Let’s not be too quick to jump on the surveillance capitalism bandwagon

I’m deeply suspicious of smart speakers. The endless stream of alleged privacy violations  and vulnerability to hacking and manipulation means that I will never, ever have one in my home, and their increasing ubiquity worries me.

But they’re clearly here to stay, and just as with social media, charities need to make sure they’re not missing the boat. Charities should invest in ways to engage with donors and beneficiaries via voice assistant technology…

…shouldn’t they?

I see two key questions that need answering.

What is the problem that voice skills solve?

There are two potential audiences for charities using voice skills: beneficiaries and donors.

Examples of voice skills for beneficiaries include Cancer Research UK’s Alcohol Tracker and Breast Cancer Care’s Taking Care of Your Breasts. Both provide valuable health information to users. However, I question whether this is the right format for people seeking this information, and whether it reaches people that weren’t already accessing it. Mobile apps for alcohol tracking already exist, and I expect the health information provided in voice skills like these is readily available online.

Voice skills for donors focus on enabling verbal donations. Examples include the British Heart Foundation and NSPCC. Perhaps there are donors who would give this way. However, downloading and installing a voice skill requires a decision and an action. If any donor was that committed to the charity and felt they would be donating often enough to use a voice skill, wouldn’t they simply set up a regular gift?

It’s impossible to find stats for usage or resultant donations online. However, the number of ratings and reviews in the Amazon store gives a clue. Admittedly, this is all relatively new to the charity sector, but I couldn’t find a charity voice skill with more than 20 ratings.

The problem of low uptake isn’t limited to charities. No voice skill has really taken off, and the most popular uses of Alexa have been simple tasks such as playing music.

So I am not convinced that investing in voice skills will enable charities to reach people they are not already reaching via other means. But if anyone has evidence that proves me wrong, I’d love to see it.

How do the sector’s values align with the values of smart speaker providers?

There is a tendency, that I’m sure is not limited to the charity sector, to jump on new, exciting-sounding technological “solutions” that aren’t. Remember the fuss about blockchain?

Perhaps we all get excited about a new technology, spend a bit of money on it, and then it doesn’t work out. We should embrace attempts to innovate, and the failure that sometimes accompanies it. What’s the problem?

Well, I don’t think the outcome is neutral. There are myriad ethical issues related to smart speakers that go beyond privacy and security: gender, race and sexuality bias, for example, and concerns about the impact on children. A charity that invests in tools for smart speakers is implicitly supporting companies such as Amazon, which wants Alexa to be everywhere.

Surveillance capitalism is becoming such a powerful force in our lives that I believe we need to take a stance on it. Just as charities have donation acceptance policies, we should consider the statement we are making when committing to developing tools for products built by mega-corporations. Our values should drive our decisions.

Think carefully before jumping in

I’m not arguing that we should never invest in technologies such as smart speakers. However, the conversations across the sector that I’ve witnessed have not appeared to consider these two questions.

As I have argued with blockchain, if our service users and donors don’t benefit, there’s definitely someone else who does.

Want to write about the sector? You can do better than unpaid guest blogs.

There’s a worrying trend among well-meaning fellow fundraisers and sector bloggers. I’ve seen many occasions where they’ve invited other fundraisers to write “guest posts” that are – explicitly – not paid opportunities.

I can already hear the chorus of people asking me “what’s the problem?” It’s unlikely that a blogger can afford to pay other writers, so much as they’d like to offer payment, what’s wrong with offering their platforms for other – often under-represented – voices?

I can think of several reasons.

It continues the expectation that writing shouldn’t be paid, which makes it much harder for freelance writers to make a living.

Many of us – myself included – have worked to raise awareness of the insidious problem of unpaid internships within the charity sector. The Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective Manifesto (which I played a role in shaping as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel) highlights the need to ban unpaid internships. This is a hugely positive step in the right direction.

Surely, if we accept that fundraising should be paid – including at entry level – we should also support the need to pay writers, regardless of their level of experience?

In the same way that unpaid internships have spread like a plague through the charity and arts sectors, writers’ wages are being consistently undercut. Sites such as Huffington Post, which relied for years on unpaid contributions (although it has recently decided to pay all writers) have made it harder and harder for full-time writers to earn a good living.

Social media is also to blame. After all, the entire industry model is based on monetising content that others create for free. One of the many reasons I decided to leave LinkedIn was due to the way their algorithm prioritises content created on their own platform. I would share links to my blog posts, but as these directed traffic away from LinkedIn, they were pushed down to the bottom of the hierarchy. I would have secured far more visibility if I had written my articles on LinkedIn. I wasn’t comfortable with that.

Next time you think about writing an article on LinkedIn, consider this. Are you really comfortable providing your free labour to a wealthy Silicon Valley company, and further increasing their value?

“But what about the exposure?” I hear you ask. Well, to combat this and many other wrong-headed arguments about why you should write for free, the fantasy author Matt Wallace has written a fabulous and entertaining Freelance Writer’s Rebuttal Guide.

Creating the expectation of unpaid work from minority groups is intensely problematic.

I’ve witnessed bloggers and editors in our sector specifically encourage contributions from under-represented groups, such as people of colour, disabled people and those who are LGBT+.

If these are paid? Fantastic. When these “opportunities” are unpaid, however, it only serves to entrench existing disadvantages and risks creating a two-tiered system.

It’s not as altruistic as it may initially seem.

Although I no longer have a Twitter profile, I do visit others’ Twitter pages from time to time. I was shocked when, a few months ago, I witnessed one sector blogger offer unpaid guest post “opportunities”, followed by a tweet that essentially expressed her pleasure at being able to take a break because others were doing the work for her.

If I were to publish a guest post, I would benefit from the increased traffic to my site and the resultant increase in my profile. This would benefit me far more than the person putting in the work. Any “exposure” that the writer would gain is tenuous at best.

It lowers aspirations when better opportunities exist.

Our sector is small and I thoroughly believe there are opportunities for any good writer with original ideas. My experience over the last year of writing this blog has proved that to me.

Instead of writing for free, I suggest the following:

  • Pitch to the trade press. Third Sector occasionally puts out calls for submissions on Twitter, and they pay professional rates. I am not sure what the pitch process is for Civil Society (it would be excellent if they could be more transparent about this) but I would expect that, as a subscription publication, they also pay professional rates.
  • Pitch to the national press, or specialist publications/websites where you have personal interest or affinity that overlaps with charity sector themes e.g. LGBT+,  specific ethnic groups or religions, or local papers.
  • Set up your own blog; my philosophy is if you are going to write for free, do it to build your own platform. I pay approximately £80 per year for the WordPress premium package but there is also a free package available.

There are, of course, exceptions

It is possible to volunteer as a writer, just as volunteers fill all sorts of roles at charities. The crowdblog 101 Fundraising exists to serve the entire fundraising community, and I believe writing for them for free is a worthwhile endeavour. The same goes for blogs for the Institute of Fundraising, because neither of these sites provides benefit to one individual over and above the entire fundraising community.

When is guest blogging acceptable? When it pays. The well-known YouTuber Tom Scott invites submissions for guest videos; notably, he promises a cut of the advertising revenue. Even with his extraordinary reach and influence, he accepts that providing this as the only benefit is not acceptable. Creative work should be paid.

How do I want to support aspiring writers? By urging them to aim high.

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m not offering any guest spots on my blog. I can’t afford to pay and, believe me, you can do better.

I hope this post will inspire some readers to pitch to the trade press and/or start their own blog. My experience of both has been very positive. When Third Sector commissioned me for my first paid article, the simple fact that I was being paid pushed me to work hard and produce something I was proud of. As for my own blog, over the past year and a half I’ve built an online portfolio, developed my voice as a writer, and built connections with others in the sector.

Our sector is small and I strongly believe that anyone who is a good writer and has something to say will get noticed. What’s more, we desperately need more diverse voices.

I admit that in the past (prior to my fundraising career) I’ve made the mistake of writing articles for free. As well as being exploitative this kept me in a limiting mindset: I did not see myself as someone who could develop their own platform or be paid for their writing.

It’s taken me to my mid-thirties to realise that both things can be true for me. And they can be true for you, too.

I’m taking a short career break, but will soon be looking for a new role

I’m leaving my current role at Tommy’s, with my contract finishing at the end of June. I’ll be looking after my daughter while we wait for a nursery place to open up – hopefully by the autumn at the latest. When this is confirmed I will be actively job-seeking.

I would love to work for an environmental organisation, ideally based in central or south London, but I am open-minded as to the particular cause.

I’m an experienced trust fundraiser and people manager, with a strong track record of growing income and developing long-term relationships with funders. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of translating technical/scientific projects into compelling proposals. I also love developing people and gain deep satisfaction from supporting junior fundraisers to flourish.

I’d be happy to share my CV or have an exploratory chat with potential employers – please get in touch if interested.

Where’s the charity sector’s sense of corporate responsibility?

Forster Communications’ new report, Matching Method to Mission, highlights a stark and somewhat shocking truth. Only two of the top 100 charities (Cancer Research UK and RNLI) have a corporate responsibility policy.

The report’s authors rightly raise this as a pressing concern. The impact on public trust is severe. The risk of further poor behaviour is real. And the sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest will be affected.

Once again, the private sector is outshining the charity sector, as it is on issues such as diversity. The report’s authors suggest that the “Halo Effect” might be a factor: explaining that because “charities rely on an outdated belief that because they are a charity, everything they do must be beneficial.”

That’s very obviously not true: the scandals of Olive Cooke, Kids Company and the Garden Bridge all spring immediately to mind.

The report also quotes Virgin Media’s Head of Sustainability, Katie Buchanan: “Ultimately, charities don’t have a monopoly on creating social change and businesses may choose to take on a social issue without them.” She warns that this lack of attention to how we conduct our business may affect our ability to build corporate partnerships in future.

We need to step up to address some of the most pressing issues of our time

Those of us who pay even the slightest attention to the non-Brexit news these days will be wrestling, at least on some level, with the existential issue of climate change. We must be careful to choose optimism over despair, as I’ve previously written, but there’s no question that the situation is dire. And, as my former colleague Russell Benson has written, “if we are truly on course to destroy our planet, why bother with our missions anyway?”

Most of us, I hope, have chosen to work in the charity sector due to a sense of social responsibility. Why would we therefore be satisfied by workplace policies that don’t prioritise train travel over short-haul flights where possible? That don’t ensure that materials for marathon runners are fairly produced? That aren’t bothered about an ethical investment policy?

Divestment from fossil fuels would be a good place to start

It is heartening to read that a coalition of charities has requested guidance from the Charity Commission on whether they are legally required to align their investments with their mission. (There is no clear response from the Charity Commission as yet)

Whatever the Charity Commission decides, I believe charities have a moral imperative to at least consider divestment from fossil fuels and other socially harmful industries, beyond those causes that are seen to directly conflict with their mission. We might not be the largest sector in the UK, but we command £92bn of assets. That’s indeed significant. The Church of England has made the decision to divest from fossil fuels, as has my faith group, Quakers in Britain.

Personally, I try to practice what I preach. I keep my savings with Triodos – a bank that only makes investments that have a positive impact on the world – and have opened a Triodos Junior ISA for my daughter. Beyond my personal decisions, however, it’s also important to me to work for employers that share my values, and I expect many of my peers feel the same.

We should think about our place in the world, and expect to be challenged

Without a proper focus on corporate responsibility, we can expect more scandals, more bad publicity and more difficult questions from the public.

We’ve already seen the environmental question impact charities this year, with the criticism directed towards Comic Relief for the plastic waste created by Red Nose Day.

Will we continue to lag behind businesses and faith groups, or will we step up and show leadership on one of the most critical challenges of modern times?

After all, as Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming, whether you like it or not”.