We interviewed Lisa Goodwin, Deputy CEO of Vonne ( Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East) about their Social Tech North East Initiative

1.      Tell us how the idea for Social Tech North East came about

We had been thinking for a while about how we get the VCSE sector more inspired about/ engaged with digital. We knew from our discussions with members and from The Charity Digital Skills Report that there were issues with lack of adoption of digital, and we felt as a membership body with over 1200 VCSE organisations as members we had a role in tackling this, but we weren’t sure how it would look.

We didn’t want to just offer more training. We were aware of the brilliant tech for good sector in the North East region and felt that there was a gulf between tech companies operating as private businesses but with a clear social purpose and social value, and charities who could really benefit from adopting new technology/ making better use of digital, but who didn’t know where to start.

We talked about this with our web developers (Consult and Design) – they work with a lot of charities and had been thinking about the same issues. They did some thinking and came back to us with a proposal to create ‘Charity Digital North East’ – a way to bring charities together to look at how they make better use of digital.

This happened at the same time as we were in discussion with the Innovation Super Network about a new project to support VCSE organisations with innovation. They brought us on to their ‘Developing Innovation in North East Clusters’ programme as a partner to support innovation in the VCSE sector. We talked to them about the charity digital north east idea and they liked it and agreed they could support it as part of their programme. So we suddenly had a new resource which could support us with a bit of staff time to develop our ideas, and contribute towards room hire and most importantly pizza! We ended up changing the name to Social Tech NE as wanted the tech sector to be there alongside charities.

2. What is Social Tech North East?

This says it better than I can. Basically it’s a space for anyone in the charity or tech sectors to come together and talk about all things digital and tech. Over a bit of pizza. We always have a couple of speakers to kick off the discussions, and we move our meets around the region to different places that are interesting in terms of tech or social purpose.

We haven’t tried to define it any more than that but we are starting to see some partnerships emerge and we know that people attending have been inspired by people they’ve met and the talks they’ve heard. It is really tempting to curate it a bit more but I think we’ll have a few more meets before we take stock and just see what emerges.

So far we’ve met at Proto, TUSpark Newcastle, Sunderland Software Centre and Breeze Creatives. We’re going back to Proto for meet 5 on 5th September as it is home to a diverse range of emerging tech companies, and the facilities are amazing!

In terms of how we run it we split the work equally with Consult and Design – VONNE promote the meets, book venues and catering, we jointly approach and brief speakers and Consult and Design facilitate the intros and discussions on the night.

3. What challenges and opportunities do charities and tech organisations face in the North East?

I could write a whole blog on this one! I’ll just focus on charities as I don’t think I know enough to speak with authority on the tech sector. Some of the challenges for charities are the same as ever – number one being resources. It’s difficult for them to embrace digital because it takes time and often money – and both of those are in scarce supply.

Our members tell us they are under increasing pressure each year to do more with limited resources, and beneficiaries will always come first so any investment in digital goes on the back burner – even though it may help to save money in the longer term.

The other big challenges are around diversity and involvement of younger people. This is obviously controversial – but the digital sector is putting the charity sector to shame in terms of diversity and inclusion, and other things like working conditions and benefits.

Something that I care deeply about is involvement of younger people in our sector as it is a dying sector… the average age of a trustee is still going up – and I think that’s so sad when there are generations of younger socially minded people out there with a lot to offer. Some charities are doing brilliantly at engaging younger people – and that’s usually because they are using digital as an engagement tool. I think some of our more traditional charities need to see digital not only as a technical tool to support their work – but as a massive opportunity – an equaliser that can help them connect to and involve different types of people.

4. What are you planning to do next?

Meets in September and November, then a bit of evaluation about what attendees are taking away from it, and a chat with Consult and Design about where we go with it. We’re lucky that we have the resource from the Innovation Supernetwork confirmed until March 2021 (they match fund it so VONNE effectively contributes 50% of the cost from our core costs as we believe it’s a core part of our work to support the sector in the NE). We need to decide how we develop the web resource – lots of people have sent us useful links and many emerge from discussions on the night – but we might want to house these somewhere else. We have been really pleased with the response we’ve had to the events – from people volunteering as speakers to venues like TUSpark hosting for free.

5. What can charities across the UK learn from Social Tech North East? 

That the tech sector is not scary and that a great many of those working in it are so creative and socially minded. I think what we’ve learned at VONNE is that there is real value in getting the two sectors together informally to see what flourishes.

The tech sector locally have been so willing to get on board with this and for the charities involved the main benefit has been getting to talk to them in an informal environment. Charities are naturally cautious with expenditure as they are custodians of public funds. All too often this means that there is an unnecessary formality to the start of a digital journey – the charity might spend time producing a tender spec as they feel that this is good way to outline what they need – when in fact starting with some informal chats with digital firms would change that spec entirely… I’m not saying that very articulately but you know what I mean!

One of the charity attendees said to me at the last event ‘I really value the fact I now have a few friendly faces that I can contact if I have a techy question, and I know they are not going to try and sell me a big expensive solution’.

For the tech sector I hope we are demystifying the world of charities – many of them want to support small, local causes, but it’s difficult to get to know about them as small local charities don’t have much of a marketing budget. Lots of the companies have reflected to me that they are astonished at the number of small charitable organisations working at a community level. If we’re helping to make them more visible that’s great.