Kirsty Marrins: Embrace digital or become obsolete

It's time for charities large and small to raise their game if progress is to be made, writes our columnist

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

The House of Lords report, Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society, dedicates a chapter to charities and digital technology and talks about the potential of digital to raise awareness, streamline services and raise funds. It also highlights the challenges. These include risk aversion, lack of digital leadership from the board, lack of funding, time and resource. In my opinion, it can be summed up as follows: Embrace digital or become obsolete.

Chester Mojay-Sinclare, founder of social enterprise Charity Checkout, submitted written evidence for the report and said: "By far the biggest risk that is posed, if we continue the way we are with the lack of digital adoption in the charity sector, is to small charities, which potentially could become obsolete without the funding and the ability to access the funding that they need through their supporters. I would urge charities not to be too cautious, although I understand why they are."

The Charity Digital Skills report, recently launched by Zoe Amar and Skills Platform, found that 50% of the charities surveyed do not have a digital strategy. The report is based on the findings of just under 500 charity digital professionals from a range of charities who were surveyed on how digital is used and embraced in their organisation. While that’s a worrying figure in itself, of course the reality is much worse. There are around 160,000 charities in the UK (mostly small charities) and the majority of which most certainly will not have a digital strategy. Forget even having a digital strategy, many lack even the most basic of digital technology such as a mobile responsive website or even the ability to take donations online.

If charities wish to survive, they need to raise their digital game. This includes big charities too. Former CEO of ACEVO Asheem Singh, whilst giving oral evidence at The Select Committee on Charities inquiry on Charities, said: "If you are asking me, however, whether the charity sector as a whole is one of the leading industries in the use of the internet and social and digital technology to drive efficiency within its organisations, regrettably the answer is probably no." Do-it.org estimates that the charity sector is at least five years behind the corporate sector in using digital tools and as the pace of digital increases, this is worrying.

So, what can we do about it? For me, one of the easiest things a charity (of any size) can do is to recruit a digital trustee. Someone who understands the digital landscape and who doesn’t equate ‘digital’ as having an active Facebook Page and Twitter account. Someone who is going to ask tough questions and shake things up. If the charity sector is ever going to make strides in digital, this needs to come from the top down.

Next, we need to get over the fact that attracting digital talent costs money because it will save money in the long run. Charities such as Parkinson’s UK understands this and has employed Julie Dodds as their director of digital transformation to maximise the potential of technology and digital to create change and transform lives for people living with Parkinson’s. Digital is not just about a shiny website that works on a smartphone or about social media – it’s about streamlining, improving or building new services that deliver real impact. It’s about making things easier, more accessible and easier to find. It’s about changing lives.

Lastly, we need to embrace all the learning and training opportunities that are available to us. From free and affordable training for small charities from the FSI and the Small Charities Coalition to free digital training from Google, learning to code, the challenges and insights of digital marketing to learning from each other at sector events such as NFPTweetup, Barcampnfp and Charity Meetup. We all have a responsibility towards our own digital skills development and bringing that knowledge and those skills to our charities to create a stronger, more resilient sector.

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