Digital technologies have pervaded all aspects of our lives, from the cell phone alarm that wakes us in the morning to the apps we read just before falling asleep. Philanthropy is no exception, with digital technologies at the heart of thousands of initiatives and proposals, and smart use of digital technologies required to make the operations of a foundation run smoothly.
This pervasiveness of digital technologies presents a dilemma for philanthropists and philanthropic foundations: How do you choose someone to properly answer your ever-expanding list of questions about how digital tech affects what you fund, and how you fund? And crucially, how do you avoid being sold a pup—i.e being given terrible advice, when you are not yourself an expert in the field?
At first, the question might not seem difficult. After all, when a foundation or philanthropist needs a lawyer or an accountant, it seeks out reputable companies or individuals who hold professional qualifications in the appropriate field. You don’t have to be a legal genius to know that you shouldn’t take legal advice from someone who’s not licensed to practice the law.
But this mechanism, trusting certified professionals, just doesn’t work when it comes to digital experts, because the field is too new to have strong, widely recognised certifying authorities. Even worse, amongst the world of technologists (from which this author hails) there’s actually a tendency for the best people to have fewer qualifications than their less-talented brethren. After all, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg don’t even have undergraduate degrees, let alone professional certifications.
In the future, professional bodies may protect clients like foundations from the equivalent of accepting surgery from an unlicensed doctor. But right now, the field of “digital experts” is completely unregulated, which creates some major risks of foundations spending money on things that won’t or can’t work, or having their operational efficiency ruined by bad internal systems.
In particular, I wish to draw attention to what I call the digital roulette moment—one that now happens regularly inside organisations of almost all kinds. This is the moment when an organization realizes the need to bring in some digital skills and approach someone, somewhere to take on the role. I call this the "digital roulette moment," because very few philanthropists or foundation staff are equipped with the technical knowledge to distinguish a trustworthy, highly skilled candidate from a complete fraud, or (more commonly) a well-meaning incompetent. And I’m afraid to report that there’s a lot of well-meaning incompetence out there in the tech advice sector.
If you don’t believe this can happen to you, please consider the fate of one Hillary Rodham Clinton. At some point in the last five or six years, she clearly asked someone to “sort her tech,” as is entirely reasonable. The message went out, and someone was appointed. And that person failed to clearly and unambiguously inform Mrs. Clinton that the choice of email server was more than likely to explode in her face, risking her chance of winning the presidency. All because she, or the people around her, spun the roulette wheel of technical assistance and it came up with a zero. I doubt her staff can even remember making the call.
Back when I ran a tech-heavy social enterprise, my colleagues and I watched with silent horror when foundations supported digital projects that couldn’t possibly work—we didn’t say anything, of course, because nobody loves or funds a complainer. The fact that they didn’t employ or contract staff with the appropriate skills was painfully apparent, but we remained schtum. And only last week, I saw some headlines about ineffective mobile phone apps in the international development sector that can only be described as not having been decent or reasonable bets in the first place—they involved risks and likelihood of failure that simply wouldn’t have made it through the funding committee if they had been non-technical projects.
So if you are thinking that you need some outside digital expertise, either for strategic reasons like making good investments, or tactical needs like making your organisation work properly, who can you trust? I advise taking the following steps:
Ask some of the few NGOs that are widely known to be good at tech what they think about the person/organisation you are considering hiring/contracting. The nonprofit space is still largely dominated by relatively low-tech organisations, but there are now a fair few that are ‘digital native’ and have depth of skills. These include the Engine Room, Tactical Tech, Crisis Text Line, Frontline SMS, GiveDirectly, Open Knowledge Foundation, Ushahidi and (huge conflict of interest declaration) my former employer mySociety.
Ask staff at some unashamedly high-tech funders what they think about your potential hires. These include Omidyar Network, Google.org, Indigo Trust and Good Ventures.
Ask the people you’re talking to what experience they have with building actual digital products and services. This question is useful because it will separate out the people with good track records from the pure advisers who have little practical experience. As a follow-up to this question, ask your candidates for demos of things they have built in the past. If you like what they show you, if the tools and services look useful, clear and helpful, then they’re probably much more credible than if you see demos of things that are complex and highly technical-looking. If you can’t understand what the project is for, you should probably end the audition—this candidate is probably not focused on practical problems of the kind that worry you.
Ask who to trust via social media, not just in private meetings. Social media is wide and pervasive enough that after you ask, you will probably see people or organisations with multiple recommendations, which is a good sign and helps you avoid the relatively common mistake of hiring the first person you speak to.
Do not hire that person/company just because one of your board members says they seem to know about computers. This is not enough of a recommendation, especially if your board member made their money more than 10 years ago.
Pay for people to help you write job adverts or specifications, and to sit through job interviews and spec-vetting processes. Again, to find these people, ask the NGOs and funders I mentioned above.
Ultimately, foundations can’t fluff technology decisions in the same way that governments or companies can. The risks are all quite different, the lows aren’t as low. But if you are reading this because you’re focused on having impact and spending wisely, then have no doubt: Bad technology advice can consume resources and mis-allocate your funds on a truly epic scale. It’s worth putting in the extra effort to get advice from people worthy of your trust.
Tom Steinberg was the founder and director of the international social enterprise mySociety. He is now a consultant and writer on tech and social impact issues.