Expert view: Beware of the web 'whizz kids'

I listened with interest to Ed Miliband at Third Sector's Britain's Most Admired Charity awards as he highlighted the importance of technology in the charity sector.

Although my gut reaction was that this point should have been made five years ago, I looked forward to finding out about any innovative plans in the pipeline to support charities in getting to grips with technology, especially online.

Naively, I thought the Government might be thinking of passing on some of the experience it must have gained in setting up hundreds of campaign and departmental-based websites over the past few years. But the news this week that it is shutting down more than 500 websites to create two uber-sites demonstrates that nothing has been learned.

So I was relieved to find the ICT Hub. On first viewing, its website was along the lines of what I'd hoped Miliband would announce. The hub offers advice about most aspects of setting up a website, blogs and podcasts - in fact, it includes guidelines on all sorts of technical matters.

But even with my passion for the internet, I was exhausted by trying to wade through the sheer volume of information. I feel sorry for any small charity that wants to set up a website but has no web experience.

It must seem like an overwhelming task, made even more difficult because the hub rarely explains why a website is worth having, other than for marketing purposes.

Based on this encounter and the general lack of support for normal people when it comes to the internet, I'm never surprised when I hear that the solution many charities still use is to hire the services of a 'web whizz-kid' (usually a relative of a staff member) who "does something to do with ICT at university" and generally has no real clue about the charity's activities or purpose. I feel empathy with this approach, but it really is the wrong thing to do.

It's wrong because a website should be integral to the charity's goals.

It should make life easier, not be a burden. It should free up time from repetitive tasks, not generate more. And it should be something to be proud of, communicating your principles and not just there for the sake of it. In essence, a charity's website should act like a staff member - it should add value and have regular performance appraisals.

My only hope is that the Government's lack of an internet strategy provides a lesson that the 'build now, think later' approach doesn't work. Charities should plan their websites in the same way they hire staff - consider it carefully, plan for long-term growth and always ask what it can do for you.

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