Over the past few years, advancements in technology have caused massive disruptions in the commercial sector. Corporations have rushed to invest in and take advantage of opportunities for increased consumer contact and operating cost optimization. However, charities have fallen behind in embracing the technological revolution. The benefits (and challenges) are likely to be very similar for these organizations, and they have the advantage of learning from the mistakes of the companies that came before them.
A recent report by the Center for Charity Effectiveness on behalf of the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission in the United Kingdom, found that many charitable trustees report they are lacking in key skill areas such as legal, fund-raising, marketing, and campaigning, but especially in digital.
One of the perceived challenges with a shift to digital-focused platforms is a loss of personal contact in delivery of services. Digital mediums, however, can actually offer a deeper level of engagement, which can produce significant effect at the time of greatest need. There are many examples of charities being creative with new digital platforms:
- One provider of mental health services, Grassroots Suicide Prevention in the UK, is using technology to provide clients with the “Stay Alive” suicide prevention app, which enhances existing local services with on-demand mobile support features such as “LifeBox” that lets users upload photos from their phone that remind them of their reasons for staying alive, as well as direct links to crisis support. This has also allowed the nonprofit to increase their impact and reach beyond their local community by making resources available to a broader group than traditional methods allow.
- For another charity administering health testing, SH:24 funded by the Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity, users can access their services remotely via an application and send test samples via the post. This has allowed the charity to reduce the manual administrative aspect of the service and focus on value-adding services once the test results are received. In most cases where digital approaches have thrived, organizations have identified areas where the risk associated with removing in-person delivery is low and where self-service may actually allow a more bespoke experience.
Increased Insight into Metrics and Funding
Beyond delivery mechanisms, technology can also shift expectations regarding how transparent charities should be with donors, trustees, and beneficiaries. In some cases, this is a simply a demand for greater insight into decision-making processes; this issue can be addressed, as one charity did, by holding board meetings live on YouTube and making them accessible to all. The result was a sense of transparency for donors, beneficiaries, and staff alike, as they saw board-level decisions being discussed, challenged, and debated before action was taken.
Funding is always a particular challenge for charities. Technology platforms require ongoing investment in maintenance and support, which is often an area of tension for organizations that depend on donors instead of investors. For some, the way to deal with this is to apply for specific ring-fenced grants to get longer-term initiatives off the ground; alternately, they might pick areas where the necessary investment is small enough and the benefits can be measured quickly.
Digital can be an enabler for charities, but not all organizations need to pivot fundamentally. Much like in the commercial world, charities need to balance their investment in new approaches while managing to fulfill their current mission. Thus, new digital propositions need to be bolted on, piece-by-piece, and evolve gradually rather than reinventing and rewriting an organization’s mission for a digital world.
This article originall appeared in the OW For Society Annual Social Impact Report 2017