Charities are going have to change over the next few years, and a cohesive digital strategy will be essential to their survival. At Claranet’s ‘Connecting your charity to the future’ conference last week, the discussion ranged from the rise of social enterprises to the challenges faced by the modern CIO, but digital transformation remained at the heart of the debate.
Lucy Green firmly believes that charities will have a bumpy ride over the next few years.
“What we mean by a charity today will completely disappear by 2020”, she said. “To survive, charities will need to bring in funds through trading, or attract investment from new breed of socially aware investors.”
The founder and director of Larato sees the future of charities as competitive. As traditional methods of donation wane, charities will need to self-fund, moving towards the centre of the organisation spectrum into social enterprise territory. But for-profit businesses are under mounting pressure to be more socially aware, which means they too will be moving to a social enterprise model.
With fewer resources provided by the government, Ms Green noted, charities could be providing up to half of public services by 2020, but are not wholly confident that they have the right skills and facilities to tender for these needs with businesses sitting to the right of the spectrum.
“Social enterprises will compete with for-profit businesses for contracts to provide services for healthcare, education, social care, and other services,” Ms Green said. “This move to centre will be more challenging to charities than for profit businesses, which are already good at making cash.”
Green spoke at Claranet’s ‘Connecting your charity to the future’ conference on Friday with one key message in the face of this looming change.
Even small charities need to remember that they are in competition as if they were in a business. They need a sound business strategy, with financial targets and an awareness of the skills needed to achieve them.
In order to achieve their goals, Ms Green noted, charities need to be aware of the rising influence that BRICK countries are having on the rising cost of raw materials, and also harness the work potential our aging population.
Most importantly, however, is digital innovation.
“Charities are more focused on the impact in IT in successfully securing funding than ever before,” Ms Green found in a survey of the charities present at the event. “Technology is critical to your organisations.”
But many charities still have some internal changes to make in order to properly apply their digital strategy.
“It’s all very well having the technology in play, but if you don’t have the capacity to use it, to make it work together effectively, you’re never really progressing in the right way,” said Nick Torday, managing director of Sift Digital.
Many charities feel pressured to implement a digital strategy, but to no particular end. Often, chief executives are encouraged to embrace Twitter and write a few blog posts, in the hope that a digital culture will cascade down through the ranks.
Torday highlights a huge disparity between the investment in digital products, one that is often considerable, but not matched by an investment in people with the skillset to employ the corresponding strategy.
Corporate strategies employing the terms ‘digital by default, or ‘digital first’, he adds, often stop at using the terminology, instead of creating a pervasive digital culture. Torday advises the proper application of resources – rather than allowing bottlenecks in some areas and surplus in others – and making sure that the strategy between IT and digital marketing departments coincide. The digital strategy needs to be communicated at all levels, rather than being reserved for ‘specialists’ or a small digital team. Hiring practices need to reflect this – while digital prestige is not always necessary, there should be some interest in digital channels from most new employees.
Claranet’s conference ended with a talk by Adam Fisher, head of IT at Sue Ryder, aimed at the modern day CIO.
“Are you part of the main debate?” Fisher asked several CIOs in the audience. “Who provides thought leadership? Informs stakeholders of what’s possible?”
Fisher suggested that board members and stakeholders need to be made aware of the potential change an IT strategy can have on a charity, and that employees with the relevant knowledge need to be making the decisions in the area.
“Focus on what differentiates your charity,” Fisher advised, “and keep that in house”.
It is important for all involved in a charity to develop a deep understanding of the social impact of IT in conjunction with the NFP sector. That way, its strategy can be more agile, responding to internal and external pressures, especially as digital products – such as apps – are under more pressure, expected to be ‘always on’ and with a ‘self-service’ capacity.
A cohesive digital strategy will add essential value to charities in a rapidly changing environment.
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