IT Basics 2: The importance of IT

IT consultant Andrew Brenson looks at why charities invest so little in technology

Andrew Brenson
Andrew Brenson

When I ran the IT department of an international children’s charity, I coined the phrase "every pound spent on technology is a pound not spent saving kids".

It proved very useful whenever I found myself negotiating with suppliers. I am sure it often helped me to secure a better deal on price.

But over time I came to realise that the phrase had a negative aspect as well, because it was also an accurate reflection of the way the organisation viewed technology. That same logic ended up limiting the charity’s willingness to invest in IT systems.

Charities are quite rightly cautious when spending on IT, and indeed the proportion of total income that charities allocate to it is far lower than at most commercial organisations.

Benchmarks I’ve seen comparing IT budgets across major UK charities suggest it’s only between 1 and 2 per cent in the sector, and in some cases even less.

Many charities now aspire to emulate the best practices of successful commercial organisations – not least in harvesting knowledge about supporters and using that to maximise income from (and develop deeper relationships with) those people.

So why do charities invest so little in technology? Perhaps some of this can be traced back to poor past experience. It might be a lack of trust or belief in what IT can do. There might be a fear of wasting money.

One thing is certain. There is a widespread lack of technology influence at the highest levels in the third sector. Almost every charity that I know has an IT team that reports to the finance or services director. In other words, the representation of technology at board level is generally second hand.

Given that we are now in the second decade of the 21st century, this means that charity leaders are sorely lagging behind the governance model used in the successful commercial entities from which they aspire to learn.

This lack of influence at the top table means IT is still regarded as a cost centre rather than what it is capable of being – an organisational enabler.

If charities really want to learn from a successful company, they might want to consider Tesco. Like pretty much every commercial organisation, the retailer has had IT representation on its board for a long time.

Who did it appoint as its new chief executive when the last one left? Its former chief information officer, who was a technologist but, like many senior IT managers these days, was someone who had acquired a wide and deep understanding of every part of his company – because what he’d been in charge of earlier underpinned everything it did.

So while you can quite rightly apply the phrase "every pound spent on technology is a pound not spent on (insert your mission statement here)" to your organisation, you must also remember that there’s a crucial caveat: "…but failure to invest in the technologies needed to support your charity will impede that mission."

Andrew Brenson is an IT consultant for the charity IT specialist itlab

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