Can we ‘hack’ our way to better philanthropy?


It’s always interesting when a successful approach from one field or sector gets taken up by another. This has been the fate of the ‘hackathon’, a means of swiftly working up an idea into a tangible product, borrowed from computer programming. In the programming field it makes a lot of sense. There are many tangible outcomes that can come from hothousing the development of a programming language, operating system, application programme interface or even an application. Not only are ideas shared, but so is skill, and many programmers working together will find and fix bugs much more efficiently than one programmer working alone.

The outcomes too are relatively clear. There is a set of things that might be developed, and a shared understanding of what these are likely to be.

It is less clear how well the hackathon approach may work for enquiries in other fields, but the opportunity it represents is sufficiently compelling for this method to have been taken up in areas only tangentially connected to technology.

So it was that the Marmalade fringe events at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England this year included a 48-hour hackathon for ‘foundational thinking’.

This event was set up as a response to a related series of questions and provocations in the UK philanthropic sector. The fundamental insight here is that trusts and foundations are not working as well as they might. It might be argued that this view raises more questions than it answers. No doubt conscious of this difficulty, the event organizers conducted a swift literature review to scan these questions. An open survey was also carried out, and 59 responses were analysed.

In addition to the ‘pre-reading’, the first day of the ‘hack’ included talks by foundation leaders who provided their own views on the state of the field, and where they, and their organizations, intended to focus their attention.

This set-up made for a complicated frame to the event, in which the ‘ideation’ stage of the ‘hack’ was blended with a wide range of information, only some of which had been presented in advance. There was, in effect, an opening that had a strong flavour of a traditional conference, but without the opportunity to ask questions or discuss presentations. Instead, participants were immediately asked to come up with quick and dirty solutions ‘informed’ by the presentations before the lunch break. This did not give great scope for the development of solutions to well-defined problems.

Given this format, it was not perhaps wholly surprising that the ideas that made it through the initial sifting stage over that lunch break should have – for the most part – come to the ‘hack’ pre-prepared. These included a focus on the maintenance of existing services rather than the innovation of new ones, more efficient data-sharing to encourage small grants to local charities, and a well-developed methodology for implementing feedback in social programmes.

These were good and interesting ideas and the ‘hack’ certainly provided a forum for developing them further, sharing them more widely and making them more tangible through microsites and slide decks. It was less clear that the ‘hack’ was the boost they needed to gain traction.

The event was not so much an experience of many heads making light work of well-defined technical problems, as of many feet inevitably stumbling over the rough terrain of social value, and trying out different possible paths to a summit swathed in mist. The terrain being rough, a default to the path most travelled is always hard to resist. This being the case, if there is a place for a social sector hack, it would benefit from a more precise compass setting at the start.

Genevieve Maitland Hudson is head of evaluation and impact assessment at Power to Change. Email

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