There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a tumultuous year, with certain sectors feeling the impact more than others. Charities have been especially affected – making inter-industry collaboration more important than ever.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Charity IT Leaders Forum, which connects technologists in the third sector together to share knowledge, experience and opportunities. Our own Noel Anderson sat down with CEO Tree Hall to talk about what the last 20 years have brought to the charity sector, and what might change in the future.

You can watch the video below, or keep scrolling to read the transcript.

Noel Anderson 

Hello, today we’re going to be talking about the future of tech in the charity sector. Now, I have the pleasure of asking 10 tech questions to Tree Hall. Tree is the CEO of the Charity IT Leaders Forum, the premier IT networking group for the UK charity and not-for-profit sector. Tree, we’re talking about the future today, but before looking into the future, it’s important to look at the past. How have you seen the tech sector change in the past 20 years?

Tree Hall 

We’ve seen the rise of the adoption of cloud technologies, and I think, for our sector that has really changed the dynamic for CIOs and IT directors. Instead of thinking about the acquisition of shiny bits of tin and putting those into place for people, we’re now talking about systems, about processes. That has changed the way that technical leaders in the sector are having those conversations at board level and across their organisations, because they’re looking at systems and processes that affect and interact with every single department across their organisation.

It’s no longer the case that IT is the addon or the afterthought, or it certainly shouldn’t be the case. We do still see, in a lot of our members, that IT is still the kind of, ‘Come on join the conversation!’ once we’ve had all the technical innovation and the exciting stuff going on; and IT is still the late-comer to the party in a way. I think that’s a problem, that’s a huge problem, because organisations that leverage the really, really huge impacts out of technology and digital are the ones that have put technology and digital right at the heart of everything that they do. So, they’re not bringing their technical teams in at the end; the technical teams are there providing that seamless platform that then fuels the capacity to innovate, to be creative, to look at delivering things in new and exciting ways. So, while there have been a lot of changes in that area, I think there’s still a way to go to make sure that we’re really putting IT at the heart of everything. Because until we do that, it’s still going to be a bit fragmented and piecemeal.

So, I think cloud adoption has been a game changer; but I think it’s also that the change to cloud has also brought its own problems, because you’re now looking at systems and processes, and there’s a real debate in organisations about who owns those systems? Is it a fundraising system? Is it an IT system? Is it a service delivery system, rather than it just being seen as a tool to drive the organisation forward? And when you get stuck in those debates about who owns it, then you get stuck in the debates about who owns the data, who owns the volunteers, who owns the donors? It’s a conversation then, I think, that distracts from the real innovation, which should be coming at the service delivery end. It should be coming at the ‘making a difference for our beneficiaries’ end. So, that is still a challenge, that engagement, and working out who owns what and how do we share it out across our organisations? There’s still work to do on that – some organisations are much further forward in that journey than others, and I think that’s one of the things that we’ll certainly be focusing on in the next 20 years: how we keep IT at the centre of everything.

NA

Well, that leads us on nicely, as the Charity IT Leaders are celebrating their 20 year anniversary – I believe – this year, is that right?

TH

We are, we are indeed, it’s a very exciting time for us. Thank you.

NA

So, where do you see the future of the CITL in the next 20 years?

TH

I think in some ways our future is really going to reflect a lot of where we’ve come from. One of our greatest strengths has always been our community, and that’s the fact that we were developed by IT leaders in the sector, for IT leaders in the sector. So, we are very member-driven, we are very fuelled and pushed forward by our members’ needs. And that community is just increasingly growing. What’s really exciting for us is that we have now changed our membership criteria so that we’re open to any size of organisation in the UK. If you’re a not-for-profit, and you are interested in improving your IT output, and how you can leverage better outcomes from IT, come along and join us. That’s what we’re here for. So, I think building on that community is definitely going to be a strategic priority for us. What we want to do within that community is to engage much more deeply with the members that we already have, to be looking at how we can talk to them on a more individualised basis rather than as a single message coming out to the whole community. So, how can we be more specialised and more targeted to the different specialisms and areas of interest within our membership?

We want to do more of the things that we’re already doing really well, like our quarterly meetings and our conference. We want to build on those things so that we have more opportunities to bring people together, both for sharing of knowledge and expertise, but also to learn from each other outside of the sector as well. And that’s another area that we really want to move into is looking at how we can connect with similar organisations to ourselves in the commercial world, how we can learn from the commercial world, but also what we can teach the commercial world and bring those IT leaders into our network as well. But I think the key thing is being member-driven and member-responsive. That’s absolutely vital. That’s our greatest strength.

NA

And where do you see the tech sector itself in the next 20 years?

TH

The tech sector, I think, is going to be really interesting. I think we’ve got to keep focusing on putting IT and digital at the heart of our organisations. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve started that transformation; some of our member organisations are doing that really well, some of them are in progress [and] some of them are not really necessarily thinking about it yet. But we’ve got to put technology and digital at the heart of our organisations. We’ve got to put our people, our IT and digital specialists, at the heart of IT and digital, because technology works – in my opinion anyway – it works best when it’s driven by people, for people. Technology for the sake of technological change is when it starts to become a bit meaningless. And I think that’s when we start to alienate people, as well; if you look at AI, for instance, there’s a perception, or there can be a perception, that AI is going to somehow replace people. And certainly that could be the case in some jobs and roles, but actually, AI works best when we use it to to deliver the mundane stuff, to free up people to be creative and innovative; it’s when we give people more space to be working in ways that AI can’t possibly ever really access those areas. So you have to have people at the heart to ensure that technological innovation has a purpose and a meaning behind it.

I think we’ve also got a really exciting opportunity on the back of the pandemic, and on the back of all the lessons that we’ve learned in lockdown. You know, we’re coming out of lockdown, but will there be another lockdown, will we have a second wave? We’ve all started to work in hugely, hugely different ways. And I think there’s been a really interesting equality in the way that we’re working remotely. You and I are talking now on a screen. I’m almost in your room with you, you’re in my house with me. You know, we’re all seeing the way that we live and work in very different ways. We’ve all had meetings that have been interrupted by children coming in, partners coming coming in, shopping deliveries, Amazon, bin men, whatever it might be. And that’s a real equaliser. There’s a kind of sense that we’re all in it together, and I think there’s a real pragmatism and a tolerance in our meetings now that is not normally there when you’re sitting in a boardroom. That is going to change as we start going back into workplaces, and certainly some of our members are finding that’s quite a tension to resolve for them at the moment, where you have some members of staff back in the office, and they’re sitting in a meeting room together, and they’re engaging in that meeting. But you’ve got people coming into the meeting remotely from home, and suddenly that equality is gone. I think we’ve really got to work on ways to retain that sense of equality and retain the opportunity that remote working has given us. As a remote worker myself for six, seven years now, it’s enabled me to be flexible around my children, it’s enabled me to have a really powerful work life balance; and that has meant that I’ve been able to give a lot more to my employers, because I’ve got that balance.

I think there’s a huge potential workforce of people like me, people who are highly skilled, who’ve got a lot of experience, who can’t access work in the same way because we’ve had this traditional presenteeism in offices, because we’ve had a traditional nine to five. I hope that the flexibility that people have been able to enjoy in lockdown is something that organisations will be able to capitalise on and build on.

And it’s the technology that’s enabled that. It’s remote working, it’s having laptops, it’s having all of this kit that’s in-place, has enabled our workforce to engage in very different ways, and I think that’s hugely exciting as an opportunity. And I think as well, on that same kind of idea of technology fueling inclusion and equality, we’ve also seen it in education. I know that one of our members, GDST, have delivered an amazing online curriculum for all of their pupils through lockdown, and they’ve done that remotely. Now, I think that’s a really powerful thing for an awful lot of children. There’s a huge group of children who are marginalised and excluded from education for a huge number of reasons; whether that’s SEN needs, whether it’s caring responsibilities for a parent or a sibling at home, whether it’s that they just have trouble accessing a traditional one-size-fits-all education. And I think what so many schools have demonstrated is that you can deliver a more tailored and a more bespoke education for those children using the technology and the accessibility of online learning. And that’s not right for everybody, but again, I think for our society, if we can find ways to capture that and harness that so that we can accommodate some of those children who are on the margins, that’s an example of technology absolutely at its best.

NA

And following on from that, which tech innovations do you think will be commonplace in 2040?

TH

Well, I think the rise of smart technology is just going to keep growing, isn’t it? Our homes are becoming increasingly automated, our lives are becoming increasingly automated. I’ve got my Fitbit on my wrist – and by the way, other other health trackers are available. I’ve got reminders to tell me to move, I’ve got reminders to tell me to drink, I’ve got the facility to track my calorie intake. This one’s also linked up to that little Amazon gadget that I must not name because she’ll start to talk in the background. I can turn on the TV, I can turn off the lights, there’s various things that I can do from my wrist. And I think more and more we’ll see smart technology powering our homes, probably powering more of what we do in the workplace. Is that a good thing? Well, I think it certainly has a lot of benefits and advantages, and again, if we’re thinking about inclusion and equality, for people who have got challenges in the home or in the workplace there are ways that we can use smart technology to help them live more independently.

I wonder if sometimes we take smart technology too far, though? Do I really need to turn the lights on from my wrist, or can I just get up and press a light switch? I worry sometimes that if we make life too easy for ourselves, if we remove all of those mundane, everyday functions, we start to become a bit purposeless and we just drift as people.

NA

So, for better or worse, what do you think could be the impact of such technologies on society?

TH

Well, as I mentioned, I think for better there’s the opportunity to improve lives for people. You know, if you’re sitting at home and you have limited mobility, if you struggle to get out and connect with people – using smart technology, using Google screens and things like that – that can create access to communities and people that sometimes people in isolation don’t really have. Those kinds of innovations and those changes are really positive.

The downside, and there’s always a balance with everything, is that we potentially run the risk of creating a society that only connects on-screen; where we don’t have those physical human interactions. And actually, human beings are herd creatures. We need connection with other people to thrive and to be well. So, we just have to keep balanced with everything that we do, and as long as we keep people at the heart, that will kind of steer us along the right route. It’s when we innovate and change purely because we can – just for the sake of innovation – that’s when we run the risk of veering too far off down one direction, and maybe using technology then in ways which will be intended to be beneficial, but will actually increase isolation and increase disenfranchisement, and increase divides between different communities.

NA

And how could the technologies be used in the charity sector in particular?

TH

Well, [the] charity sector is all about beneficiaries, isn’t it? Very often that’s people, although it can also be the environment and our natural world. I think with technology, we have a huge opportunity to make a difference right the way across our society. If you think about technology in its broadest possible interpretations, there are so many ways now that we can use technology to create greener environments, to create greener workplaces, to be more sustainable – to support our planet, rather than just supporting the acquisition of stuff and money, and driving all of that kind of…overtly capitalist push to own and acquire things.

Within the sector, we already deliver a huge amount of innovation and creativity that changes lives, that transforms lives. If you look at medical organisations, the technology that they’re employing to deliver vaccines, to deliver life-saving medical procedures, to look at tiny, tiny bits of kit that people actually wear inside themselves to keep their heart going, for instance – we’ve got the opportunity to do much more of that as technology advances and becomes increasingly sophisticated. We’ve also got the opportunity to use technology to fuel inclusion. There’s so much happening in our world at the moment, challenging long, long-entrenched systems of prejudice, and technology is a tool that we can use to help break down those prejudices, to help drive inclusion, to help create a society that is more equal, that is more inclusive and that welcomes and embraces diversity, rather than trying to channel everyone to fit down a single box and for everybody to be in that same box. We are all different, and yet we’re all the same as well, and I hope that the lessons that we learn from lockdown will help us to create a society that is more inclusive, and that will use technology in a positive way to do that.

NA  

And in future studies in particular, we talk about possible, preferred and probable futures. Some examples of that could be continued growth, a disciplined society, collapse or a technologically transformative society. What’s your preferred future?

TH

I’d be surprised if what I’m going to say comes as any surprise, given the conversation that we’ve had already. I’d like to see a society where we’re using technology for transformation and change, but with people at the heart of it. I think that’s where technology is really, really powerful. It’s where we look at the challenges that we face as human beings, the challenges that our planet is facing, and we use technology as a way to address those challenges: as a way to right some of the wrongs, as a way to equalise society; as a way to bring in people who are on the margins, and who are currently excluded. Technology can be a wonderfully powerful tool for doing that. If we’re not careful, though, technology can also entrench some of those divisions. We already see that in society; we see that there are children who’ve got access to digital platforms for learning, [and] children who don’t have access to those. Unless we do something on a bigger societal scale, to look at addressing those imbalances, and creating a greater equality of access to technology, the changes and the innovations that we develop over the next 20 years will actually only serve to increase those divides. So before we can really innovate and change, we’ve got to look at those fundamental inequalities within our society at the moment, and think about how to address those so that everybody has the access to opportunity.

NA

Quite often, when people are looking to the future, what they tend to do is just extrapolate from the present. But the future can be far wackier than that. What’s your sort of wacky idealistic crazy notions of what our future could be?

TH

Well, I’m a Trecky – I have to say I’m a Trecky, and I love the fact that so many of the things that Gene Roddenberry thought were magical and mystical for the future are now actually relatively commonplace in our homes and lives. The one that I love to see is transporter technology, I am not like Bones, I do not have an issue with beaming my molecules around the universe. Having said that, I think even if we did have transporter technology, even if we could make the whole globe more accessible, again, there’s got to be a balance. I don’t want to suddenly use transporter technology to go from the living room to the kitchen to get a cup of tea and then back again. But for those kind of long journeys, seeing relatives or friends around the globe, using technology like transporters for moving goods around the globe, I think that will be that will be wacky but brilliant at the same time.

NA

Awesome. I agree, I agree. And our final question for today, hopefully where we’re starting to come out of lockdown properly now: are there any positives you take out of this experience?

TH

Yeah, masses, masses of positives. I think over the last – where are we now 102 days, 103 days of lockdown – I have seen so many examples of compassion, community, caring. People reaching out and looking after each other. That is something that’s just a huge positive. And if we can keep that, if we can even keep just a percentage of that, it will change the way that we interact in our local communities and wider society forever.

I think also the remote working: that’s been a huge change, and I think is a very positive change. Anything that empowers people to have a little bit more control over their work-life balance, anything that increases access to work for people who might otherwise struggle to access work, that’s got to be a good thing both for individuals and for organisations, who suddenly have potentially got a huge workforce of really skilled and talented people that might not previously have been able to access work in that way. So I think that’s a real positive. And also just the creativity and the innovation. We’ve seen organisations deliver amazing, amazing things over the last hundred days. Organisations have completely transformed the way they deliver services in their local community. I’m aware of small local charities who run network groups and who run training courses, normally in a room, and they’ve just, within days, turned it around and they’re delivering that online. Again in terms of accessibility, they’ve been able to reach out much more widely than I normally would; and that’s a relatively small and straightforward piece of innovation in the grand scheme of things, but if you can keep driving those small changes, they will snowball, and we’ll see bigger changes coming on the back of that. That’s what I would like to keep, really, that sense that anything is possible because it has to be, because we’ve got to keep going under very, very difficult circumstances. So let’s keep innovating. Let’s keep creating.

NA

And that is a perfect point to end on. Tree, thank you so much for your time today. And good luck with the CITL’s 20-year anniversary this year. Thank you very much, Tree.

TH

Thanks Noel.

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