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Moving from corporate trust to independent charity

20 January 2021: Hannah Keartland, honorary treasurer at Social Tech Trust, outlines how an entrepreneurial mindset and collaboration with partners have been key to the organisation’s transformation as an independent charity.

Armed with healthy reserves and a decade of experience supporting tech ventures for social good, Social Tech Trust transformed from a corporate foundation into an independent charity in May 2018. Separating from its founder Nominet, the UK domain name registry, was a big decision and required changes to its governance, team, culture, business and operating models. But it has been an exciting journey, according to Innovation Consultant Hannah Keartland, a trustee of Social Tech Trust.

Ahead of ICAEW’s Virtual Charity conference on 21 and 22 January where she will be speaking about Social Tech Trust’s journey, Keartland shares insights into how the charity has been navigating this change. 

From corporate roots to lean start-up

Before leaving Nominet, the charity – then known as Nominet Trust – shared its office space and had access to the organisation’s finance, IT and HR support. Nominet was also its sole source of funding up until this point. 

“To go from being part of a large organisation with a stable income and operational support to suddenly having to stand on our own two feet with fewer than 10 members of staff, that’s a huge difference,” says Keartland. However, the move also meant that Social Tech Trust could expand its corporate membership and finance provider Social Investment Business was announced as a strategic partner when the Trust launched in May 2018. 

For the last three years, Social Tech Trust has operated with a lean team, including a board of five trustees. Four of the original trustees had stayed on and were joined by the CEO of Social Investment Business. Keartland says that having trustees who knew each other, and had a background in innovation, entrepreneurship and working with start-ups, enabled them to make decisions rapidly, which was needed during this period. There has still been a lot of healthy debate, she adds, with trustees willing to speak out and challenge.

There have also been big changes in the team culture, ways of working and relationship with the board. Social Tech Trust introduced an ‘objectives and key results’ model, known as OKRs, which aims to empower the team to operate in a more self-managing and entrepreneurial way, including spotting and creating opportunities. These types of models are used by many startups and large tech companies, such as Google, and involve setting tight and ambitious objectives, explains Keartland. It can be challenging and time-consuming to embed such a new way of working, she adds, but it ensures there is a clear focused framework within which the team are empowered to make decisions and deliver.

Changes to the governance and operating models also looked at stripping out what wasn’t 100% necessary, both in terms of cost and activity. The team shouldn’t be producing something just for the sake of producing it. If a simple email will suffice rather than a report, then that’s great, Keartland explains. The team’s focus needs to be on making progress against objectives and what the future business model needs to look like. She says: “As a board, we asked ourselves what is our responsibility? What do we absolutely need to do and what do we need to know to make those decisions or to be informed to be able to manage risk?” Keartland also highlights the importance of delegating to the team. “There have been some quite complex matters that the board has had to be a part of, especially in a small team, but we’re making sure that we are delegating as much as possible.” 

In December 2020, Social Tech Trust was ready to expand its board, appointing five additional trustees and diversifying its skillset. Keartland says: “We wanted to find people who have got an entrepreneurial background, who have experience in working in that way and are really comfortable with the ambiguity and the pace.”

Collaborating with partners

Social Tech Trust provides both financial and non-financial support to ventures that use tech for social good. Such ventures can tackle a diverse range of issues, from poverty and inequality to innovations in healthcare, accessibility and sustainability. The Fair by Design Fund, for example, invests in ventures that are trying to eliminate the poverty premium. Keartland says: “If you focus tech on the positive impact it can have, it has huge transformative power.” 

Investment is a key part of Social Tech Trust’s strategy. The charity has heard from many social tech ventures that access to funding is one of the biggest challenges, with a gap existing particularly at the seed stage. “We know that for these ventures to make their impact, they need to be able to scale, and so we want to help ventures access the funding to do that,” adds Keartland.

As a now-independent charity, its own financial sustainability is also important. One of the changes Social Tech Trust has implemented since it has been able to expand its sources of funding is collaborating with partners.

“To achieve transformation and impact, collaboration is key,” says Keartland. “It’s understanding what it is that you can bring to the table – what are your unique skills and assets – and how can you then partner with people with different capabilities rather than trying to build in-house what you don’t necessarily have.”

In a collaboration with Vodafone and the Vodafone Foundation, for example, Social Tech Trust provided expertise around how to select ventures and run a programme, while Vodafone provided the funding. Both organisations provided non-financial support to increase ventures’ chances of being successful. The Techstarter programme focused on innovations to improve health, education, the environment and social mobility. 

Meanwhile, an ongoing collaboration with Microsoft seeks to help ventures apply AI for social benefit, such as the WeWalk Smart Cane

“When we collaborate with big international organisations, we can have a much greater impact. We can bring our expertise together with their expertise, their size, marketing power, brand and access to their networks. We can leverage everybody’s strength,” explains Keartland. “We definitely want to do that going forward. It makes sense from the beneficiaries’ point of view as they get access to a greater breadth of expertise. And it means we can leverage our resources to greater effect, increasing our social impact and enabling us to move towards a sustainable financial model.” 

Keartland says that the COVID-19 pandemic has put a magnifying glass on a lot of problems and inequalities in society. She believes it shows the importance of the work Social Tech Trust is doing and the positive part that its collaborations and the ventures they support can play. 

Keartland adds: “With our five new trustees and a vision which has never been more relevant, it feels like we are at a key moment for Social Tech Trust. We are an independent charity and have shown that we can stand on our own two feet, building successful partnerships with global tech leaders. We’ve learnt a huge amount over the last three years and are now poised to accelerate our impact by working with more partners and launching a £30m investment fund.”

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Hannah Keartland will be speaking at ICAEW’s Virtual Charity Conference about how charities can become more effective by being entrepreneurial and how a small charity with a dedicated team can successfully transform to adapt to new circumstances.

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