A new report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities has outlined the role digital technology can play in the future success of charities.
Stronger charities for a stronger society devotes a chapter (number six) to the use of digital technology in the third sector, saying that the integration of digital technologies into people’s lives and the changing nature of communications, particularly through social media, have significantly changed the environment charities operate within.
Commenting in the report David Robb from OSCR said that: “The realities of operating in a digital age mean that most charities have a website, although not all; we have lots of Brownie packs and mother or parent and toddler groups, and for them maintaining a website might not be realistic. However, for single-instance charities, it would be pretty unusual to find one without a website these days.” He also noted that “a lot more charities have Facebook accounts than have websites.”
One area the report focuses on is digital fundraising – with some evidence suggesting that charities have increased their overall giving from donors by up to 600% purely through adopting digital fundraising methods.
David Skelton from Google was quoted saying that: “In terms of fundraising, a really strong benefit of digital is that you can reach a bigger audience more quickly, more widely and in a more scalable way.”
The report goes on to look at the use of digital tech in order to raise awareness, saying that digital technology – and especially social media – were seen as powerful new tools for charities to gain attention and promote their cause.
Helen Milner from the Good Things Foundation said that digital technology meant relevance and reach, in a world where many people expected to run their lives digitally and use their phone for all kinds of services.
The Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent similarly noted the power of social media to open new opportunities for more specialist causes, such as the “ice bucket challenge” campaign for motor neurone disease.
Pickles added that it had changed the ways that charities campaign: “It is about constantly educating and persuading people. Rather than spending all your energy on an awareness week in one week of the year, you are now working every day to try to change the social conversation. While a lot of charity work is focused on fundraising and awareness raising, there is also an opportunity for digital and social media to help drive social change, not just to raise awareness but to try to deal with some of the underlying issues.”
Moving onto engagement the report says that digital communications also allow for better engagement with existing supporters, volunteers and beneficiaries.
Community Links Bromley said: “Engaging in communication with your supporters in a direct way releases a world of opportunity. Not only is it low cost compared to traditional media, it can also reach out to a far wider range of people, of all ages, in different countries around the world. Keeping social media up to date is key to keeping people interested in the content you have to share.”
Devon Air Ambulance noted that it allowed charities to “build more trust and showcase the impact of their work,” although they noted that this “works best for causes that are generally attractive to the public.”
Alzheimer’s Research UK did however suggest that greater use of digital services increased the pressure to show that donations were being used appropriately.
The report went on to look at the digital challenges being faced by charities. Some witnesses questioned by the report’s authors said that charities were lagging behind on digital technologies and not making the most value of them.
A recent in-house study conducted by Charity Checkout of 500 recently registered charities from May/June 2016 showed that, of the 60% with websites, 45% were not mobile responsive and over 85% lacked ‘an attractive and professional design’ in the view of the assessor. They also noted that 62% of the charities they examined did not have a regular giving option within their online donation system and were therefore potentially missing out on income.
It was pointed out that it’s important to understand that there is a continuum of usage of digital technologies by the charity sector, from digitally immature charities, through to the digitally innovative. For example, the Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index found that 49% of charities are digitally immature and had no skills whatsoever, no confidence and no awareness. This compared to 38% of small businesses.
The Cranfield Trust also noted differences within the charity sector between charities of different sizes: “With a far more competitive funding environment and many more communication channels open through social media, small- to medium-sized charities are racing to catch up with marketing and communications skills in order to compete with larger charities with established marketing activity.”
A range of issues were highlighted as constraints for charities, particularly smaller charities, seeking to exploit fully the value of digital technology.
Localgiving said that “many small, local groups lack the capacity, skills and confidence to fully benefit from this technology”.
A lack of funding and resources was another reason for charities not being able to fully embrace digital technology.
The Foundation for Social Improvement said that: “Small charities often face a difficult trade-off, [they] want to innovate but if innovation requires investment they are often not able to move forward as they have minimal resources for development [and] instead the majority of their income is needed to cover service delivery. This suggests small charities are still far behind in the digital arena in comparison to larger charities, who are more likely to be able to afford to direct resources to this area.”
Risk aversion and a lack of organisational flexibility were also cited as a problem. NAVCA said that “charities need to be bolder, and boards need a greater appetite for risk, if the sector is to adapt and deliver greater impact in a changing world.”
The committee was also told that more training was needed to help charities develop digital skills. Alzheimer’s Research UK said that: “Greater learning from the private sector could support charity innovation, given the right culture of support for charitable risk-taking.”
Home-Start Slough suggested that more could be done to co-ordinate the development and promotion of software for the charity sector. ACEVO added that there was a role for infrastructure bodies in the sector to do more to co-ordinate the technology and tools available to the sector.
The report concludes by saying the charity sector and its use of digital technology varies considerably, and while some are at the cutting edge of the use of technology, others risk organisational stagnation and decay by not embracing it successfully. This is a risk to the charity sector.
Charities should actively consider including a digital trustee role on their boards. The authors note the potential benefits to board diversity that would be likely to result from adopting such an approach.
It also recommends that infrastructure bodies share knowledge and best practice on innovation and digitisation across the sector and coordinate training opportunities, at minimal cost, for charities with limited digital experience. It adds that the Big Lottery Fund provides support to enable this.
Finally, it says that the technology sector should work to ensure that charities can develop the skills and capacity to fully engage with the digital realm. This may include the more widespread promotion of training and development opportunities, particularly to smaller charities with limited experience of digital engagement.
This review provides an overview of the report – and much more detail can be found by clicking here.
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