activities.
Beyond the Surface Figures
So, just to be clear, my analysis doesn’t account for government grants or contributions from significant funders like The Wellcome Trust, nor does it reflect all funding distributed in the sector as not all funders publish on 360Giving — it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t call for greater transparency by all funders here.
We must also recognise the indirect funding streams fueling that are part of the sector. For instance, Lloyds Bank Foundation and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation collectively disbursed £2.83m for developmental support for charities in 2022 via funder+ models, some of which included digital and data support, on top of their £51.4m in grants. And crucially they both provide unrestricted funding, allowing charities the autonomy to choose what they invest in, which increasingly includes digital and data development.
Contextualising the funding for digital and data
So while £43.8m might appear generous at face value let’s put that into context with the rest of the funding granted to the sector. Contrasting the digital and data funding against the total grants issued by foundations puts things in perspective: merely 1.8% and 0.4% of all funds were allocated to digital and data endeavours, respectively. Even at the height of digital funding in 2020, it accounted for only 2.8%, with data funding consistently trailing.
But won’t AI fix all this anyway?
Of course I couldn’t do a blog without mentioning AI, that just won’t do. The buzz around Artificial Intelligence (AI) is unavoidable, and its potential is immense. I think it will change things, especially how we interact with data, as we shift from dashboards to question based interfaces. And it will change how digital systems can work together and even be developed.
Yet I still believe that without a robust data and digital infrastructure as a foundation AI’s potential is significantly hampered. And call me a luddite all you want, but if you have poor data infrastructure, AI AIn’t gonna fix it. And I’m not the only one.
As I started to write this I saw a blog by @Dan Sutch who also discussed funding for digital and how that impacts upon civil society’s ability to take advantage of, and mitigate the risks of AI.
While we disagree on the funding figures, I think we both agree that under investment in solid infrastructure in both digital AND data are a huge problem. Is less than 2% investment in digital and data really going to cut it?
Funding: Quantity or Strategy?
So is it about funders investing more into this space? Well I’d simply argue yes, but then so would many others, for increased investment into other things, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree with them. So yes more money in this space would be welcome, but while beneficial, it’s not the sole solution.
I think that if we take a more strategic approach to investment it can have a multiplicative effect. Imagine if foundations dedicated resources to supporting the development of open-source products, with transparent intellectual property (IP), tailored for the sector’s needs. We’ve seen the seeds of such an approach in Power to Change’s support for Community Tech and initiatives by newer entities like the Disrupt Foundation, which are building communal platforms and supporting charities to improve their own systems in unison.
There are other examples of strategic investment, Esmee Fairbairn’s sustained support for 360Giving and data ecosystem development in the youth sector illustrates a commitment to nurturing a supportive infrastructure. JRF’s investment into building Insight Infrastructure is a significant step in the right direction as well. These examples underscore the merit in investing not just funds but also faith in collaborative, strategic infrastructure building, but they are too few and far between.
So what could we do?
Well, lets imagine if we
Supported Open Source Development: by emphasising funding for, and adoption of open-source projects that bolster sector-wide digital capabilities.
Institutionalised Open IP: by encouraging, or even mandating, that all digital work funded by the sector embraces open IP to foster a culture of shared progress.
Cultivated Collective Solutions: By pooling knowledge and resources for charities and the wider ecosystem to develop collective responses to digital and data challenges, diminishing reliance on big tech solutions.
Promoted Knowledge Sharing: by supporting, incentivising or even requiring agencies and freelancers to document and disseminate solutions to common challenges
Developed collective and purposeful innovation: by supporting true collaborative innovation within the charitable sector through pooling the insights and experiences from a diverse set of organisations, people with lived experience, and digitally native young people to tackle complex challenges.
Embraced Collaborative Efforts: by working on this together, in the open
In fact, let’s not imagine, let’s take action together, and maybe then we’d have some real fireworks.