Digital: the urgent priority for charities in 2018

Annika Small, co-founder of CAST and Non-Exec Director at Lightful, looks at why it’s more important than ever before that charities embrace digital in their service delivery and communications and challenges the sector to think differently about digital in 2018

Guest Writer | 5th Jan 18

Annika Small, co-founder of CAST and Non-Exec Director at Lightful, looks at why it’s more important than ever before that charities embrace digital in their service delivery and communications – and challenges the sector to think differently about digital in 2018.

We are witnessing a powerful new movement that is gaining velocity as we enter 2018. You only need to pitch up at a #techforgood meetup or Netsquared gathering anywhere across the country and you’ll find groups of charities exploring the use of digital technology to drive social change. Indeed, latest research shows that more than two-thirds of charity leaders see the potential of digital to deliver their organisational strategy more effectively.

We are at the start of a remarkable time. Digital technology – the most potent, potentially democratic tool for social innovation that we have ever had – is beginning to be used in earnest by many charities and social enterprises to transform their organisations and services. But, with more than 100,000 still lacking basic digital skills, we urgently need to accelerate the scale and pace of these changes if we are to develop a responsive, collaborative and digitally enabled sector that meets the needs of those it seeks to serve.

We’ve heard about the potential of digital for years, so why is this so important and urgent now? There are four primary reasons:

 

Consumer expectations

Firstly, those who rely on charitable services increasingly expect digital-first solutions. With the vast majority of people now online for many hours a day, there is a serious risk of the charitable sector becoming disconnected with its beneficiaries if it fails to embrace digital. As Simon Hopkins, CEO of Turn2Us explains in the Charity Digital Toolkit, “It’s essential that we understand the possibilities [digital] presents for the simple reason that it’s increasingly the preferred choice for most people in how they go about their daily life.”

 

Advent of AI

Secondly, and related to this, the rise of digital is fundamentally disrupting existing practices. Artificial intelligence is already changing the nature of many jobs and it won’t be long before machines will be deployed in many more decisions relating to key social issues such as welfare, criminal justice and immigration. As charity leaders, it is vital that we understand the changes triggered by digital technology and actively tailor these developments in order to protect the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society.

 

Turbulent times

Thirdly, the changes we are seeing are not just technological but social, economic and – all too evident with the recent spate of hurricanes and tropical storms – environmental. We are living in a highly complex, rapidly changing, and messy world. Our sector needs to become better equipped to quickly and continually sense and respond to changing community needs.

 

Funding constraints

Finally, looking inwardly at the sector for a moment, we are all acutely aware of how government funding is continuing to be squeezed while demand for services is only increasing, requiring charities to rethink how we use resources to the greatest effect. There is a growing need for new digital models that mobilise mutual self-help, for example social care and support for people with dementia. The persistent challenges of low incomes and limited housing also demand new, collaborative solutions that use resources more creatively and efficiently.

The good news is that digital technology opens up compelling new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to become more responsive to their communities’ needs, providing the tools – in the form of development approaches, data analytics and free, collaborative software – to place people at the heart in designing new solutions that will make a difference to their lives. Also, at a time when corporate life and politics often seem uninspiring, digital technologies have unleashed enormous energy and ambition for change, especially among tech-savvy young people keen to make a difference to society.

 

Some pioneers showing the way

There are a raft of charities and social enterprises that are leading the way. For example, Age UKSafe LivesParkinson’s UK and Gingerbread are applying the agile, user-led processes of tech innovation to place their users at the heart of developing new services. Meanwhile charities such as Refugee Action are using technology to identify interdependencies and develop shared digital solutions with other social sector organisations. We are also seeing organisations such as The Engine Room re-use existing technologies in highly effective ways, both for their users and for their bottom line. Others such as HomelesslinkCitizens Advice and The Key are making fantastically good use of data to continually learn, respond and improve their services.

And, crucially, we are seeing funders such as the Big Lottery, Comic Relief, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Nominet Trust making tremendous strides in supporting digital developments across the sector.

 

Our challenge for 2018

The most effective charities are those that are changing their operating model so that it doesn’t just take account of digital but embeds it into the organisation – its strategy, its culture, its governance. Those charities who are able to successfully do this have become far more resilient and responsive. The challenge for 2018 is to accelerate the pace and scale of these changes across our sector, supporting more charities and social enterprises of all sizes to use digital to transform their operations.

We have some powerful ingredients to make this happen: clear evidence and inspiring exemplars of how the principles of tech innovation can fundamentally improve charitable services. We currently have a growing number of digital leaders across the sector; a millennial generation who are keen to drive social change and now have the digital tools to create, share and organise; a strong tech and social innovation community, replete with a developing ecosystem of intermediaries, agencies and incubators; and the backing of a host of trusts and foundations.

With these critical components in place, we have every opportunity to make digital the priority in 2018 and move towards developing a more resilient sector that not only survives but thrives in the digital context. The start of a remarkable time indeed.