The coronavirus pandemic has magnified inequalities and other issues which are ingrained in our society. We have a responsibility to tackle these and technology can help us do that effectively and at scale. 

Yet the impact on society (positive and negative) is often a by-product of technical advances rather than social transformation being the driving force behind technology.  Social Tech Trust is a small charity that challenges us to think differently about the relationship between tech and society. In the last three years, the Trust has been on its own journey of transformation as it has spun out from its corporate founder and shifted strategy from a grant-making organisation to one which uses a range of tools and strategic partnerships to make the biggest impact possible.  To do that, the Trust has transformed itself and built innovation into its DNA.

Who are Social Tech Trust?

Social Tech Trust provides investment and non-financial support to early stage ventures which are using tech to tackle some of society’s biggest social and environmental issues. We also work to build the tech for good ecosystem – for example through developing the funding landscape for social tech ventures, influencing government policy and through partnering with organisations such as Microsoft on their AI for Good programme.

Over the last twelve years we have:

  • Supported almost 800 ventures
  • Provided over £30m funding
  • Provided substantial non-financial support which has been instrumental to those ventures succeeding

The CEO and team are responsible for the day-to-day running of the charity.  But overall accountability for the charity, its employees and its funds sits with a small group of volunteer trustees (‘the Board’), of which I am one.  We’re a small team by choice – we have less than ten staff and for the last three years we’ve had just five trustees.  We want to scale our impact but want to do this, where possible, without multiplying in size.

Transforming the charity

When we agreed to separate from our corporate founder, the priority was to have some honest conversations about who had the energy, appetite and time to commit to a spin-out journey.  We needed both a trustee board and staff team who were motivated.

Since then, there have been four types of change:

  1. Transformation of governance
  2. Transformation of model 
  3. Transformation of team
  4. Transformation of measurement

Transformation of governance

  • Simplify governance

Good governance is crucial.  But governance can also create a lot of work. Our governance processes were inherited from a large corporate and many were overly complex for a small organisation.  

We have streamlined our governance, cutting out unnecessary activity. In particular, the Board and team have worked together to minimize the amount of time that needs to be spent preparing trustee updates. If a bullet point list will do then we don’t need a lengthy paper!  

  • Rapid decision making

Rapid decision making is crucial to making rapid progress. Many of our decisions have been made outside Board meetings – e.g. on a quickly convened phone call or over email.

It’s also been important to delegate as much as possible to the team and this is a shift we continue to make.  The Board needed to be closely involved during the spin-out journey (e.g. agreeing new Articles of Association, partnership agreements and decisions around the investment fund) but we strive for the Board to step back from operational management and delegate as much as possible.

When we spun out, we made a conscious decision not to bring on new trustees. Our Board has been made up of five people who know each other and are used to working together, which has enabled rapid decision making.  But don’t think that a small Board of people who know each other doesn’t mean we haven’t had a lot of healthy debate!

  • Structural governance changes

We also made changes to our membership model and Articles of Association as part of the spin out approach.

Transform model

  • New financial model

When we separated, we were lucky to have a healthy reserves balance; but we lost our income stream.  Therefore, developing a new sustainable financial model has been crucial.

We are developing a £30m investment fund which will meet a market need and enable us to scale our impact.  However, the financial returns from this will only be in the medium to long term.  

We need to develop other new income streams. Given the maturity of traditional charity fundraising streams, we want to avoid these and develop commercial income streams based on our assets and capabilities. For example, we have developed and delivered tech for good programmes in partnership with Microsoft and Vodafone.  As well as impacting our financial model, these sorts of programmes also enable us to have a much greater social impact through leveraging our skills as well as the skills, size and networks of our corporate partners – this aligns strongly with our strategy.

Exploring other commercial income streams is a current focus of the team.

  • Operating model

As a corporate foundation, we were based in our founder’s office and supported by their back-office operations. Since separation, we have had to work out how to stand on our own two feet, deciding where to outsource, where to simplify processes and how roles need to change.

We have also had to consider the legal, tax, accounting and operating implications of establishing both the investment fund and commercial income streams.

Transformation of team

  • Team culture

Transforming the team culture has been crucial to achieving this transformation and has been one of the most challenging things to change.

Previously, we were a grant funder with the security of being part of a large established organisation.  As Social Tech Trust, we are a small start-up and looking to build our credibility as an investor and strategic partner.  We need to stand on our own two feet and create our own future. The whole team needs to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty as well as being highly entrepreneurial.  

To make rapid progress we need to put frameworks in place and then empower people to deliver within those.  We must remove as much friction as possible from the internal systems.

We’ve done this through:

  • Having a clear vision and strategy
  • Using OKRs to focus effort and foster collaboration
  • Empowering people and encouraging self-managing teams
  • Making it clear when decisions do need to be escalated
  • Encouraging experimentation 
  • Trialling new models for line management
  • Shared planning and division of activities
  • Building reflective practice into the team

This has required a CEO who is open to learning and comfortable adapting to the ever-changing situation.  We have a strong relationship between the whole Board and the CEO, which is based on trust, transparency and regular informal communication – this has been a critical success factor.

  • Team skills, capabilities and experience

Becoming an investor and developing new strategic partnerships and income streams requires different skills, capabilities and experience within the team. We have tried to strike a balance between developing skills in house versus bringing them in.  Developing skills and capabilities in house takes time and can be challenging.  But we’ve struggled to recruit people who have both the skills and also the social motivation, especially in the investment space.

Transform measurement

  • New metrics

Our key metrics are runway and run rate – very different to the sorts of metrics we were using previously.  Everyone in the team is responsible for influencing these:

  • How can we bring in income?
  • How can we reduce spend?  Monthly running costs are now a fraction of what they were three years ago.

This has been an important element of culture change – every role needing to be commercial and constantly focused on what we can do to extend our runway while we develop a sustainable financial model.

  • Impact management

Despite having a financial sustainability objective, we exist to have a social impact and so need to be able to measure that.  We have an active approach to impact management rather than purely evaluating it.  This has been a shift from how we operated previously and is something we are continuing to evolve.

Are we making progress?

In the last three years, we have started to make our new strategy and business model a reality.  We have:

  • Invested £500k in social ventures
  • Made £400k of grants from Social Tech Trust
  • Distributed £300k on behalf of partners
  • Supported 75 organisations through 5 venture support programmes, 650 hours of 1:1 support and convened over 140 workshops and events
  • Established partnerships with Microsoft, Vodafone and The Mayor of London
  • Continued to receive strong feedback from ventures

We’ve achieved all this while undergoing a big systemic change – and that’s been thanks to the energy and commitment of a small, hard-working team of staff and trustees.  

We are now at a key moment for Social Tech Trust.  Our vision has never been more relevant.  We’ve learnt a huge amount over the last three years and have shown that we can stand on our own two feet, building successful partnerships with global tech leaders.  We are now poised to accelerate our impact and make our vision a reality.