What impact is digital having on the third sector? » Charity Digital News

What impact is digital having on the third sector?

Max guest post

Max du Bois, executive director of brand consultancy Spencer du Bois, recently organised a round table looking at the impact that digital is having on the charity sector.

The discussion, which was attended by numerous key representatives from diverse charities, illuminated the message that, despite having the greatest potential for customer engagement, the charity sector remains digitally stagnant.

Here Max du Bois goes into further detail and looks at some of the event’s key findings.


Missed opportunities

The world of digital transformation has impacted every single industry sector, from retail to banking. According to Martha Lane-Fox, Chair of Go ON UK, the UK is a world leader in e-commerce, yet the transformative power of digital seems to have by-passed the charity sector in the UK.

Some of the key barriers holding charities back are well publicised, from lack of in-house expertise in analysing, leveraging and integrating data through to a lack of access to the right tools to help create and manage ‘digital personas’ and a paucity in convenient ways for people to donate.

The most pressing issue, however, is for senior decision makers to realise that, not only are they ignoring data-driven insights that could help them attract, retain and engage their target audiences, they are missing out on a golden opportunity to co-create and evolve their brand.


Moving towards an integrated strategy

A recent gathering of leaders from the charity sector came to the conclusion that, despite having the greatest potential for customer engagement, theirs is a sector which remains digitally stagnant. One of the key challenges that needs to be addressed requires shifting beyond a digital strategy towards an integrated strategy that engages people 24/7.

To get a better sense of the situation we decided to analyse the current core brand states in the digital charity arena. We identified five key states and set out to gain a clearer picture not just of the current situation, but, more importantly,  of what needs to be done to turn the existing digital apathy into a transformative force for social change.


5 key brand states in the digital charity arena

Business as Usual defines those who regard digital as just another communications channel. This is where digital is used to disseminate print based content in an un-engaging digital format, often waving the cost savings banner. Everything from a newsletter to patient information and annual reports are turned into a silt of impenetrable digital content which clogs the communications arteries and suffocates the cause.

The Wrapper is the next stage on. This is where digital brands are being used to pull all the various silos together in a battle to provide coherence and clarity to the outside world. This tries to cure the proliferation of fragmented, incoherent messages, with an overabundance of websites, campaign sites and various social media handles as fundraising, policy, services and communications all fight their corner. This is often piled up on an equally prolific set of non-digital, siloed channels.

Whilst the commercial world increasingly embraces digital and, as a consequence, creates disruptive new ways of doing business, the charity sector is mostly at The Wrapper stage of its digital maturity.

As we move up the scale of efficient use of digital, we find The Supercharger brands – those that indeed supercharge their messages to wrap around and actually engage their audiences with the right story through the right channel. These are the brands who genuinely communicate well with their audiences. Volunteering Matters are a good example of this as they redefine their stakeholders’ journey with their new branding. So too Cancer Research with their #nomakeupselfie hashtag which resulted in over £8m in donations.

Yet even here we are still a long way off disrupting the sector in a truly dynamic way. This is still brand as broadcast, a far cry from brand using the full power of connectivity.

From taxis to hotels, the world is rife with innovative models which are flipping the original sector on its head. It is time the charity sector turned their model into something which makes their target audiences want to be part of their brand.

Which brings us to the fourth digital brand state, that of using brand as dialogue.  This requires shifting away from the dictatorial ‘I’ of brand and moving into ‘you’, what you want of the brand. In so doing we can move away from the current reliance on mass personalisation and use big data to craft tailored communications channels.

There is a further step that commercial brands can only pay lip service to, by virtue of their commercial business model, and this is authentic co-production.

This is the fifth brand state. This occurs when connectivity is used to co-produce the brand.

By involving their target audience in the co-creation process, the charity taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is about. This empowers the consumer to become part of the brand. This is using digital’s hyper-connective power to revolutionise the way we construct our brands, to transform them into something fundamentally more powerful.

Brand managers may baulk at this, fearing chaos. Yet with a clear central philosophy, co-production can reach beyond the cliché, motivate and inspire. It will require an agile brand identity that is facilitated by engaged and representative advocates.


Eclectic voices 

The key is to open up the walls and allow many authors and mixed voices to speak for a brand. The visual and verbal guidelines need to be in place to ensure the many stay of one accord, however inspired people starting a ground swell with the power to mould their inspiration is what generates unstoppable movements.

And this is what connectivity can do at its best. One of the best examples is the NUS who now reaches out to its diverse base, allowing them to define, interpret and develop the brand further, providing the channels and digital tools required to do so.



As our digital round table concluded, the charity sector needs to shift from viewing the short-term impact of digital. The real value resides in the long term goals. Digital needs to be recognised as a fundamental way of advancing charities’ causes at a strategic level, not just a tactical bauble.

With digital disruption snapping at our heels, in the form of the Misfits Foundation and a whole host of small ‘direct to beneficiary’ platforms, Google’s Eric Schmidt rightly predicts the end of the big charity as they fail to effectively engage.

Yet there is every opportunity for the charity sector to make a real impact by embracing what digital has to offer. It does require a leap of faith and a change in mindset.

The alternative will surely spell the demise of a sector so many people rely on.

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