Our new Digital Fund

The Big Lottery Fund has given many millions to digital projects over the last decade. In the last five years alone it has made over £16m of sub £10,000 grants to support mainly small charities and organisations to thrive in a digital era.

And yet here we are launching a new Digital Fund, setting aside up to £15m over the next two years. Here’s why.

Charities can use digital to do amazing things

Whilst digital tools and practices aren’t silver bullets that can solve any problem, they do have an extraordinary capacity to bring people together to achieve things that they couldn’t otherwise.

One of my favourite examples of a civil society organisation that uses digital brilliantly to bring people together is parkrun. parkrun is a charity that organises free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people per weekend meet in their local park for exercise, volunteering and a sense of community.

Individual runners have started parkruns over 23 million times so far, which is impressive enough. But did you know that parkrun itself employs only 23 people? You don’t have to be a maths genius to see how impressive this is.

parkrun doesn't at first glance look anything like most people’s vision of a ‘digital organisation’. It doesn’t get talked about as a ‘startup’, and they don’t use a lot of cutting edge tech buzzwords: parkrun is all about passion and volunteering and people spending time together in the real world.

However, behind this very human face is a smart use of technology that helps coordinate runs, time runners and keep the whole delicate operation working smoothly. Without this use of digital technology, it’s likely there’d be many thousands of people who wouldn’t be as active, or having so much fun, all across the country, each and every week. I think it’s a wonderful example of how technology can empower and connect people, without dominating the conversation.

Finding out more about the needs of the sector

Much of our funding can already support this kind of work, yet we wanted to test our assumptions and better understand what the sector actually needs in terms of digital support. We understand a lot about what we fund, but what about the things we don’t? Did we really understand the context we were working in? What were the untapped opportunities?

And so, in the best digitally-minded spirit, we conducted user research. We spoke to organisations large and small, highly digital and wary of digital, the new and the established.

Our existing funding clearly has a huge impact. But we discovered some key areas where focused funding could make an even bigger impact on the sector’s capacity for digital.

What our initial focus is about

The initial phase of grant-making from the Digital Fund is aimed at two quite specific kinds of organisation. The first type of organisation - those we have referred to as digital pioneers - are established charities of a reasonable size, the minimum threshold for size is half a million pounds a year income.

The second type is completely different: relatively new organisations, most likely relatively small, that we call digital natives. These are organisations that have digital in their DNA, that were conceived from the ground up as digital organisations. A good example of a digital native organisation is parkrun, discussed above.

So why focus on these two specific kinds of organisations?

The answer is that both have special strengths that can help them to succeed at delivering impact at scale.

The digital native’s key asset is their founders fundamental understanding of how to build impactful services that scale in the modern world, combined with that most precious of things: a blank slate to work from. From this group of organisations we hope that we might find the Googles and WhatsApps of the charitable world: brand new services that create huge value for a lot of people.

For the digital pioneers (the more established charities) their killer asset is their current substantial userbase, and the trust that many people already have in them. From these kinds of established, trusted organisations we hope to foster the civil society equivalents of the digital services offered by the BBC, Lloyds Bank or Next. These were major ‘pre-internet’ brands that successfully made the transition to digital, in many cases really changing what they offered people in the process.

How this work can then support the wider sector

This first phase of the Digital Fund is focussed on boosting the number of great examples of impactful services that use digital to achieve scale, within the voluntary and community sector. However, digital can also deliver great impacts that aren’t about scale, and the Digital Fund is focusing on these too.

Beyond the support of our existing funding programmes, in the New Year we will be sharing specific initiatives to help those organisations who don’t know where to start with digital, or don’t have the resources to find out. We will also be looking at ways to encourage partnerships, collaboration and relationships between different size organisations to share expertise and experience in this area.

I'm hugely grateful to all the people from the voluntary and community sector who gave so much time to help us design this new initiative. I’m also grateful, of course, to the players of the National Lottery who make it all possible in the first place.

The Digital Fund is now open, and the first phase will be accepting applications until 5pm on 3 December 2018. You can read all about how to apply and how to succeed here.