Matt Haworth, gadget enthusiast and co-founder of Reason Digital, a tech social enterprise, discusses how he created a business with a mission to use digital to do good and work exclusively on projects that ‘have a positive social impact on people and change lives for the better.’
“We’re maybe not what you think of when you picture tech entrepreneurship. We’re driven by very different goals. For a typical entrepreneur in tech, all too often users are monetised and mined for value – be that for their data, their attention spans or their voting preferences. For us, users are the people we want to work with to find innovative ways to improve their lives.”
“We don’t support charities through a CSR arm of our company, instead our whole mission is around helping the causes that charities fight for, making a real difference to society. By harnessing digital for good, we’ve helped to raise tens of millions of pounds for charities.” he says.
Haworth co-founded Reason ten years ago when he was just 20, with a desire to partner with charities and pro-social organisations, helping them use the power of technology to improve the lives of their service users.
“We have made a real difference to society by working on projects to reduce the stigma of HIV, protect sex workers from abuse, support children and young people with cancer and assist people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction,” he said.
The organisation now employs 45 people and has a turnover of £2m. Unlike the average tech director who pay themselves 40 times more than the most junior members of staff, Matt earns the lowest salary of all full-time employees.
Reason is less about the short-term value to shareholders and investors and instead focuses on doing what’s right and offering long-term life solutions to service users. This means profits are reinvested to fund new innovations for good.
Impact Reporting – the CSR reporting tool is one example of the result of this reinvestment. Now valued at £2 million, this tool can be used by any organisation to track, record and report on environmental and social sustainability, engaging employees in taking ownership of their impact and contribution to the organisation as a whole. It is now being used by The University of Manchester and DWF as well as housing providers like Places for People and One Manchester.
Similarly, Matt worked with other partners to invest profits into ‘Gone for Good’, an app that allows people to upload photos of their furniture, or unwanted goods to then be collected for charity shops. This is now a standalone business, with charity partners including British Heart Foundation, Oxfam and Barnados which has raised over £1m-worth of extra donations for charity.
Setting up the social enterprise
“As a teenager I found solace in online communities through some pretty difficult times, which illustrated to me the potential power of technology to help people.” said Matt.
“I want to show that you can have a successful business that puts the good of society at the core. We can change lives by doing the job we love doing, which more than compensates for knowing we’ll never be rich.”
He and co-founder, Ed Cox, met while working at The University of Manchester and realised they had the same ambition – to use their tech skills to make a difference. After much discussion, Ed and Matt set about working with pro-social clients and partnering with charities, housing associations and not-for-profit companies. At this point, they didn’t realise this could translate into a separate, pioneering organisation, which would eventually become nationally recognised.
Matt said: “Ed and I set out trying to develop careers which focused on using tech for good. Our vision has now expanded and we’re able to offer 45 people the chance to work towards the same goal.”
Partnering with charities
“I believe in tech as a force for good and we show its potential every day, from supporting parents and carers of very sick children to cope and manage with everyday life, to using artificial intelligence to allow one charity support worker to provide help to hundreds of thousands of people.”
Working with leading third-sector organisations Reason has developed outstanding tech solutions to potentially life-threatening situations. For example, they partnered with National Ugly Mugs, an organisation helping sex workers access protection and justice, to develop SafetyNets.
This app was built to discreetly protect the lives of sex workers from potentially dangerous customers. It focused on empowering users to share time-critical safety alerts with others nearby, using their smartphones.
Reason partners with charity leaders to build innovative solutions to address challenges. Over the last decade the team has worked with hundreds of charities to provide insight into long term issues in the sector. A problem most charities have is not having enough staff to support the amount of service users. Reason recognised most charities can’t upscale recruitment and began looking into how technology could help.
In collaboration with Parkinson’s UK, Reason built CHAP (Charity Health Assistant Project), an online assistant powered by machine learning, which offers service users personalised practical and emotional support, at every stage, from treatment to rehab. The tech was inspired by start-ups that were using AI to cheaply provide more customers with tailored personal shopping advice.
Matt commented: “We thought it was more important that people with Parkinson’s got the right support when needed, rather than online shoppers being assisted to select the perfect pair of chinos for their look.”
However, innovation in tech is not the only focus for the team at Reason. Unique collaborations between charities and digital organisations is something Matt is keen to encourage. He made the decision to engage a group of health charities to financially partner on CHAP, allowing them to apply this tech to their own advice services.
Julie Dodd, director of digital transformation and communication at Parkinson’s UK, said: “CHAP is designed to be a fully automated and bespoke system. It will work out, from the responses that individual users give, the most common challenges. This could be ground-breaking for service users as this type of technology is usually used for more commercial means, whereas we have a real opportunity to make a difference to people with Parkinson’s by using it in this space.
“I wanted to collaborate with Reason and other charities to support this because it means they can use their unique expertise to build the most valuable service for their users. Charities can bring so much to the table in terms of understanding needs and support required, we need to be open and confident in partnering with digital experts.”
Research and innovation
The organisation is recognised as a leader in the social tech space. Its numerous accolades demonstrate this and range from being Matt being named as Digital Entrepreneur of the Year at the Digital Entrepreneur Awards, to being chosen as one of ‘100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy’ by Grant Thornton UK LLP. This acknowledgement of excellence often provides opportunities to be involved in sector leading networks and initiatives.
Nurture Network – an £8m network funded by UK Research and Innovation, a new research body, which was established by psychologists and doctors – approached Reason to help research the impact the digital world is having on children’s mental health. The working group, which also includes the NSPCC, Instagram, Disney, Barnardo’s, Save The Children and BBC Children, is looking at the indicators that predict the emergence of mental health conditions and ways to help children and families benefit from mental health research.
Empowering the next generation
“We want to act as a beacon for the next generation – to show them you can be a tech pioneer and change lives in an ethical and meaningful way. You don’t have to set up a venture capital-backed app that mistreats people’s data or uses immoral advertising practices to be successful in tech. Young people understand the shortcomings of tech because they’ve lived it and its impacted on their own mental health. It’s vital that we can offer an alternative route for young people to take offering them the opportunity to see digital as an inclusive, diverse and exciting solution for problems in society.”
“I started Reason and working in the tech for good sector because I couldn’t motivate myself to use tech, to make some rich guy, a little bit richer. But my ambitions have since grown and I see the impact its having and the future potential. Now I’m driven by wanting to leave a legacy. I want to provide a platform for as many talented people as possible, to channel their skills towards more meaningful ends. I want to show that being a tech entrepreneur and caring about the world you and I live in shouldn’t be in opposition.”