Owen Valentine Pringle, Chief of Staff at ActionAid International, on the key things fundraisers need to address for success.

Owen Pringle Cameron

“Digital works best when it disappears.” Owen Valentine Pringle

As the peak body for the nation’s fundraising sector, FIA hosts a conference each year to inspire, motivate, educate and connect the incredible changemakers working to make the world a better place. Bringing the sector together each year is so powerful, and we bring local and international thought leaders to share their experiences and learnings with participants.

This year one of the keynote speakers is Owen Valentine Pringle FRSA, a senior transformation strategist with more than 20 years’ experience across media, government, NGO and cultural sectors specialising in helping organisations to develop new ways of working against a backdrop of external change.

Owen is the Chief of Staff for ActionAid International, a global NGO operating in 46 countries. During his career, he’s led communications and digital departments at ITN, Sky and Southbank Centre, before serving as Global Director of Digital at Amnesty International.

In his plenary session at the conference, ‘Mind the Gap’, Owen will speak about how the spaces between ideologies will be civil society’s next great battleground for hearts and minds

We asked Owen a few questions to learn more about him and his incredible work.

You’ve been recognised by the Financial Times as one of the 100 most influential Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) leaders in technology across the UK and Europe. As a leader and mentor, what would you say have been the biggest influencers driving your success?

I’m a staunch believer in continual learning – and not necessarily the structured variety. At a practical level, this means I have a voracious appetite for news, information and ideas. I read, watch and listen to a great deal of content about the world around us and how it’s changing (much to the detriment of my consumption of fiction and drama, which is something I have to fix).

I often find that connecting disparate ideas helps me to better contextualise and understand areas that are new to me or changing rapidly. Right now, I’m reading Range by David Epstein, Exponential by Azeem Azhar and How to Talk to the “Other Side”: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change by Kevin Wilhelm and Natalie Hoffman, all of which do this brilliantly.

You help organisations assess the technology-related challenges facing their sector and help them capitalise on opportunities. What are some of the key things fundraising organisations need to address to overcome our sector’s challenges?

Behaviours have changed the way in which we make decisions and will continue to do so. Fundraisers and the organisations they work for are having to come to terms with how our relationship with money has quietly transmogrified as an indirect result of the pandemic. Cash is no longer king.

Here in Australia, the rapid growth of a range of electronic payment methods such as BPAY and POLi is slowly changing our relationship with hard currency – for example, Australia leads the world in the annual number of contactless card transactions per adult. But the means of payment is simply the surface layer to something more fundamental, involving how we choose to part with our well-earned money and the difference in how we attribute value based on, for example, whether we use cash or whether we tap to pay.

You have broad experience working in the digital space so how did you come to focus on digital transformation in arts and heritage organisations?

A few years ago, an odd thing happened to people who have worked in and around digital since the beginning of the century. All the conversations they were having inside the organisations they worked for, or with, started to revolve around how consumer behaviours and expectations had leapfrogged standard product and business development cycles. ‘Continuous’ or ‘incremental’ innovation was giving way to ‘discontinuous’ innovation – the kind where the rules that governed the relationship between consumer and provider are ripped apart and rewritten.

The things that differentiate disruptors from the mainstream relate to peer-to-peer, the sharing economy, personalisation, consumer aggregation, customer service. At that point you’re no longer talking about digital or technology, this is more about organisational and business process change. Digital transformation is really a shorthand for business transformation. In that sense, what I do isn’t sector-specific, but industry-wide, which is something I had direct experience of whilst consulting.

How do you counter those who are negative about the impact of so much digital in our lives particular for younger people?

I’m not sure I can – networking technologies have been an enormous and unparalleled force for social good but there’s also been a flipside to those benefits, which the world is only recently coming to terms with. Again, the fault isn’t with the technology and what it enables, but with the way we’ve designed it for widespread consumption, prioritising financial returns over societal wellbeing. We can’t put it back in the box – and even if we could, should we? I’d say no. That said, this means we’ve got to do a colossal retrofitting job to undo the damage that unethical design choices have left us with.

We’re at a very similar inflection point with the development of AI, where the choices we make regarding the design of systems that form the bedrock of how these technologies will work, long into the future, are being made now. And while, at an individual level, leading AI scientists like Stuart Russell are getting ‘spooked’ by their own success in this space, the absence of a multilateral approach to governing AI development means that, at some point of no return in the future, we might find ourselves in the same position we are at now with social media.

At the heart of any fundraisers work, aside from the beneficiary, is the donor. We have an aging population, and it can be a challenge for older donors to understand and use technology. How can our charities deal with this?

It’s worth remembering that the Boomer generation – those born between the Second World War and the Swinging Sixties – have witnessed more societal change than any generation since. Home appliances, civil and political rights, contraception, TV, computers, mobile telephony, the internet, cracking the human genome – you can’t tell me this generation aren’t used to seismic shifts. They’re just not easy to impress. The challenge for fundraisers is to create a technology-led use case that is either three times better than what they’re used to doing already, like SatNav did, or leaves them with no alternative but to do the new thing, like contactless payments.

ActionAid promotes its belief in the power in people and you work closely, and face to face, with the people you help. Some people see digital as ‘impersonal’ so how do you keep a human face in a virtual world? How does digital support your activities and what role does it play in your organisation?

Digital works best when it disappears. By that, what I mean is that its application and widespread adoption are most successful when technology helps us to do the things we need to do and the things we love. The tech itself should really be the enabler, not the star.

One area I am championing at ActionAid is the use of data help to reveal trends across a community demographic or populous, while the individual testimonies from those in communities help to illustrate these trends. Earlier this year, we ran a trial in seven countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Palestine, Kenya, Nepal and Zambia – the aim being to work with local groups to gauge how COVID-19 had impacted the economic opportunities of young people. This additive approach to research only serves to augment what we currently do as an organisation.

We encourage you to join your peers at FIA Conference 2022 from 23-25 February and hear from Owen and many other inspiring speakers who will share their wealth of knowledge to support the professional development of a sector which contributes greatly to the health and wellbeing of our nation and other countries. For the full conference program please visit fiaconference.org.au.

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