Interview: Martha Lane Fox

The UK's digital champion tells Ben Cook she thinks charities need to invest in their websites in order to survive

Martha Lane Fox
Martha Lane Fox

Charities are suffering because they have failed to embrace digital campaigning as enthusiastically as they should, argues Martha Lane Fox, the UK's digital champion.

Some organisations, she says, are reluctant to invest in this area. "It depends on the charity, but many haven't yet moved as quickly as the commercial sector," she says.

Others are suffering from the reluctance of funders to invest because they think money spent on developing websites is frittered away.

"Funders of charities are not as bullish about using technology as they should be", says Lane Fox, the co-founder of lastminute.com, who in 2009 was appointed by the government to encourage people without internet access to get online. "It's hard to get money to build websites, but the funders should see that it's not waste but vital to help charities move on."

There are exceptions to the criticism, says Lane Fox. She praises Comic Relief's decision to move its grant applications processes online and commends Beatbullying's Big March of last November, in which avatars of 750,000 supporters marched across various websites before handing in a petition to the government.

Lane Fox urges charities that are serious about improving their digital campaigning to read the online book Survive and Thrive, which features case studies of organisations that have used technology to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. The book is edited by Race Online 2012, a cross-sector partnership - including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Big Lottery Fund and Acevo - launched by Lane Fox to improve digital take-up.

Lane Fox says several digital initiatives in the book have impressed her, such as Breakthrough Breast Cancer's iPhone app, which reminds women to have their breasts screened regularly. She also mentions the initiative that encouraged people to show their support for the NSPCC by changing their Facebook pictures to cartoon characters. It is not known who started this particular campaign.

Lane Fox hopes Survive and Thrive will convince charities that an online presence is a crucial way of achieving their aims and make them less shy about asking for funding for technology. "They should put the internet at the heart of what they do," she says.

Lane Fox says the social networking website Twitter is a cheaper form of digital campaigning that should complement a charity's website. "One person's message on Twitter can be picked up and make a difference", she says. "It takes time to establish a following, but it can be very valuable."

But she says it's essential to use personal and engaging language on Twitter. "Don't tweet in the corporate style - use your own voice", she says.

Lane Fox also commends the match-making website The Big Give, which enables charities to promote their causes to philanthropists, as a good source of information about where people are putting money.

She acknowledges that these are difficult times financially and getting money for websites isn't easy, but says charities must make it a priority. "Having a digital capacity is a challenge, but you should think internet first," she says.

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