Everyone in the charity sector is needing to respond to the ‘digital age’. Many organisations, including The Children’s Society (TCS) are embarking on digital transformation or digital maturity programmes, looking at all aspects of an organisation from the technology used by staff through to digital communications with beneficiaries.
A year ago The Children’s Society (TCS) saw an opportunity to also explore a different path, one that embraces innovation, partnership, and one that has the potential to achieve greater impact for vulnerable young people and at scale – a partnership with a social technology accelerator programme to work together to catalyse the next wave of social technology in the youth sector. TCS work’s with vulnerable children and young people facing multiple disadvantage. Our work supports children facing a range of issues – those who have been abused or neglected, those facing sexual or criminal exploitation, children missing from home, children in the care system, experiencing family breakdown, domestic violence and substance misuse, those facing mental health problems, refugee children. But the issues experienced by young people don’t come in silos - they are all meshed together in cycles and knots that are very difficult to entangle, especially when you’re a young person transitioning into or out of care, across borders, or into adulthood, which are in themselves no small challenges.
In the last 18 months we have been exploring with it looks like to break these cycles of disadvantage. How can we stop just sticking plasters on things that happen, and start tackling root causes and achieving even greater impact. How can we go further in creating new models of support for young people and going beyond this to affect change at a legislative, political, cultural and social level. How can we be disruptive – not in a start-up sense but in a tackling the cycles of issues experienced time and time again, and in improving the systems that are meant to help.
Nowhere is our challenge more relevant than in the digital space. The deep irony of the digital revolution is that, as the pace of change throws all our standard operating responses into chaos – the fundamental needs of young people don’t really change very much – to be safe, loved, cared for, protected from risks, empowered to be resilient, supported with adequate resources. Whether young people are included or excluded from the digital world, we know that its impact is ever increasing, and that there is huge potential in facing up to this reality and embracing the use technology to improve the lives of vulnerable young people.
So this different path…what it is? Rather than invest solely in our own development or in partnership with established organisations - we instead sought fresh ideas, start-ups, and new collaborators that could help us accelerate the impact we seek to achieve.
A key strand of this approach is our partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV). Together we have embarked on sponsoring and supporting 10 social tech ventures through the accelerator process over the next 3 years. The idea is simple. How can we support the development of social technology that could make a massive difference to vulnerable young people – way beyond anything we could develop in house or commission out (for more information why not listen to this podcast on Tech for Good and young people)?
In a challenging funding environment, it was important for the Children’s Society to try something new – a different route to funding and scaling impact. The Children’s Society as a backer of others impact was a different concept. Through a match funded arrangement with Big Society Capital we are investing in the acceleration of new social technology ventures. The returns for TCS are entirely about social impact. Backing new ideas can be a risky business, particularly because it’s not always clear at an early stage whether a venture will work or not, but our view is that the disruptive potential of new social technology is worth that risk.
The Children’s Society and BGV worked together last year to establish a set of criteria for ventures applying to the BGV young people’s partnership, which guides the sorts of ideas, teams, and vision we are both looking for in a new venture.
As of the start of 2018 we have supported two ventures and are mid-way through recruiting our second round of applications for the spring 2018 cohort. From the first time we met the ventures we have sponsored and supported, we were blown away by their passion to help children and young people, and the diverse and deep experience that as a cohort they bring to the social challenges they are aiming to tackle. We could also see the potential for their products to ultimately create a positive impact for young people facing multiple disadvantage.
One of the first two ventures backed is Ally Chatbot, provides individuals in precarious housing situations with the information, advice and tools they need to escape the cycle of homelessness. We are working with them to explore how the bot might also support care leavers, those transitioning into adulthood and families with children facing eviction and abandonment.
The second of the ventures we have backed is Mind Moose, a digital platform which young people can interact with at home, school or in other setting to learn about their mental well-being and how to promote it. We are working with Mind Moose to explore how they could further develop the content for targeting the harder to reach, more vulnerable young people who are transitioning into secondary school and in early adolescence.
Although we are still early on in our partnership with BGV, there are some promising early signs of success, and a lot of learning.
- BGV as a programme is set up to explore new ideas, they want to hear them. They are incredibly transparent in their processes, and embrace uncertainty that comes with the territory. For us working with them is a partnership, that we can build together, including linking to the wider social technology community
- The programme itself is established and tested for ventures at this stage of their development. It finds a good balance between those who are at very early stage concept, and those who have a prototype and who might already be starting to sell it out. The mix of content is good, including founder confidentials (founders of start-ups who have ‘made it’ sharing their journey and their experiences) to themed weeks focusing on important aspects of building a business like marketing, branding, investment strategy, user research
- The 13 week programme is structured to build as it goes, culminating in a ‘demo-day’ at which ventures have the opportunity to pitch their product. It is positive to see how ventures grow over the 13 weeks of the accelerator to demo day. The BGV team provides them with ample opportunity to perfect their pitches and learn about the experience of marketing their product.
- The programme is always moving forward and fast paced. Ventures need to be prepared to be committed for the duration of the 13 weeks in order to make the most of it. Whole teams are required to attend the programme, and commitment to the programme is an assessment criteria during selection
We have also learnt a lot about where we can add value to the ventures, and crucially when to step aside:
- We conduct a tight and robust application and interview process to ensure that our selection meets TCS’ strategic intent and charitable mission. Understanding the problem and articulating the chosen solution is part of the criteria for selection, and areas that as an organisation we can provide critical insight and guidance on. In order to support the ventures who are accepted onto the programme, and who we are sponsoring, we have assigned “practitioner buddies” (frontline service professionals) to ventures with the appropriate skillset and the subject matter expertise to assist them in building their evidence base and sense checking their ideas as they develop
- We have also enabled specialists from within the organisation to spend time with the ventures on specific elements of their development work, including service design, user-led research, policy and marketing and branding.
- The ventures have found the support received from TCS really helpful, with the networks, insight, and experience that we can bring to their development. We have even been able to provide very light touch support to other ventures within the cohort, not sponsored by TCS. This includes advice on events, campaigning, investment / funding opportunities and their pitches
- We also recognise and acknowledge that the founders are the owners of the social business and need to lead product design, vision, and business strategy. We are always keen for the ventures to hear from those with the most expertise, whether that be ourselves or others. The programme is about impact for young people, not about impact created only through or by TCS
Our partnerships with the ventures will continue beyond the accelerator programme itself with different arrangements depending on their stage of development and future ambitions. It remains early days for the partnership and our programme of support to these ventures, however we are delighted at the progress that has been made and the fun that we’ve all had while we are doing it. The first products are now being used with young people and families, with positive feedback on product use and user experience so far. We are looking forward to sifting through applications for the next cohort of ventures in the next few weeks – and to take those selected on board on the journey to their demo day and to becoming a new social technology venture
For further information, please contact Kirsten Naudé, Head of Investment and Partnership, The Children’s Society